Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2009 Issue

Reality Returns to Bookselling

Decession

The next few years will be difficult


By Bruce McKinney

The median price of books, manuscripts and ephemera, measured across more than 220,000 lots sold at auction in 2008, fell 21% from 2007. The decline, which mostly occurred in the second half, saw the median price for the year fall to levels consistent with 2003 while masking a larger decline that, if sustained in 2009, will carry realizations back to levels last seen in 2000. Dealers and auction houses generally expect further retrenchment and auction houses are lowering estimates and reserves in response. Note: Median price is the midpoint of prices paid and differs from average price that is disproportionately affected by single high value transactions.

Reality in 2009 will now work itself out in public - mainly in the auction rooms where six-hundred fresh lots are posted each day. Should realizations continue to fall such experience will lead to lower expectations. It's a potentially slow and uneven process that may take several years as many online sellers will probably prefer to wait for recovery rather than adjust to a downturn they hope is temporary. They may wait a long time. Even when the economy was strong only a small percentage of old and rare books listed on line sold in any year. In recession, sell-through will further decline. At auction 70 to 76% of all listed items have sold over the past five years.

In what is shaping up as a tumultous year the spreads between auction realizations and online listed prices, which generally have run at a 3 to 2 ratio [$100 on a listing site, $67 at auction], may increase to 2 to 1 [$100 on a listing site versus $50 at auction]. In this scenario auction realizations decline while listing prices, at least short term, hold.

While the book business has unique problems it is also part of the real economy and the economy will be weak for an extended period. This is the eleventh sustained economic downtown [10 recessions, 1 depression] since 1900 * and looks to be neither garden-variety recession nor an absolute depression. Mike Stillman calls it a "decession" or, if you prefer, "repression" and it looks to be five years more or less. The Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, who teaches at Princeton and writes for the New York Times, has recently conveyed a sense of possible abyss. Frank Rich adds this: "While its become a Beltway cliche that America's new young president has yet to be tested, it is past time for us to realize that our own test is also about to begin." The economy is going to get tough and how much room there will be in the lifeboats for books is uncertain.

Historically, in the book business, sales rather than prices decline. In commercial fields that informally set prices based on observation of competitors' prices the variable is time and the rare book business, which is anathema to lowering prices, simply hunkers down. In this economic downturn that strategy is almost certainly not going to work because the economy, in recovery, will experience inflation that returns dollars that buy significantly less. After all binges there are then the headaches.

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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