By Bruce McKinney
We are going to learn a great deal over the next few months about the tone and direction of the increasingly separate iconic and traditional rare book, manuscript and ephemera markets. They have been moving in diverging for some time. Great examples of rare and unique items have been selling for substantial prices while no less rare but less known and less coveted material has gone unsold or brought lower than expected prices. As the market has become increasingly transparent the many now see what the few have long known and it is changing what people buy and how much they pay. We are living through a time of significant change: the re-pricing of the market. The iconic category looks safe, pedestrian rarities risky, the in-between the subject of endless interpretation. The market is fragmenting. In New York in April over 7 days, April 8th through the 14th, are two book fairs, an exhibit and nine auctions. Many questions about the market will be answered.
The immediate cause of the weakened collectibles market is the damaged economy but increasing transparency and increasingly unified markets functioning in real also make this a generational change.
The current state of the market is evident in the monthly graphs we prepare for the auctions section of the Americana Exchange (click here). Since January 2008 median lot realizations of books, manuscripts and ephemera have fallen almost 25%, from $470 to $370 and the trend suggests continuing weakness.
Today the price of material is being recalibrated and auctions are the venue. The distinction between iconic and collectible is subjective and the stakes high for inclusion because auction realizations signal that the broader market is breaking down while the top remains healthy, even robust. Events this month will clarify where the dividing line between iconic and collectible falls. Highly collectible material should continue to do well while lesser materials continue to leak value.
The stakes are high.
Over the past three decades prices have risen at different rates according to category. Maps and manuscripts have done particularly well while books with maps or images, the uniquely bound and signed copies have emerged as a class apart from otherwise fine copies. But along the way many lesser copies were over-promoted and sold privately for prices that could be achieved only away from public scrutiny. In the auction rooms along-the-way and today even more so, such material has tended to underperform and to outright fail if estimates were geared to prices paid rather than to current valuation. In the present market such material achieves substantially less in the auction rooms not only because the market is weaker but because such material falls outside the iconic category and probably never belonged there. For such material this is the day of reckoning.
The question then becomes how dealers will handle such material going forward. It's an important question because they own more of it than anyone else. Three years ago a marginal book might have justified a $3,000 asking price. Today that same book at auction will achieve $1,000 and be cited as evidence that the market is weak. But is the market weak or are institutions and collectors simply getting smarter? For many dealers how they handle such material may well determine their relationships with collectors and institutions who are quickly learning and once burned, never forget.
If you live in the New York area or are interested to make the trip in April, over the weekend of the 9th to 11th there's the ABAA Fair and, over the entire week, April 8 to 14, a panoply of events. The Manhattan Vintage Book & Ephemera Show - The Shadow Show runs the same weekend and 9 auctions are scheduled. Swann will sell the The Otto Penzler Collection of British Espionage and Thriller Fiction on the 8th and Early Printed Books on the 12th. Bonhams offers a sale on Space History on the 13th including a vintage plane designed by Glenn Curtiss. Sotheby's offers photographs on the 13th and The James Copley Library [part 1] on the 14th. Christie's sells Photographs from the Collection of Patricia McCabe along with other material on the 14th and 15th.