Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2014 Issue

The Facts on the Ground

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After over 250 years in business, Sotheran's has learned to adapt to change (from their website).

This is  the second of three articles on changes in the field.  Dealers adapt.  They are canny and need to be.

 

The book business is not going away but neither is it going to remain the same.  Virtually all things that can change do.  Elsewhere in this issue of AEM there’s a piece on a San Francisco Public Library’s Friends of the Library program that is converting discarded material into the two fuels that power libraries, a sense of purpose and money to support San Francisco’s Public library system.  Their project is the remarkable conversion of what, just a decade or so ago, looked like a local failing used book field – now experiencing a fresh incarnation.  Such stories will probably never be common but neither will they be rare.  Changing circumstances encourage innovation.

 

For rare book dealers the challenges are different but equally compelling because, as in all things, their only constant is change and they are living in a seismic era.  For San Francisco Public the catalyst has been price.  What once cost something often now costs next to nothing.  For dealers their seismic changes are availability and transparency, their determining factors rarity and relevance in an electronic world too often reduced to electronic contact.  Those dealers who long preferred to make their cases in person no longer have so many opportunities.  By some estimates 70 to 90% of all bookshops have closed over the past 30 years.  Human contact, it turns out, is possibly the Internet’s greatest casualty.  Today’s new normal places the written description-story-telling capability second only to the Svengali-esk capacity to find great material.  We know from the SFPL experience that there are lots of books out there.  They are handling 1 million volumes every 74 weeks.  Successful dealers handle perhaps a thousand a year, selling to collectors and institutions that rely on them for expert advice.  There is the great mass of material and then there are the gems.

 

Many booksellers years ago sensed that the internet would in time shift the setting of prices from the hands of the sellers to the “show of hands” of buyers.  Rarity is a much over-used term and the stacking up of unsold copies over the past ten years conclusively shown that this word and its meaning has been so misused as to be almost irrelevant.  Rarity now requires a third party reference.

 

However dealers do it, to succeed they have had to shift their focus to the highly uncommon where the defining issues are relevance and importance.  This trend has helped dealers with the intellectual chops to explain their material while forcing the sellers of the more common material into the “let’s make a deal" environment that listing sites have drifted into.

 

In this changing environment the periodic re-authentication of price in the auction rooms has loomed large in importance because prices on the listing sites have proven surprisingly inflexible.  The theory has been [1] "if I cut my price others will cut theirs and I will then gain nothing,” and [2] “the market always recovers so I will get my price.  I just don’t know when.”

 

These attitudes, now widely known, are encouraging buyers to look more closely at auctions because they reflect changing valuation, sometimes lower prices, and in any event “market certification.”  If an item purchased at auction is later sold its earlier auction authentication becomes very important for it provides a pricing history that fresh buyers often take into account.

 

For dealers fresh and special have long been important attributes of what they invest their money and time in.  Those who have made this transition can expect to continue to do well.  Those who have become bogged down with rank and file copies of the too frequently copious examples may find themselves having to send an increasing percentage of their stock to 438 Treat Street or other similar triage centers.

 

The old rules simply don’t work anymore.

 

The final article in this series considers the role of auctions today. Click here to continue.


Posted On: 2014-06-02 10:05
User Name: tenpound

Bruce:
An article about "dealers" that encourages "buyers to look more closely at auctions" reveals AE's anti-dealer, pro-auction bias. Despite your excellent work compiling the AE database - one of the most useful tools to arrive on the scene in recent years - you are clearly not a friend to the trade.
Greg Gibson
Ten Pound Island Book Co.


Posted On: 2014-06-03 19:21
User Name: Fattrad1

Bruce,

I have to challenge your growth rate projections for auctions, I believe you are interpolating. That is using past statistics and drawing lines into the future, Wall St. is often guilty of this.

Having just completed one year of business with an open used bookstore, I am projecting a stabilization of prices for scarce works, the type of inventory that most dealers thrive on. We have been rather disappointed with the two auction houses we have bought/sold from, poor description of condition for purchases and a complete failure with a sale attempt on a RARE book.


Posted On: 2014-06-07 21:45
User Name: AE244154

Dear Greg,

I am committed to dealers. They are the lifeblood of the market but they too are living through the transformation that is changing collectors and libraries’ approaches to their collections. The increasingly unified market simply re-values and re-prioritizes material in ways no one could have predicted ten years ago.

Dealers have had opportunities to adjust and many have adjusted because the world in which they built their businesses is no longer the world we live in. And other formulas, that once worked better, now work less well.

I believe we know the issue is not whether there are enough collectors. Auctions are selling more lots each year while maintaining a consistent sell-through percentage.

In an article in the July issue of AE Monthly I’ll examine both the current state of the dealer trade and options for the future.

There’s a future. It just isn’t the one most expected.

Bruce
Bruce McKinney
AE


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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