A Perspective on the Market
By Bruce McKinney
A look at the titles of the most recent book, manuscript and ephemera sales indicates the increasing presence of prints, drawings, maps and decorative illustrations in sales that just a decade or two ago were dominated by books. Just as images have emerged as highly collectible and highly sought-after at the dealer level so too have they emerged in the auction rooms with increasing frequency.
In the current recovering market they are assuming a somewhat greater role as both consignors and auction houses seem more certain of a warm reception for images and books of images than they are about books generally. Experience is establishing that the market for desirable images is remaining relatively strong through the downturn.
The market for books is of course much larger but so too are the available numbers and this is causing a narrowing of the definition of 'collectible' books to those that are both rare and important. Books that don't sell get re-estimated or withdrawn and if they fall too far simply fall out of the valuable and collectible range. This narrowing is visibly taking place in the auction rooms as bidders, in the presence of estimates they view as too high, stand back to see if interesting material reaches the reserves. In Europe about 80% are; in the United States about 65%. In a market rapidly adjusting to changing bidder/buyer expectations the percentage of lots sold tells a great deal about the state of the market. The overall market has achieved a 74% sell through over the past six years. While the percentage differences may not seem large they are important. The auction market, over the past 15 years, had gown accustomed to high reserves that attracted only single bidders who often bid against consignors and no one else. In the downturn such consignment strategies are exposed as bidders, sensing a change in momentum, bid more conservatively.
The picture on the listing sites is less clear but some discounting appears to be taking hold. Because collectible material is often somewhat unique it is very difficult to judge price appropriateness. Ultimately, if a dealer's inventory does not sell, the market is rendering an opinion although it is never entirely clear if the issue is the economy, the price or more attractive alternative purchases. Recently I ran across an appealing item on eBay with a low starting price and, as it turned out, a high hidden reserve. When I checked on Abe a comparable copy was offered at 25% of the eBayer's reserve. I bought the Abe copy. This experience is a reminder that prices are always in flux and that it's always worth the effort to check alternatives.
The most complex issue will remain the shifting dividing line between important enough to offer at auction and not. Images are gaining in the auction calculus, highly collectible material is holding its own, the vast majority of lesser collectibles are holding on, hoping for an upturn.
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