We have, for years, seen more and more auction houses appearing online. Some are new, others long established but only recently embracing the internet. And so overall, year after year, the number of auction houses joining the world-wide auction market has increased. Inevitably, some houses would combine. Sotheby’s famously acquired Parke-Bernet in 1964 and more recently, eBay jettisoned their support of traditional auctions and have since struggled to establish a marketplace for the high-volume, lower-priced material that overhangs the market today. None of these moves were made exclusively to ensure or preserve the rare book component. This category, in all such marriages and maneuvers, sits in the backseat if not the trunk. Books, manuscripts, maps and ephemera matter but the sales of furniture, jewelry, art and cars [to name a few categories] is where the money seems to be today.
At the same time, the internet has made it easier to identify and understand interesting material wherever it shows up. On Rare Book Hub we cover over three hundred houses and see 2 or 3 new ones join our services every quarter. This has made it possible to see relevant material world-wide in a single search, a frankly revolutionary development, that continues to intensify.
The logic of combination is a function of money, fatigue and marketing. In the auction field additional volume tends to improve the bottom line before accounting for the costs of acquisition so the logic is apparent. However, it’s never certain that the acquirers will be able to hold onto the many relationships on which such business depends. Stated simply, it’s complicated.
Perhaps the driving force for combination is the way these business are elaborating. Today, some firms have many locations that seem to be more for securing consignments than holding sales. Perhaps that’s a good strategy. Consignors certainly look every day for firms to consign to so having nearby places to visit will increase contacts. The problem of course is the extraordinary number of tire-kickers who think anything old must be very valuable. I doubt the auction houses want those contacts.
What will be a clear win for auction house mergers will be the reduced costs of online presentation. Every house, to be effective, has to substantially invest online to make a good impression. Joining forces both saves money and increases possibilities for that component of the auction house presentation that is the public interface. The quality of such interfaces range widely and no doubt affect bidder participation. And there is another factor.
The net is not static. It is in constant motion, and in good years and bad, relentlessly necessary to keep all aspects of the presentation up-to-date. And this is a tall order.
So net-net, I imagine that the Hindman-Cowan transaction will prove beneficial but I see it as a relay race and this simply one of the inevitable handoffs that must be handled perfectly but will not, of itself, insure success. For that, it will take continued artful handling of the internet challenges. And I’m convinced both parties know this. So, I look forward to see what they do. Both have done very well and I expect now, as they merge, they’ll do ever better.
It’s a bold step.
Link: to the Cowan announcement