Taking an Auction Apart, Putting a Market Back Together
By Bruce McKinney, in this case both writer and consignor
The recent sale of early printed material relating to the new world at Bloomsbury on December 3rd presented intriguing evidence about the current state of the rare book business. The material offered was the de Orbe Novo Collection, 81 early items with a new world perspective. Condition, rarity and subject divided the material into categories and subcategories attracting bids from around the world. The sale brought in $3.489 million, $43,000 a lot, doubled the low estimate, was robust, if not incandescent, and met or exceeded expectations. Thirty-two bidders, some representing themselves, others bidding on behalf of collectors, institutions and dealers, won lots. More than 75 bidders signed up. More than 70 collections are expected to receive material as it is dispersed. The material will be widely held.
The sale was organized as a test of the current state of the antiquarian book market.
Footnote files detailing transactional history of the same titles and issue, drawn from the Americana Exchange Database, were provided on line. Condition was minutely detailed and flaws, such as they were, identified; the source of each purchase, price paid and year acquired included. The material, purchased from many of the principal dealers and auction houses in the field between 1991 and 2002, was generally reserved at 60% of prices paid. Sources included the William Reese Company, H. P. Kraus, Thomas-Scheler, Maggs Bros., Martayan Lan, Sotheby's, and Christie's. Single purchases were made from Librairie Chamonal, Helen Kahn, Asher Rare Books, Swann and a few others.
The sale was of wide interest for its transparency in part because the rare book market had been in flux for a year and both consignors and bidders have become uncertain as to where appropriate valuation is settling. The other reason for interest was the relative rarity of such explicit purchase and price history in auction description. My belief, as consignor, was that an unusually transparent sale with low reserves and detailed price and source information would encourage bidders to bid up to the current documented value.
In the rooms then, at Bloomsbury on December 3rd, the material was hammered down at the relatively leisurely pace of 45 lots an hour. The room was jammed to overflowing, the chattering audience called to attention at 10:40 am. The last item was sold at 12:17.
Immediately following the sale the results would, and subsequently have, provided evidence to contextualize the market. How these items did and what their results suggest became the immediate subject of instant analysis that has been followed by continuing discussion and some written analyses. Whether material increased or decreased in value could be immediately determined. What it means is a story still unfolding. For the record, seventy-seven lots sold during the sale and four immediately following. The theme of the sale was let the market decide. The market did its job.