An Old Man in a New World – recounting my experience with rare books

- by Bruce E. McKinney


A sense of where are are today

A dose of reality

Irrespective of other factors in the marketplace the flow of material into the market is increasing.  Collectors and dealers are aging and their need to sell becoming more insistent.  Institutions as well will question the logic of maintaining large collections that are not often enough used.   Access is increasingly electronic and multiple copies and multiple efforts to build databases raising the question – why are we doing this?  Consolidation is inevitable.  Libraries have accountants too. 

Today auction realizations are tending to be around half of dealer asking prices, down from 70% which was the norm for many years, this difference proving to be enough to draw more buyers into the rooms, a shift that probably continues until dealer prices adjust to auction realizations. The tail now often wags the dog.

Dealers are not without options but many are painful.  They may post ‘make me an offer’ links into their online listings opening the door to discussion. Alternatively dealers may cut prices unilaterally but on listing sites invite retaliation and anger.  An open ended ‘make me an offer’ seems more neutral and no one knows what the scale of negotiation will be.   

Almost certainly, if nothing is done to break the logjam on listing sites dealers will lose further ground to auctions that, as a group, appear to be entering into a golden age. This said there are enough differences between houses, and within houses between specific sales that realizations will continue to have a measure of caprice to them.  Pricing and availability are becoming a science but feeling and experience will continue to be important.  That explains why, even with more information at my disposal than any past collector, I still ask experienced professionals to vet important material and handle my bids.

As the following charts show the field is in something between a recession and a full re-set, probably both. That collecting will endure is certain.  The material is magnetic, the only thing to be decided the price.  For the moment it’s a bear market but that will change. Values need to be confirmed to free the skeptical to buy or bid. 

All this said, these days, with the market in turmoil, I continue to collect.  The opportunities have never been better.  For collectors It is their July 4th, Bastille Day, Founder's Day and Queen’s birthday altogether, that rare moment best understood in retrospect but today for the aware, ripe with possibility - that best moment to be obsessed and involved, perhaps enough so that we will someday celebrate the importance of the printed word with an international, world-wide day.  It's well deserved.

And there is a 1 in 365 chance it will be September 3rd.  That is the anniversary of the founding of the AED and the beginning of my effort to create a continuous record of all material passing through the rooms from the first recorded sale through to the auctions completed yesterday.  Old collectors like myself will in time be replaced by generations that expect clarity, a future in which the AED will be an integral part.   

I gave this talk in San Francisco at the Roxburghe Club recently.  I spoke from the podium where the famous and important have for several generations regaled members with information and  anecdotes.  To be entrusted for an hour with carrying that spirit forward was a privilege.

After the talk I was asked whether the sales made money.  I thought off hand I had made about a million dollars.  I did but made the money somewhat differently than I remembered.  Prior to the first sale I sold a few pieces to two dealers and one collector.  The auctions netted a gain of $500,000, the private sales $400,000.  Passion and self-preservation can sometimes coexist..