Rare Book Monthly

Articles - December - 2003 Issue

Book Business Past in Head-on Collision

Janebay1

Uncle Tom's Adventure in a Hollow Log. Poughkeepsie, New York. $5.00 on eBay


By Bruce McKinney

Books are sold in many places: in book stores, through book sellers on line, through auctions and dispersals. Collectable book buying has been for several centuries a matter of luck and cunning that has favored the highly educated and those with elephantine memories. It has always been like gold mining. You had to find the vein. Few people had the knowledge, fewer still the luck. Everyone believes the great material is out there but there has been no easy way to find it. Better organized dealers and collectors have been using online selling sites for most of a decade. But the only “cash” market for most collectors has been auctions and they are limited in the types of material they sell. For the much broader market of sellers there is eBay.

For decades there has been no easy way to dispose of books accumulated over a collecting career. They have been acquired from dealers and second-hand shops, at library fairs, auctions, rummage sales and flea markets and over time become collections. They are the reminders of summer trips across the mid-west and free afternoons in the dust bins of New York’s used book shops. Their common thread is often only apparent to the collector who bought because they looked interesting, were cheap, might make a gift (but were rarely given away) or occasionally actually had a solid connection to a “collecting” theme In many cases, these accumulations became, in time, collections – disparate and constructed with uncertain glue – but nevertheless collections. Pretty bindings, 19th century fiction, signed copies, all of them interesting debris. And they have never been easy to re-sell. Buying the right material at the right price was difficult: selling it for its fair valuation almost impossible.

eBay and the listing sites have changed this equation for both buyers and sellers. eBay in particular makes it possible to offer material that, while not necessarily perfectly described, is relatively easy to understand. Part of the beauty of eBay is that there is room for innocence. They make a large enough market that great material is generally identified by potential buyers whether or not it is understood by the sellers. Then of course there are occasional fireworks and realized prices to make the buyer blush and the seller smile. And there is always an ocean of material. Pieces large and small, old and new, rare and common all crowd eBay’s selling aisles. It is in fact the never-ending electronic garage sale. It is the garden in which ten thousand collecting seeds germinate, a hundred thousand collectors are nourished and in time, many collectors’ blooms harvested: all in a single place over the continuum of time.

eBay speaks to the careful accumulator, who now becomes a seller, in terms they understand – a few percent commission, relatively small listing fees and a display format that makes amateur descriptions understandable. It may have taken years to build the collection but until recently such collections could rarely find the thin but appreciative audience that might value them the way the collector/accumulator does. Books, that in the past that were often consigned to the attic, now find willing buyers across town, across the state, across the country and even around the globe – more often than not – through eBay. It is the “everyman’s” cash market. It’s not the only way to sell but for consignors it’s a good way to sell. They don’t need to be a book dealer to do it.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Abraham Lincoln, <i>Emancipation Proclamation by the President of the United States,</i> pamphlet, 1862. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the distinguished Ruby-Jackson family, Portland, Maine, 1853-1961. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens & the persons who served him, 1866-1907. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Autograph book with inscriptions by orators Moses Roper & Peter Williams, 1821-54. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Archive of letters, postcards, and greeting cards sent by Romare Bearden, 1949-87. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br>E. Simms Campbell, <i>A Night-Club Map of Harlem,</i> in inaugural issue of Manhattan, 1933. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Papers of the comedian Nipsey Russell, including a letter from MLK, 1929-2000. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Early German-American anti-slavery broadside, <i>Sclaven-Handel,</i> Philadelphia, 1794. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Edmonia Lewis, prominent sculptor, carte-de-visite by Henry Rocher, c. 1866-71. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br><i>The Black Panther: Black Community News Service,</i> 44 issues, San Francisco, 1967-1971. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Withers, <i>I Am A Man, Sanitation Workers Strike,</i> silver print, 1968. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> <i>March For Freedom Now!,</i> poster for the 1960 Republican Convention. $4,000 to $6,000.

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