Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2007 Issue

The Declining Value of Inventory

Progress

Nothing remains the same.


By Bruce McKinney

In the biblical story of Noah and the ark the emphasis is always placed on the miracle of survival. A male and female of each animal are marched up into the boat to float for forty days [and nights] and to repopulate the earth once the flood has passed. No reference in the story is made to how anyone or anything feels about being left off the boat. Well, these days, in the book business, the ark is being loaded and inevitably Noah is always deciding he still has too much. In the meantime the water is rising. At least that's the way it is in the world of collectible books. For many booksellers there is no room in the ark.

Recently I spoke with a dealer who has hundreds of thousands of items online. He uses triage software to price his material a penny or two cheaper than other listings of the same item. In this way he has shifted from self-determined to market determined pricing. It makes sense if selling books is the absolute goal. The market decides.

Selling collectible and used books are of course not the same thing. Neither is the dividing line between them fixed. It is relentlessly shifting and the shift has been negative because material is flowing onto the net in record numbers and its turning out that what often used to be considered unobtainable is now available in multiple copies.

The math is easy. Here is a balanced market.

Copies
--------------- = 1
Collectors


When there are more collectors than copies the value of copies is firm and rising. When the number of copies is greater than collectors the value is weak and falling.

Today there is a relentless flow of fresh material into the market and a sense that there is probably much more to come. This translates into a weak market:

3 or more Copies
------------------ = 3
1 Collector


In a strong market it looks like this

1 copy every 2 to 5 years
--------------------------------- = > 1
Multiple Collectors

The anecdotal evidence suggests that for an increasingly large population of titles and editions the number of copies online is always increasing while the number of buyers for them at a minimum is not increasing as fast. Many believe the number of collectors is falling. I doubt that but understand it can feel that way. It's almost certain that collectors and collecting passion are not keeping pace with the tsunami of material flooding the market. The question is whether this is an aberration or evidence of a fundamental change in collecting interest. In other words, is it a recession or depression?

To me the market looks unstable but healthy. Material is flowing to market on listings sites, in shops, at shows, on line, at auction and eBay. And what used to be difficult to see is now hard to miss. There are lots and lots of copies. They have been around but have never been so visible.

Efficient markets adjust price to compensate for over-supply and books are no exception. The trick today is to understand importance, availability and appropriate price and not to over-charge if you are a dealer and not to over-pay if you are a collector.

This will turn out to be the most exciting time in the collecting of books, manuscripts, and ephemera in the past 500 years. It will some day have a name and both buyers and sellers will reminisce about how difficult it was. In the meantime we have to get through it. Both buyers and sellers are adjusting to a world pregnant with information. The revolution is underway, the way forward a thin light in a tunnel that some believe is a train bearing down but which I personally believe is a new world at hand.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <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 Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Caius Julius Hyginus, <i>Poeticon Astronomicon,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1482. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Giovanni Botero, <i>Le Relationi Universali... divise in Sette Parti</i>, Venice, 1618. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> <i>L'Escole des Filles</i>, likely third edition of the first work of pornographic fiction in French, 1676. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Illuminated Book of Hours in Latin on vellum, Flanders, early 16th century. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes Regiomontanus, <i>Calendarium,</i> Venice, 1485. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Pedro de Medina, <i>Libro d[e] gra[n]dezas y cosas memorables de España,</i> Alcalá de Henares, 1566. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b><br>Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> Salamanca, circa 1496-97. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Andrés Serrano, <i>Los Siete Principes de los Ángeles, válidos de Rey del Cielo,</i> Spain, 1707. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes de Sacrobosco, <i>Sphaera mundi,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1478. $15,000 to $20,000.
  • <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> A Rare 3-rotor German Enigma I Enciphering Machine. $70,000 to $90,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Important collection of correspondence between Werner Heisenberg and Bruno Rossi. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Walt Whitman Autograph manuscript containing his thoughts on death. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> David Roberts. <i>Holy Land</i>. Six volumes. 1842-1849. First edition. $15,000 to $25,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Extensive collection of Ray Bradbury's primary works, most signed or inscribed. $15,000 to $20,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Peter Force. Declaration of Independence. $12,000 to $18,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Steinbeck. <i>Grapes of Wrath</i>. A fine copy of the first edition. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Lewis & Clark. <i>Travels to the Source of the Missouri River</i>... First English edition, extra-illustrated. 1814. $10,000 to 15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Manuscript document signed by Nuno de Guzman relating to Hernan Cortes, 1528. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> “Nos los inquisidores..." The first book in English printed West of the Mississippi. [1787]. $5,000 to $8,000.

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