I asked an anonymous dealer, a specialist in fiction, for his view and he suggested the field was soft. He summed up his focus these days as being on rare, obscure and important and without saying it seemed to suggest JCO does not fit his criteria. He then added, “its tough out there.” He’s not unsympathetic.
He suggests that for fiction dealers generally- buying books has become something akin to taking a commercial flight. You know where your book will land before you buy it and you don’t otherwise buy it unless its positively cheap. That makes it particularly tough for a collector to achieve a reasonable financial outcome when the time comes to sell dealers, institutions and collectors want to cherry pick – often rendering the balance of material unsalable. Said severely, collectors look for adoptions, acquirers for body parts.
On the collector side there are advantages to being a specialist. A collector lives their focus and in time recognizes the unusual and unique when they see it. In this way they become discerning - leading to the acquisition of deeper, more complex material. They are also rarely in a rush to sell and, when they do, tend to have modest expectations. Dealers are home run hitters; collectors hit singles. In the 9th inning, as Mr. Jemal is at 84, they don’t usually hold out for the last dollar, often selling at auction where outcomes even if not great have a sense of being market valuations. They can live with that. They’ve had a long and satisfying relationship that is not only, if at all, measured in dollars.
When looking to sell or dispose even getting a dealer interested to market the material is difficult, getting an auction house to handle even a 20 lots sale more difficult because the market has been running against fiction for years. Auction houses are justifiably cautious. “Can we sell this? I’m not sure.” Generally such sales have been recently disappointing with the normal few notable exceptions. Auction houses have the added burden that if they fail it’s a public failure. Dealers, when they misjudge, fail quietly. They waste time but not reputation. The very fact that the average item in the Jemal collection originally cost $70 tells tells a great deal about value in this field. Dealers don’t like to handle inexpensive material so you can believe they had no choice. They’ve had too much and have been pricing it low for years.