Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2006 Issue

Auction Prices Inch Forward in 2005

Aresults

Fifteen houses had median sales prices over $1,000 in 2005.


By Michael Stillman

The prices for rare and antiquarian books and manuscripts inched up a bit higher in 2005, statistics from the Americana Exchange Database of auction records indicated. The year 2005 was an active year, with over 160,000 lots having been offered at book and book-related auctions. The median price for 2005 was $420, an increase of 1.7% from $413 in 2004. See the last paragraph of this article for links to access the complete set of charts of 2005 auction results.

While results over the past century have shown the auction price index to increase at a much more rapid rate than the Consumer Price Index, 2005 was an exception. The CPI rose at double the rate of the book auction index, 3.5%. Though much of this was attributable to a 17% increase in the price of energy, the core rate of consumer inflation (computed by removing the volatile energy and food categories) still rose by 2.2%. This was only slightly greater than the rate of inflation for book prices at auction. Nevertheless, this still indicated that books, which generally appreciate at a substantially greater rate than that of inflation for consumer goods, had an off year in 2005.

The average price at auction slipped over $200 to $2,745. However, the average price is not considered meaningful for understanding changes in the marketplace. A small number of very high priced items coming up for sale in a particular year can greatly skew the average, even though this means little to the overall market. The median price, at which half of the 160,000 books sold at higher and half at lower prices, is not affected by a small number of high priced items, so it is the most reliable way of understanding what is taking place in the market.

Data collected from auction sales by the Americana Exchange revealed many more interesting facts about the traditional (as opposed to online) auction marketplace. The first and third quarters were again the most active. Offerings declined substantially in mid-summer, and to a lesser degree, mid-winter. Pricing also tended to be somewhat higher in the busy periods, perhaps a sign that auction houses hold their best material for the most active buying cycles.

While prices were up slightly, there was a small drop in the sell-through percentage. For 2005, 74% of the items listed sold, a decline from 76% last year. 26% failed to obtain the minimum acceptable bid. There was also a slight shift to items selling below the low estimated price versus selling over the high estimate. In 2005, of the lots which were sold, 48% were sold for more than the maximum, compared to 49% last year.

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