Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2010 Issue

Cataloging the American Experience: with text and video

Anatomy1

Pass the popcorn, the anatomy of an auction is about to begin.


By Bruce McKinney

Bonhams has released the first of six online videos that will document, month by month, the steps leading to the December sale of a significant collection of Americana - The American Experience: 1630 - 1890. The final segment in January will reprise the sale.

Auctions do not spring full grown from imagination though it can seem that way. Keen observers may hear that something is coming but almost always it's the solid clunk of the heavy catalogue deposited at the front door or increasingly, searches of upcoming auctions online that bring one's first awareness of a sale. Such events, the almost 500 documented book, manuscript, map and ephemera auctions that are conducted each year around the world, are in fact centipedes of steps and parts. Most auctions are compilations, a subject heading embracing the consignments of many. Once in a while what's offered are entire collections, unified collecting wholes, a handful, an armful, a shelf and sometimes a library full of material acquired over time by a single individual to be dispersed in a few sessions.

Such sales are the gold standard of the works on paper field, for they are the opportunity for auction house scribes to understand both the individual items and the whole of the collection and so armed weave a tapestry of individual descriptions into a unified sale, often without the luxury of sufficient time or the opportunity to concentrate on a single sale. Cataloguers are asked to write War and Peace on a deadline every ninety days. Such sales, when they succeed, succeed for the consignor, the house and buyers. For the cataloguers there is something more, the satisfaction of altering both perception and value. And occasionally there is wider recognition for the well executed effort. Great sales produce, as a byproduct, much of the great documentation of the field that future dealers, collectors and libraries will rely on. For this we depend, to a great extent, on cataloguers. Some do yeoman work for a few years on the way to other jobs and other professions. Others rise to eminence, their judgments achieving importance and value over time, their enduring reward to be quoted as an authority, their words to count. Every catalogue offers this possibility, the single owner sales though most often the fertile ground from which new information and clever presentation, grow into lasting contributions.

For this collection that Bonhams will sell on December 2nd in New York the principal cataloguers are Christina Geiger and Adam Stackhouse, the overall strategy organized by Martin Gammon.

Auctions are the result of a thousand decisions and thousands of hours of preparation. Bonhams has prepared an initial 7-minute video that introduces the sale and the cataloguing effort underway in San Francisco. This is the first of 6 monthly installments culminating with the auction in December and outcome reported in January. The first installment was filmed and edited by Mike Noyes.

Many will find this series interesting. The inner-workings of auctions are almost always invisible. For those who may consign this is what the process is all about.

Catalogues will be distributed by early November. Material will be exhibited in the United States and Europe. If you would like to receive the catalogue simply click here to be added to the list.

Click for the Bonhams video: Anatomy of an Auction Episode I.

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