A Collection Goes to Auction
By Bruce McKinney
In the course of book collecting over a lifetime broken into parts, growing up, work and business development, two decades overseas, a thirty-two year marriage, children and second and third careers, I have always been interested in the printed word. In a life, that from the outset looked fragile and uncertain, I have sought the durability of books and their changing messages delivered in print. The proof that history is a variable delivered as a constant has lay buried in texts for as long as perspective has been committed to paper. Probably because I have never quite trusted life I have relentlessly sought confirmation for my doubt in the almost always certain and as often wrong interpretations expressed in important and frequently very uncommon early texts. This led to my collecting early printed material. In December, on the 3rd, I will sell my collection of 1490 -1625 European-Americana at Bloomsbury in New York, many of the earliest items relating to the New World - eighty items more or less.
There are four reasons to do this.
McKinney men do not live so long. I may live a long time but no man in our family has. No man has lived to 70. My wife is determined and I am disciplined so I may move the yard mark a few paces but I can not rely upon this and feel a responsibility to organize the disposal of many, if not most, of my book collections while I'm healthy and aware. In time I expect to also sell a collection of Americana: 1626 to 1825. I also own 18,000 booksellers' catalogues from 1850 to 1990, tens of thousands of book and manuscript auction catalogues for same period, a collection of printings from the presses of Joel Munsell of Albany, New York [1808-1880], and a collection of Hudson Valleyiana in paint and print: 1750 - 1930. I long ago left New York but remain emotionally attached to the place.
Collecting is complicated and I view it as unfair to simply leave the dispersal of material I better understand to others who will know less about it and be stressed with the decisions. The material is complex. Choices about what, where and when to sell will not be perfect but they can be made in life.
Over the past ten years I have developed the Americana Exchange and along the way, developed an understanding of how the field of collectible works on paper is organized. It has been a murky field with surface clarity and almost complete obscurity just below. It has been my ambition to see not just the clock face but also the clock works and so I have created the AED (Americana Exchange Database), an expensive and complex project that illuminates the darkness with ever brighter light. In sending important material to auction in December I do so in the firm belief that the market has stabilized and that the facts available in the AED confirm it. I believe that personal well organized collections can safely be offered.
In the sale I also hope, by illustration, to demonstrate the power of information. The source of items, their history, date purchased and price paid will be part of the description and, after the sale, part of the records. The decline in emphasis on provenance, the history of ownership, is a significant loss to collectors and I hope by this example to encourage collectors and institutions to identify their material to future generations. Collectors die, their collections live on. The immortality of collecting is more certain than other forms of enduring life.
In this sale, for which the range of estimates is expected to be around $1.6 to $2.0 million, there is also a lot at stake for the field. There is perhaps two billion dollars of book, manuscript and ephemera inventory whose value has been adversely effected by the economic downturn, changes in what we know, how we know and increasingly compare. If the sale is successful it will suggest that the market has bottomed and inventory valuations are becoming more certain.