Rare Book Monthly

Articles - January - 2015 Issue

Looking Ahead

Cartoon by Rex F. May

Paul Krugman in his book The Conscience of a Liberal, published in 2007, describes the economic history of America since the Civil War as a succession of changing perspectives on taxation. This led me to wonder if tax rates, which are unusually low today, are having an impact on book collecting and rare book valuation.

The Gilded Age that emerged in the 1870s and that lasted until the Great Depression was a time where wealth was highly concentrated, easily maintainable, and not taxed on the top 10% of taxpayers at unusually onerous rates.  During the Depression, after FDR became President, his goal became to radically shift wealth back to the masses though the gradual escalation of tax rates. This lead over the next three decades to greatly elevated tax rates on the wealthy, eventually topping out at nearly 80% around 1955. Twenty-five years later, Ronald Reagan undid this high tax paradigm, replacing it with a two-tiered approach that reduced the rates for all taxpayers but particularly reduced the rates on high incomes.  These tax cuts, now embedded in the American tax system, continue to vastly favor the wealthy.  As a result, the percentage of assets held by those with the highest income has soared while income earned by the middle class has eroded. 

In a comparison between tax rates and rare book pricing as expressed in AE’s auction outcomes over the past 150 years, it is difficult to correlate prices and tax rates in the United States in any of these periods, at least in part because other events consistently intervened; in particular, the Great Depression followed by World War Two, both extraordinary economic periods of stimulus, with the war years also a period of enforced personal saving.  Post WW2, these earnings surged into the economy providing a solid ten years of economic stimulus and creating an enormous middle class that often used the GI Bill to attend college, thus supporting and encouraging institutions to build monumental libraries with vast and important special collections that over the next fifty years would dominate rare book acquisition.

Today such broad based rare book acquisition is in decline, many institutions now maintaining but no longer aggressively building their collections. Their focus has shifted to gifts, narrowing collections and repurposing facilities. 

Since the early eighties in addition to lower tax rates we also have seen the rise of the Internet, the extraordinary connectivity tool that makes inventories and the contents of printed material accessible.  Both aspects have transformed the world of old and rare books.  Whether declining tax rates or increasing access is the most important factor is unclear.  Databases such as Abe Books now warehouse the descriptions and prices of material from all over the world – permitting in a few keystrokes the searching of more than a hundred million books that are available for purchase.  As well, Google Books and others now provide full access to the texts of out of copyright material. 

These changes have then led to a redefining of what is rare and also made it appropriate to ask librarians if their job is to provide fully searchable text or the original printed texts.  About ten years ago librarians by a margin of 70/30 said their job was to provide the searchable text.  A few years ago the numbers shifted to 85/15, and one well-placed dealer said the numbers were shifting to 90/10.  The role of rare books is changing.

The cost to maintain such collections is also rising, while the flow of visitors is declining.  The costs of rising security, preservation, and personnel are now being gauged against traffic that is falling as researchers increasingly use electronic access to full texts rather than make time consuming and sometimes expensive trips to view printed copies first hand.

This will eventually lead to the dismantling of many library collections. Not all, but many will be redistributed within the library world and/or sold to dealers or sent to auction.  The cost of maintaining such libraries is becoming too high to justify the many related and unavoidable expenses that are attendant to such collections so it seems a certainty that many will be disposed.   But the stages of acquisition, holding, refocusing, and dispersal will be measured in decades, not years.  Most of what will happen will happen well into the future, and the reasons seem less to do with economic periods than with increased information and changing technologies that recalculate the access/ownership equation and increasingly favor access over object.  This suggests a tsunami of new collectors will be needed over the next twenty years to offset library outflows, something I think is achievable because collecting possibilities have probably never been better. 

But how do we make the case to the book collectors of tomorrow once they are identified?  It will require every hand; the booksellers associations, the auctions, the listing sites, the libraries, and the rare book research sites all to play their part.  Those involved with old and rare books understand its power.  The challenge is to convey that power.  

In 2015, and in the years ahead, we need to make that case clearly and with conviction.  It will be an act of kindness to them and to ourselves.

Rare Book Monthly

  • Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Winston Churchill. The Second World War. Set of First-Edition Volumes. 6,000 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: A.A. Milne, Ernest H. Shepard. A Collection of The Pooh Books. Set of First-Editions. 18,600 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Salvador Dalí, Lewis Carroll. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Finely Bound and Signed Limited Edition. 15,000 USD
    Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ian Fleming. Live and Let Die. First Edition. 9,500 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter Series. Finely Bound First Printing Set of Complete Series. 5,650 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ernest Hemingway. A Farewell to Arms. First Edition, First Printing. 4,200 USD
  • Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Potter (Beatrix). Complete set of four original illustrations for the nursery rhyme, 'This pig went to market', 1890s. £60,000 to £80,000.
    Forum, May 30: Dante Alighieri.- Lactantius (Lucius Coelius Firmianus). Opera, second edition, Rome, 1468. £40,000 to £60,000.
    Forum, May 30: Distilling.- Brunschwig (Hieronymus). Liber de arte Distillandi de Compositis, first edition of the so-called 'Grosses Destillierbuch', Strassburg, 1512. £22,000 to £28,000.
    Forum, May 30: Eliot (T.S.), W. H. Auden, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, & others. A Personal Anthology for Eric Walter White, 60 autograph poems. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum, May 30: Cornerstone of French Enlightenment Philosophy.- Helvetius (Claude Adrien). De l'Esprit, true first issue "A" of the suppressed first edition, Paris, 1758. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Szyk (Arthur). The Haggadah, one of 125 copies, this out-of-series, Beaconsfield Press, 1940. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Fleming (Ian). Casino Royale, first edition, first impression, 1953. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Japan.- Ryusui (Katsuma). Umi no Sachi [Wealth of the Sea], 2 vol., Tokyo, 1762. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Computing.- Operating and maintenance manual for the BINAC binary automatic computer built for Northrop Aircraft Corporation 1949, Philadelphia, 1949. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Burmese School (probably circa 1870s). Folding manuscript, or parabaik, from the Court Workshop at the Royal Court at Manadaly, Burma, [c.1870s]. £8,000 to £12,000.
  • Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    K. Marx, Das Kapital,1867. Dedication copy. Est: € 120,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Latin and French Book of Hours, around 1380. Est: € 25,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Theodor de Bry, Indiae Orientalis, 1598-1625. Est: € 80,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Breviary, Latin manuscript, around 1450-75. Est: € 10,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    G. B. Piranesi, Vedute di Roma, 1748-69. Est: € 60,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    K. Schmidt-Rottluff, Arbeiter, 1921. Orig. watercolour on postcard. Est: € 18,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Breviarium Romanum, Latin manuscript, 1474. Est: € 20,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    C. J. Trew, Plantae selectae, 1750-73. Est: € 28,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    M. Beckmann, Apokalypse, 1943. Est: € 50,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Ulrich von Richenthal, Das Concilium, 1536. Est: € 9,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    I. Kant, Critik der reinen Vernunft, 1781. Est: €12,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ) / Die Volks-Illustrierte (VI), 1932-38. Est: €8,000

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