Out of the Valley of Death
By Bruce McKinney
Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. We recently updated the monthly Trends in Book Auction Prices graphs and the pictures emerging are encouraging. Median lot prices that peaked in December 2007 at $488 appear to have bottomed in March 2010 at $368 and may now be slowly building support just above $370. Three months of showing increasing support suggests the drop, which was horrific, may be over. By the end of the year we'll know one way or the other.
The second graph, "Year to Year Change in 12 Month Moving Average" tells the same story in a much more dramatic way. It looks at the change in median lot price as deviation from a norm since June, 2006. Over the past four years we have experienced a sustained run-up from October 2006 to the peak in October 2007 followed by a prolonged decline that first bottomed in June 2009 and has now, a year later, built a credible pattern of recovery from a much lower base.
The most troubling graph, "12 Month Moving Average of Sell Through Rate," suggests that consignors are not fully reconciled to the lower market and are registering their protests with reserves that bidders do not feel are justified. For the auction market to be healthy the percentage of lots sold needs to be consistently above 70% and probably closer to the norms of the past decade: 74-75%. Earlier this spring we flirted with the high sixties and even now we're a fraction under 70%. This number is very important.
Because these graphs are based on the tens of thousands of lots a month and the more than 200,000 lots posted each year rather than on the performance of single lots every buyer, seller and auction house can legitimately elect to see their lots, their purchases, and their entire auctions as exceptions to the rule. But overall, almost no lots have been exempted from the crushing adjustment we have and are continuing to live through.
One other statistic, introduced this spring but not yet graphed in this series until we have a full year of data, provides insight into the inner workings of entire auctions. We now correlate total sales to the total high estimates of all lots whether they sold or not. Individually, these comparisons don't tell much. Seen as part of a pattern of results they provide significant insight into the pricing strategies each auction house employs. For bidders, this is useful.