Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2013 Issue

Book Prices Declined in 2012... Maybe

Washconst

George Washington's copy of the Constitution was the top priced book auctioned in 2012 - $9,826,500.

All else being equal...

This month we look back at 2012 at auction for our annual state of the book trade review. This is not because most books are bought and sold at auction. They are not. Most sell through dealer shops, online at listing sites or eBay, or through other private transactions. However, those transactions are hidden from the public eye. Only auction sales take place under the glare of the open market, so they provide our best look at what is taking place in the trade.

This past year's numbers indicate a decline in price, which seems consistent with unscientific, anecdotal comments from dealers. Still, this brings us back to that first line - all else being equal. All else was not equal in the auction rooms this past year. More books are appearing at auction. Whether this represents a shift in how books are sold, or reflects a greater quantity of books coming to market, is unclear. What it does say is that changes are taking place in the book market. A flood of books to a particular venue could push prices down while not necessarily being reflective of the overall market. Most likely it reflects some softening in price, but we cannot be as confident of this assessment as we would be if sales volume was similar while prices went down.

For example, one notable difference was the emergence of Heritage Auctions as a high volume seller. We've not seen anything quite like it before. Their share of books sold at auction rose from 1.7% a year earlier to 12.5% last year. Their median, as might be expected with such a high volume, was lower than average, skewing the numbers down.

This past year, we were able to track 310,489 items in the books/paper/ephemera field offered at auction, with 221,248 lots sold. The sell through rate was 71%. The previous year (2011), the number of lots offered was 244,840, with 166,903 sold, a sell-through rate of 68%. That's a 27% increase in lots offered, and despite the “flooding” of items, the sales rate actually increased by 3%. For starters, we can conclude there is a robust market for books, even if prices may have come down somewhat.

Next, we look at the median price for books at auction, the price at which half of the items (which sold) sold for more, and half for less. For 2012, that number was $351.That is down from $378 the prior year. That is a drop of 7%, a not insignificant amount. Still, it is hard to determine whether the higher number of books being offered explains more of the drop than does a deteriorating market.

So... next we looked at the percentage of items which sold for more than their high estimate vs. the number which sold for less than their low estimate. This one was surprising. Last year, 51% of the lots which sold, sold for more than the high estimate, vs. 28% for less than the low estimate. The prior year, that ratio was 46%-30%. In other words, even though the median price was down, more books last year were selling for more than was expected than was the case the previous year. Unless auction houses were greatly reducing their estimates, which seems unlikely, books and related material were outselling expectations, and achieving a greater sell-through rate. This is not what we would expect from a depressed market. The result is that while we experienced a 7% decline in the median price of books at auction last year, it appears that this decline can at least in part be attributed to many more books being put up for sale at auction this past year, rather than declining interest.

What does this mean for the traditional bookseller? We have only anecdotal evidence of their sales, but it will surprise no one in the trade that we don't hear a great many dealers saying they had a bang-up year. Bookselling can be challenging these days. Traditional strategies, from issuing paper catalogues, to operating bricks and mortar showrooms, to attending book fairs, may not work as well as they once did. Nevertheless, it should be of comfort for those in the trade to realize that books are selling, and at a slightly higher rate at auction than a year ago. The market is still there. The challenge is finding it.

The volume leader this past year was Heritage Auctions, selling 27,662 lots. They now conduct some of their sales online. Runner-up was last year's leader, Kiefer Buch und Kunstauktionen of Germany, with 13,034. Despite slipping to second, their unit sales nonetheless rose 15%. Bloomsbury was the only other house to reach five digits, with 11,375 (note – major houses such as Sotheby's and Christie's are tracked by individual location, rather than combining all sales).

The highest median price went to Christie's King Street location in London, at $13,000. Also in five digits were Sotheby's in New York at $10,625 and Christie's in New York at $10,000. However, the highest average sale went to Sotheby's in London at $47,135. A higher average relative to the median indicates some very expensive items were among their mix. For those scared off by such numbers, the median at 16 auction houses was between $100 and $200. There are auction houses that feature many lots in double digits, affordable for those who don't frequent the halls of Christie's and Sotheby's.

Fall, followed by spring, remain the most active times of the year, with November again being the busiest month. However the greatest increases on a percentage basis came in some of the traditionally off-months, including July and January. With more material coming to auction, some houses have been holding sales in traditionally slow months, evidently attempting to avoid being lost in the rush of the busiest months.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Darwin, Charles. <i>On the Origin of Species.</i> Presentation Copy. Sold for $500,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Darwin, Charles. Autograph Letter Signed, 3 pp, negotiating the 2nd American edition with Appleton. Sold for $21,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Hemingway, Ernest. Autograph Letter Signed, 8 pp, Paris, 1924, to his father discussing Bullfighting, Stories, and his new baby. Sold for $25,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Shakespeare, William. <i>Corialanus.</i> London, 1623. 1st printing [Extracted from the First Folio]. Sold for $50,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Swift, Jonathan. <i>Gulliver's Travels.</i> London, 1726. 1st edition, Teerink's A edition, fine, large copy. Sold for $21,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Fitzroy, Robert. Autograph Letter Signed to agent Thomas Stilwell, informing him of the progress of H.M.S. Beagle. Sold for $17,575.
    <center><b>Bonhams<br> Property from the Collection of Nicole and William R. Keck II</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Shakespeare, William. <i>Sonnets.</i> 1901. 2 volumes. Printed on vellum and illuminated by Ross Turner, bound by Trautz-Bauzonnet. Sold for $13,825.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Beardsley, Aubrey. <i>The Birth, Life, and Acts of King Arthur.</i> 1893-94. 2 volumes. Contemporary painted vellum gilt by Chivers. Sold for $5,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Assisi, St. Francis. <i>The Canticle of Brother Sun.</i> Illuminated on vellum, for the Grolier Society. Sold for $7,575.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Rackham, Arthur. <i>Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.</i> 1/500 copies signed by Rackham. Sold for $4,825.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Proust, Marcel. <i>Du coté de chez Swann.</i> 1st edition, 1st issue. Inscribed by Proust. Sold for $8,825.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Sergio Trujillo Magnenat, <i>Bogotá 1938 / IV Centenario / Juegos Deportivos Bolivarianos,</i> 1938. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> <i>McQueen Drives Porsche,</i> designer unknown, 1970. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b><br>Joe Bridge, <i>Bignan / A Des Ailes,</i> 1921. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Graham Simmons, <i>The Army Isn’t All Work,</i> 1919. $1,000 to $1,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Leonetto Cappiello, <i>Je ne fume que le nil,</i> 1912. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> <i>Attack of the 50 ft. Woman,</i> designer unknown, 1958. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Raymond Tooby, <i>Festival Guiness / Have You Tried One Yet?,</i> 1952. $600 to $900.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Francisco Tamagno, <i>Terrot & Co. / Dijon / Cycles Motorettes,</i> 1909. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b><br>A. Hori, Oakland / General Motors, circa 1925. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> James Montgomery Flagg, <i>Travel? Adventure? Answer – Join the Marines!,</i> circa 1918. $4,000 to $6,000.
  • <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Roberts, David. Twenty Lithographs of the Holy Land, 19th Century. $2,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Declaration by the Reps. of the United Colonies of N.A. 1775. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Composer Jerome Kern personal Letters, Albums and Other. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Paine, Thomas. <i>Common Sense,</i> London 1776. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Stowe, Harriet Beecher. <i>Uncle Tom’s Cabin,</i> Cleveland 1852. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Hobbes, Thomas. <i>Leviathan,</i> 3rd edition, London 1651. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Anno Regni Georgii III. Intolerable Acts and other Bills, 1774. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Wilberforce, William. An Abstract of the Evidence, 5 Letters, and two books. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Nightingale, Florence. Notes on Nursing and Signed Letters, ca. 1860 $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Tolstov, Leo. <i>War and Peace,</i> 5 volumes, 1886. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Dickinson, John. Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, 1768. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Twain, Mark. <i>Tom Sawyer,</i> 1877 [and] <i>Huckleberry Finn,</i> 1885. $4,000 to $6,000.

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