The opportunity to sell
In 2009, heading into summer, in the aftermath of the financial meltdown the previous year, the fall auction calendar in both the United States and Europe was bare. From experience I knew that auction buyers materialize even in the worst of times. They would be out in force come the fourth quarter but there would be very little important material available. I contacted the New York auction houses and found lukewarm interest in selling my pre-1625 collection.
There were concerns that the 81 items proposed might not warrant a sale. Beneath the surface, anxiety about how dealers, the then dominant auction buyers would react, was also a factor. AE was for many a controversial project and this proposed sale a single event. Auction houses like a big win but need the support of dealers as consignors and buyers at every sale. Unhappy dealers might turn away, not just for one sale, perhaps for an entire season. I understood that concern.
On my side I knew AE, then 7 years old, enjoyed the broad support of the collecting field and had concluded after years of observation that auctions are events that can be built into unique instant markets. I proposed to write about the sale in successive issues of AE Monthly and to make it an essentially unreserved sale with minimum acceptable bids generally set at no more than half my cost. The house was yet to be selected, but already I knew what the bookplate, custom designed for the sale, would read: “liceat decernere foro,” or, “let the market decide.” This auction would be the test of recovery all hoped for and my early printed books the canaries in the coalmine. I selected Bloomsbury, the most willing to let me make the difficult decisions – in addition to very low reserves, low estimates, the seller, purchase year and price paid listed in the descriptive text. Such clarity was, and today remains, uncommon and made the sale unique and the auction house uncomfortable. To these requirements Bloomsbury agreed and offered a generous financial concession I turned down saying, “Put that money into additional promotion and provide, to all interested parties, a hardbound copy.” It was a good decision and possibly the only time a substantial financial incentive was ever turned down by a consignor. More than 400 of the De Orbe Novo catalogues were requested and come auction day the room was full. Auctions are about numbers.
Bloomsbury then proceeded to knock the ball out of the park. They were remarkable. Every lot sold, Bill Reese buying the final four items.
The next year I selected Bonhams to sell my collection of “The American Experience.”
All the New York houses were interested in the second sale and all would have done a very good job. Bonhams excelled. Extended credit was offered to all qualifying bidders. Other terms and conditions were the same as the previous year, all acquisition information provided. The two sales between them raised more than $7 million.
From 2001 even as I was buying less of the “American Experience” I was already collecting, with increasing success, the history of the Hudson Valley.
As a kid the number of Hudson Valley possibilities were few, the likelihood of finding them remote, the market in that era thin. With the advent of listing sites, eBay and the addition of the global auction search on AE I could see an ocean of possibilities. Micro collecting was becoming easier.