What we can learn about value from history
By Bruce McKinney
In the spring of 1944 the New York Historical Society consigned to Parke-Bernet 236 lots described as Rare Americana [Unstamped Duplicates]. The name, notwithstanding, not everything was rare. We know this by having recently conducted an item by item comparison of material offered in this auction to listings available on Abe. Why Abe? Their holdings are enormous and their advanced search effective for efficiently unearthing appropriate matches. On their site this is a practical study. As to whether "rare" was simply a convenient term for the auction promoters or one strongly believed is now probably beyond the reach of first person experience to say. Had they had access to Abe they no doubt would have described the sale differently. The internet today provides clarity beyond the comprehension of even the best cataloguers and bibliographers of just a few decades ago.
This particular auction came into view several months ago when we were researching the history of the Maxwell Code for an article in the November issue of AE Monthly on the Aitchison-Wessen-Dush-Emerson copy that sells at Cowans on December 6th. Lot 164 of the 1944 sale was a different copy but one of only a few to surface over the past fifty years. As a result of this research we subsequently added the complete 1944 auction to the AED along with realized prices and the names of buyers for 197 of the 236 lots. This done, it became possible to compare the entire contents of the sale to Abe's present listings and I did so recently. The opportunity to see how prices have adjusted over the past 60 years seemed worth the effort.
In the 1944 sale some of the material, as the auction title states, is no doubt rare, even very rare. The Maxwell Code, the most important item in the sale, is authentically rare and probably far more important than was then generally understood. That the buyer that day, Thomas Streeter, knew the item is not surprising. He was a scholar of the first rank, wealthy and committed. That he paid $900 or 10% of the entire sale proceeds to acquire it says both he and someone else recognized its importance for it took two bidders to make it a contest. Eight years later he went on to include it in his Americana-Beginnings catalogue, seventy-nine examples chosen, from the almost ten thousand items in his collection, to illustrate the development of America. It was the centerpiece of the 1944 sale and one of the high spots of his extraordinary collection that was gifted and sold in the late 1960s.
As for the other 235 "rare" items in the 1944 NYHS sale how about them? Their average realization was $35.99. Actually, a better way to see the sale is to treat the top ten realizations separately from the rest. They brought in from $150 to $900 and a total of $3,693. The other 226 items brought $5,545.50 or $24.54 each. This later group, it turns out, is the Abe material: rare then, Abe today.