Death Defying Success
By Bruce McKinney
On November 19th in New York Bloombury sold the Jay T. Snider collection of Philadelphiana. The house, bidding to enter the rarified space of super-premium auction selling occupied by Christie's and Sotheby's and to generate bidding enthusiam for material both superb and parochial, produced a 6 lb. glossy full color catalogue that will make an effortless transition from sale document to coffee table icon. The presentation is that good. The timing was tough.
The widely-spoken quote is "when the ocean rises all boats rise." So when oceans recede then what? Most dealers and auction house representatives are away when you want to ask that question and another "how do you feel about 'what goes up must come down.'" You can't blame them of course. But Bill Reese, the largest buyer by dollar volume in the sale [William Reese Company], Joe Felcone [The Joseph Felcone Company] and Jeremy Markowitz of Bloomsbury who organized the sale were willing to speak on the record about it. Both Bill and Joe bid for institutions, collectors and stock. Jeremy negotiated the deal with Mr. Snider, organized and prepared the catalogue, acted as intermediary to potential buyers and of course lived, died and lived again as the sale progressed. The concensus of all parties is "optimism deferred." From a literate group I'd expect nothing less complex.
The superb but narrow material in this sale was very early and important Philadelphiana and divided into five categories: manuscripts, printed books, maps, prints and plate books. W. C. Fields, when referring to death said, "I'd rather be here than in Philadephia" and at least for this recent sale that was also true for some auction bidders. Mr Markowitz described the sale as well attended and mentioned that 72 invoices were issued to winning bidders. Many, if not most, successful bidders were represented by one of the five dealers - Bill Reese, Joe Felcone, Clarence Wolf, Donald Heald and Kenneth Newman who attended and bid actively. In this sale they bought most of the material - some for institutions, some for collectors and some for stock. Collectors often walk away on bad days. The dealers who make the market show up.
It helped that Bloomsbury offered extended terms. One dealer privately complained that Bloomsbury's terms were insufficient as the material, while very good, may take a long time to sell. Bloomsbury was generous but ultimately unapologetic.
The sale was one of several high profile auction events in November that foundered but ultimately did no worse, even arguably better, than comparable first tier collectible sales in the modern painting and automobile fields. Paper collectibles, with few exceptions, even at the highest levels now command lower prices. In fact, you can buy the biggest books for the sales taxes paid on the biggest paintings.
The sale contained 375 lots and was estimated at $2.3 - 3.3 million. It brought $1.9 million at hammer and $2.3 million all in. Twenty-three percent of the lots were bought-in [unsold] including seven of the twelve lots with estimates of $50,000 and more. Given that the unsold lots remain for the consignor to some day sell the only real victim was cashflow.