Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2005 Issue

Up for Bid: eBay, Auctions & Book Sites

Controversy

Progress is not always pretty or predictable.


By Bruce McKinney

The internet is logic in constant pursuit of speed and scale and it continues to revolutionize the book business. eBay has been encouraging traditional auction houses to list upcoming lots on a pre-sale basis and many have been doing it. It's a great strategy for eBay though less clear traditional auction houses will feel good about their participation long term. They are lending their hard earned credibility to eBay and eBay is converting this into increasing credibility for themselves among traditional auction buyers. It may also be helping traditional auction houses but it seems certain to help eBay more.

Old and rare books may only be a small piece of eBay's business but they are already the dominant force at the low end of the auction market. The total of all documented book lots selling at traditional auctions this year will approach 125,000 lots and 500,000 printed items. eBay's old & rare book numbers, by themselves, will be comparable although the average lot price much lower. A year ago I roughly calculated that eBay prices were 20% of bookseller retail. That put them on the chart but at the low end of what dealers pay to replenish stock. This year eBay's realized prices seem to be inching up while dealer prices seem to be inching down. There are three potential explanations for this. Familiarity with the internet generally and eBay specifically is increasing thus broadening their market. The total of books for sale on listing sites is increasing and is exerting downward pressure on prices. And hopeful sellers, ever wanting to convert their inventory into money [and at the margin growing weary of waiting for the motivated buyer] are increasingly attracted to the eBay auction process that lets them control every aspect of the sale and to conduct sales at a low cost. Because these sellers often are experienced listing site sellers they provide a more solid and professional feeling to eBay listings. In brief, eBay is attracting more knowledgeable sellers.

The electronic market is of course a three cornered stool. eBay and perhaps its competitors are one, the listing and individual seller's sites another. The third leg is traditional book auctions. They create marriages of convenience for more important and valuable material by conducting consistent, predictable, well-described sales of material that buyers at a distance rely upon to bid substantial sums without actually seeing the material in person. In effect they authenticate material and make a market. Prices achieved at auction are also public and provide a history of valuation. This is why, on AE, we document all items posted for sale and record the outcomes whether they sell or not. [Often an unsold lot tells as much about the price as one that changes hands.]

The eBay model is of course quite different. Sellers write their own descriptions. With a stake in the outcome some sellers are tempted to over describe virtues while under describing problems. There is a term for this: lying. Others simply don't know the difference between poor, good and fine and only learn about it in expletive laced emails. Some sellers have told me their book looks fine but it's certain "fine" doesn't mean the same thing to them as it does to me. The book business employs terms of art and to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart on pornography, "I know it when I see it." Both the material and the terms are highly subjective and subject to abuse by all who play the game. Many a documented lot has included a variation of the line "But for the loss of the title page, dog-earring to pages 9 to 74 and the innocent crayoning of a long-ago child-like hand, a perfect copy." Thus a search for "perfect copy" will find this gem.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> E.H. SHEPARD, Original drawing for A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner.<br>$40,000-60,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> BERNARD RATZER, Plan of the City of New York in North America, surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767. $80,000-100,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> THOMAS JEFFERSON, Autograph letter signed comparing Logan, Tecumseh, and Little Turtle to the Spartans. Monticello: 15 February 1821. $14,000-18,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN C. FREMONT, Narrative of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, in the Year 1842.. Abridged edition, the only one containing the folding map From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $3,000-5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ZANE GREY, Album containing 94 large format photographs of Grey and party at Catalina Island, Arizona, and fishing in the Pacific. From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $5,000-$8,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> WILLIAM COMBE, A History of Madeira ... illustrative of the Costumes, Manners, and Occupations of the Inhabitants. produced by Ackermann in 1821; From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ERIC TAVERNER, Salmon Fishing... One of 275 copies signed by Taverner, published in 1931,From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN WHITEHEAD, Exploration of Mount Kina Balu, North Borneo. Whitehead reached the high point of Kinabalu in 1888. Part of a major group of travel books from the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN LONG, Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader, describing the Manners and Customs of the North American Indians... The first edition of 1791. $3,000-$5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> SAMUEL BECKETT, Stirrings Still. This, Beckett’s last work of fiction with original lithographs by Le Brocquy, limited to 200 copies signed by the author and the artist. From the Estate of Howard Kaminsky.. $1,500-$2,500
  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, wallpaper sample book, circa 1919. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Archive from a late office of the Breuer & Smith architectural team, New York, 1960-70s. $3,500 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> William Morris, <i>The Story of the Glittering Plain or the Land of Living Men,</i> illustrated by Walter Crane, Kelmscott Press, Hammersmith, 1894. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustave Doré, <i>La Sainte Bible selon la Vulgate,</i> Tours, 1866. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustav Klimt & Max Eisler, <i>Eine Nachlese,</i> complete set, Vienna, 1931. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>Eric Allatini & Gerda Wegener, <i>Sur Talons Rouges,</i> with original watercolor by Wegener, Paris, 1929. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>C.P. Cavafy, <i>Fourteen Poems,</i> illustrated & signed by David Hockney, London, 1966. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jean Midolle, <i>Spécimen des Écritures Modernes...</i>, Strasbourg, 1834-35. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>E.A. Seguy, <i>Floréal: Dessins & Coloris Nouveaux,</i> Paris, 1925. $3,000 to $4,000.
  • <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN. Autograph Manuscript sketch-leaf part of the score of the Scottish Songs, "Sunset" Op. 108 no 2. [Vienna, February 1818]. Inscribed by Alexander Wheelock Thayer. SOLD for $131,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> Violin belonging to Albert Einstein, presented to him by Oscar H. Steger, 1933. SOLD for $516,500
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> EINSTEIN, ALBERT. Autograph Letter Signed ("Papa") to his son Hans Albert, discussing his involvement with the atomic bomb, September 2, 1945. SOLD for $106,250
    <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> HAMILTON, ALEXANDER. Autograph Letter Signed, to Baron von Steuben, with extensive notes of Von Steuben's aide Benjamin Walker, June 12, 1780. SOLD for $16,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> NEWTON, ISAAC. Autograph Manuscript in Latin, being detailed instructions on making the philosopher's stone. 8 pp. 1790s. SOLD for $275,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> 1869 Inauguration Bible of President Ulysses S. Grant. SOLD for $118,750

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions