A Visit with Jeremy Markowitz at Swann Galleries

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I ask Markowitz to comment on the state of the Americana rare book market from Swann’s perspective. “We’re having a stellar season,” he says proudly. “Sales increased last year from the previous year, and they increased that previous year as well. I’d say in general we have become more selective in buying material, because we’re finding that the higher quality material still sells. However, the converse of this is that on the lower end, more common material in inferior condition tends not to sell and we tend not to buy it.”

Shifting gears, we begin to speak about collectors and collecting. I ask Markowitz if he’s a collector and he says no (“although I used to collect baseball cards as a kid.”) I gently broach the subject of advice to beginning collectors and it suddenly seems as if I’ve hit on one of Markowitz’s pet topics. He has a plethora of advice to offer to collectors. He begins by quoting someone – he thinks it’s [well known bibliophile Edward] Eberstadt – as paraphrased to him by [well known Americana dealer] Bill Reese. “My advice to the beginning collector is not to buy anything. Look around. When you think you’ve seen everything, then buy what you haven’t seen before. I think it’s hard to go wrong with that philosophy.” He pauses, then continues. “Study what’s sold in recent years. Look at American Book Prices Current. Spend time on abe.com. Spend a lot of time on AE’s databases. Know your field and your material. And be passionate about what you buy. Don’t buy just as a monetary investment. At Swann’s we have a saying: ‘Don’t put anything in any of your sales that you’re not prepared to buy yourself.’ Translate this to buying: don’t buy anything just because it is one of a kind. Buy it because you really want it. You shouldn’t collect unless you’re passionate about what you’re collecting. The most successful collectors – Forbes was a great example of this – did not stop bidding till they got the item, just because they cared so much about the material. When you’re collecting you must focus on a subject you like and just go after it.”

It’s been an hour and a half at this point and I’m afraid that perhaps the very polite Mr. Markowitz’s patience may be wearing thin. He takes me on a tour of the entire Swann operation (2 floors – the lower floor for art sales, the upper floor for books, each separated by an open winding staircase). Not wanting to overstay my welcome, I ask him one last question. What’s day to day life like in an auction house? “Life in an auction house,” he says, stretching out the phrase and clearly pondering it, “is exciting. You never know what’s going to walk in the door. One day it could be nothing, the next day it could be a Charles Lindberg letter or an original copy of the Bill of Rights that you find by poking through 80 unorganized boxes that arrive from a library that’s deaccessioning some material. On my best days, I like to think that by researching items, ascribing value to them, and selling them, I am in my own way contributing to the future of history. That thought gives me great comfort.”

Swann Galleries hosts over 40 auctions a year in various fields. They are located at 104 East 25th Street, New York, N.Y., 10010. Their phone number is (212) 254-4710 and their website (which lists their hours and has catalogues of upcoming sales available for viewing) is at swanngalleries.com. Editor’s Note: All Images Accompanying This Article Are Used Courtesy Of Swann Galleries, New York City.