Death Defying Success
The sale was heavily reserved with most lots set at 80% of low estimate. The majority sold at or just above the reserve suggesting that bidders were often bidding against a reluctant seller rather than against other bidders. This suggests the bidding was thin, a contributing factor for the increasingly insistent auction house requirement that consignors accept lower estimates. If prices go lower, and they probably will, they'll be confirmed in the auction rooms and it will probably be collectors' books that are sold. Few dealers want to be the guinea pig. Price reductions in the upscale book trade are uncommon and most dealers prefer to wait years for prices to rebound. Collectors have other priorities and less patience.
The sale, while focused on Philadelphia, was arguably a group of more specialized sales united by one collector with a single idea. Images did very well. Images are easier to live with, easier to understand and widely appreciated as 'art work.' Images were the strongest component. Maps were inconsistent. One of the world's most important map dealers, Graham Arader, did not bid and his absence was noticeable. Plate books did reasonably well and printed booked less well. The manuscript material was estimated in excess of the tastes and preferences of the professionals who watched while many of the lots in this category were offered and bought in. In this category the consignor had strong opinions about value but those opinions were not shared by those who bid.
Ten of the lots in this sale were acquired at the Frank Siebert sales in 1999 and nine of them sold in this sale. The one unsold lot, number 26, An Historical and Geographical Account of the Province and Country of Pensilvania... by Gabriel Thomas in 1999 brought $40,250 against a high estimate of $26,000. In this sale it was estimated at $50,000 to $60,000 but failed to find a buyer. It was reserved at $40,000. The other nine items sold. They brought, all in, $73,197 in 1999 and $124,200 in 2008, a 6% rate of return. The aggregate hammer estimates were $121,000 to $177,000 and the actual hammer $103,500. The Siebert sale was an early harbinger of rapidly rising prices between 1999 and 2002 and this sale a reminder that prices have since returned to earth orbit.
After the sale Bill Reese pointed out and Graham Arader separately concured, "this sale would have achieved another million dollars a year earlier." "Buyers who stepped up acquired exceptional material at an exceptional discount" according to Mr. Reese. The question is "when will the market return to normal?"
Mr. Reese also pointed out that in this kind of market exceptional cataloguing efforts may be out of place. After all, most lots were bought by experienced professionals who rely on personal examination and experience. For them, a 6-pound catalogue is 5 pounds too many. Auction houses are of course always trying to induce/seduce collectors to bid. Their goal is retail but in this sale it was the primary dealers who stepped in to make the sale a qualified success.