Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2009 Issue

Book Prices Plunged Over 20% in 2008

Hammer

Auction prices for books slipped in 2008.


By Michael Stillman


Book prices at auction tumbled sharply in 2008, as the collectible book market fell victim to the steep economic recession. While sales prices, as opposed to listing prices, tend to be obscure for want of a clear, visible record, AE tracked over 220,000 books and related items at auction last year for its AE Bibliographic Database. Those numbers reveal that the median price at auction dropped over $100, from $486 to $384, a decline of 21%. Part of this was a give back of the previous year's 15% increase. Nevertheless, this is the lowest number in the five years AE has been tracking books at auction, still 7% below the previous low mark of $413 in 2004. While that may sound shocking, The S&P stock index fell to ten-year lows in 2008, and even gasoline retreated to 2003 levels. Books are not as volatile as stocks, oil, or real estate, but they are not immune to market conditions, even if this point is not always so plain to see.

The average price at auction dropped a staggering amount - $887 - from the previous year. However, the average price can be skewed by a few very expensive items. The $21.3 million Magna Carta alone added over $100 to the average price in 2007. The median, or midpoint price of 220,000 items tracked, is not subject to such anomalies and, we believe, more accurately reflects the true state of the market.

While the AE does not have sufficient data from years prior to 2004 to provide specific figures, the past two declines in pricing appeared at the beginning of this decade and the previous one. Those corresponded with the post-internet bubble stock crash and the recession that doomed the first Bush administration. There were others before this, and it appears that some of these may have been in the range of the 20% decline we have just seen. If the market flattens out now, the current recession in the book market will be unpleasant but not that unusual. However, if prices continue to fall in 2009, and the trends through December indicate continued deterioration, it is possible we could see the largest decline since the Great Depression. Our records indicate a decline of over 50% at that time.

Sell through rates also implied softness in the market. That rate was 75% in 2007, and between 2004 and 2007 ranged from 74% to 76%. For 2008, it dropped to 71%. Of those that sold, 47% went for over the high estimate, 29% under the low estimate. That represents a 2% shift downward from the prior year's 49%-27% ratio. When unsold items are added to those sold under the low estimate, it shows that almost 50% of the books and related items offered at auction failed to achieve their low estimate. That number was 45% the previous year. Only 33% of all items offered sold for over the maximum, compared to 37% in 2007.

The highest median and average sales were once again achieved at Sotheby's in New York, with a median of $15,000 and an average of $40,782. Those figures were virtually identical to the previous year, but the number of lots offered was less than half. Sixteen houses achieved medians of over $1,000 per lot, including 4 branches of Christie's and Bonham's, 3 of Sotheby's, and one each of Koller, Bloomsbury, Doyle, Swann, and Artcurial Briest. Of these 16, half were located in America (6 in New York, one each in Los Angeles and San Francisco), 4 in London, 3 in Paris, 1 in Zurich. Kiefer auctions of Germany offered the greatest number of lots - 18,790 - while others offering over 10,000 lots were Bloomsbury in London, Bubb Kuyper of the Netherlands, and Swann's in New York.

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