Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2020 Issue

Prices at Auction Declined by 3% in 2019

72f671a7-c722-4c77-8f6e-e006c8dca959

The year 2019 saw a modest decline in the prices of books and paper at auction, although the number of lots offered and percentage of lots sold both increased significantly. The why for the decrease in price is uncertain. Macro economic factors can play a significant role, but the economy in the western world was good, the stock market unusually strong. On the other hand, there is much uncertainty out there, impeachment in America, Brexit in Europe. Perhaps it was a good year to keep your money in the stock market, rather than buying physical assets.

 

The median price of all lots sold in 2019 was $275. That was down from $283 in 2018, a drop of 2.8%. The average price was down more, 5.7% from $1,945 in 2018 to $1,834 in 2019. However, average price is a less accurate gauge of the market than is the median as it can be substantially impacted by a small number of very expensive lots.

 

On the other hand, both the number of lots offered and the sell-through rate saw significant increases. There were 517,145 lots offered in 2019, an increase of 8%. Despite the added volume, the sell-through rate increased from 74.9% in 2018 to 76.5% in 2019.

 

What is the reason for this apparent anomaly of sales rates increasing but prices declining? One possible explanation is the increased number of lots coming into the market is driving down prices by competing for the same collector dollars. That is the basic economic supply and demand model, increased supply resulting in lower prices. Another possible explanation is that the higher sell-through rates reflect auction houses setting lower minimum acceptable prices, or in some cases, none at all. Certainly, the high conversion rates at some houses, occasionally approaching 100%, is a sign that minimum bids are sometimes being set very low. This is particularly true with lower priced items, as auction houses and consignors simply want to move this type of material. They do not want it back as auctions are often the last option available for selling books of lower value.

 

It is generally understood in the trade that middle to lower value books and ephemera are challenged in the marketplace, while the top end remains strong. However, that does not appear to explain the slightly under 3% drop in prices this past year. Looking at the price of the 500th most expensive lot at auction for the year gives us a window on how firm prices are at the top of the market. In 2018, the 500th most expensive item sold for $87,500. In 2019, the 500th highest price was only $81,250. That represents a 7% decline at the top of the market.

 

Along with the supply-demand issue, there is one other factor to take into account – 2018 was a very strong year for prices. The median price in 2019 shot up from $267 the previous year to $283, an increase of 6%. Perhaps the market was just a bit overextended in 2018. What happened in 2019 is the market gave back half of the previous year's gain. Over the past two years, prices are still up 3%.

 

Despite the lower prices, the total spent at auction for books and paper increased in 2019. We recorded $725 million in sales, versus $698 million the previous year. That represents an increase of 4% in dollars spent at auction in the field for 2019.

 

As is usually, the case, twice as many lots sold for over the high estimate as below the low estimate, 55%-26%. However, if you add lots that did not sell at all to those that sold below the low estimate, it reveals an almost even split, 43.4% below or unsold, 42.2% above. The remainder either sold within the estimate range, or the house provided no estimate.

 

In a repeat of the previous year's numbers, 22% of the lots sold for over $1,000, 6% for over $5,000, 3% for more than $10,000. At the other end, 23% of the lots sold for $100 or less.

 

Once again, the fourth quarter of the year was the busiest time for sales, a bit more so this past year. 31% of lots were offered in the fourth quarter vs. 28% in the runner-up, the second quarter. As always, the third quarter was the slowest time, with only 19.1% of lots offered. However, May was the most active month, with 11.6% of all lots offered in that month. The slowest, as always, was August, in the middle of summer vacations. Only 4.6% of all lots were placed for sale in August.

 

The highest average lot price went to Sotheby's in New York at $35,776. Runner-up was Christie's London-King Street at $28,347. Three each of the top seven average prices went to branches of Sotheby's and Christie's, the other being the Arader Galleries with an average of $16,578. They sell many plates from the first edition of Audubon's The Birds of America, which draw high prices. Other auction houses averaging over $5,000 per lot were Pierre Bergé & Associates, Ketterer Kunst Doerling, Profiles in History, Artcurial, Aguttes, and three branches of Bonhams.

 

At the other end of the scale was the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Association sales that always provide prices suitable for beginning collectors. Their average sale price was $42, which was actually a substantial increase from the previous year's average of $25. Other auction houses with average sale prices under $100 were Alaska Auction, Thomson Roddick, Over & Above, National Book, and Garth's. Sixteen houses had a median sale price under $100, the lowest being Lancaster Mennonite and Alaska Auctions at $17. There are plenty of opportunities for collectors at all different price levels.

 

In terms of lots sold, the runaway leader was Heritage Auctions with around 170,000. Only two other houses exceeded 10,000 lots, both just barely, RR Auction and Holabird Kagin Americana. Even adding all locations, no others sold 10,000 lots in the books and paper field in 2019.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Helvelius. Two Autograph Letters Signed to Francis Aston, Royal Society Secretary, noting his feud with Robert Hooke, 5 pp total, 1685. $70,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Newton, Isaac. Autograph manuscript on God, 4 pp, c.1710, "In the beginning was the Word...."?$100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. First edition, first issue. Untrimmed copy in contemporary boards. $30,000 to $50,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Lincoln, Abraham. Signed photograph, beardless portrait with Civil War provenance. $80,000 to $120,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> IMPEACHMENT. Original engrossed copy of the first Andrew Johnson impeachment resolution vote. $120,000 to $180,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Mucha, Alphonse. 11 original pencil drawings for?<i>Andelicek z Baroku,</i> "Litte Baroque Angel," Prague, 1929. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Einstein, Albert. Annotated Galley Proofs for <i>The Meaning of Relativity.</i> 1921. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Silverstein, Shel. Original maquette for <i>The Giving Tree,</i> 34 original drawings. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Roth, Philip. Typed Manuscript with substantial autograph corrections for an unpublished sequel to <i>The Breast.</i> $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Taupin, Bernie. Autograph Manuscript, the original draft of lyrics for Elton John's "Candle in the Wind," 2 pp, 1973. $100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> HARVEY, WILLIAM. <i>De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus Anatomica Exercitatio.</i> Padua: 1643. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> CESALPINO, ANDREA. <i>Peripateticarum Quaestionum Libri Quinque.</i> Venice: 1571. $30,000 to $40,000.
  • <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Leon TOLSTOÏ. <i>Anna Karenina.</i> Moscou, 1878. First and full edition of the Russian novel, in the author’s language.<br>Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Mark TWAIN. <i>Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's comrade).</i> New York, 1885. First American edition.<br>Est. 5 000 / 6 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Walt WHITMAN. <i>Leaves of Grass.</i> Brooklyn, New York, 1856. Second edition gathering 32 poems. Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Karen BLIXEN. <i>Out of Africa.</i> Londres, 1937. First edition in the UK, before Danish translation and American release.<br>Est. 1 500 / 2 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Ernest HEMINGWAY. <i>A Farewell to Arms.</i> New York, 1929. First edition with $2.50 on the dust and A on the copyright page.<br>Est. 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> James JOYCE. <i>Ulysses.</i> Paris, Shakespeare and Company, 1922. First edition published by Sylvia Beach. Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> James JOYCE. <i>Dubliners.</i> Londres, 1914. First edition. Nice copy in publisher’s cardboard. Est. 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Franz KAFKA. 8 novels in German first edition, published in München, Leipzig and Berlin 1916-1931. Est. from 300 / 400 to 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> David Herbert LAWRENCE. <i>Lady Chatterley's Lover.</i> Florence, 1928. Privately printed first edition. Est. 4 000 / 5 000 €
    John STEINBECK. <i>The Grapes of Wrath.</i> New York, 1939. First edition. Nice copy with $2.75 on the cover. Est. 1 000 / 1 200 €
  • <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Harriet Tubman Cabinet Card by H.S. Squyer, Auburn, NY, 1892. $10,000 to $15,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Scarce <i>Events of the Tulsa Disaster,</i> First Edition, 1922. $4,000 to $6,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Unpublished CDV of Frederick Douglass by Benjamin F. Smith, 1864. $3,000 to $5,000
    <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> California Imprint of <i>President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation</i> Broadside, 1864. $10,000 to $15,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> John C.H. Grabill Cabinet Card of Buffalo Soldier Wearing Buffalo Coat, ca 1886. $8,000 to $10,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Rare <i>What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking,</i> 2nd Cookbook Published by African American. $6,000 to $8,000
    <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Frederick Douglass Walking Stick, 1888. $3,000 to $5,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Only Known Slave Narrative Published Independently in California, <i>Life and Adventures of James Williams.</i> $2,000 to $4,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Rare First Edition of History of Black Literature, Abbé Grégoire <i>De La Littérature des Nègres</i>. $2,500 to $3,000
    <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> African American Soldier and Medal of Honor Winner Christian A. Fleetwood CDV, PLUS. $8,000 to $10,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Jack Johnson vs. Jim Jeffries Pennant, 1910 Reno, Nevada. $2,000 to $4,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Joe Gans Photograph at 1906 Goldfield, Nevada Fight by Percy Dana. $600 to $800
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Jane Austen, <i>Sense and Sensibility: A Novel, By a Lady,</i> 3 volumes, London, 1811. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Virginia Woolf, <i>Kew Gardens,</i> limited edition, signed by Woolf & Bell, London, 1927. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> <i>[Arabian Nights],</i> Calcutta II version, 4 volumes, Calcutta & London, 1839-1842. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Princess Diana, 6 ALS to <i>Harper’s Bazaar</i> editor, anticipating Christie’s sale of her dresses for charity, 1995-97. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Jane Austen, <i>Emma,</i> first edition, London, 1816. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Hirohito & Nagako, Emperor & Empress of Japan, 2 photographs signed, showing Nagako in kimono & obi bearing the imperial seal. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Princess Diana, 6 autograph letters signed to <i>Harper’s Bazaar</i> editor Elizabeth Tilberis, anticipating Christie’s announcement of a sale of her dresses for charity, 1995-97. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Sarojini Naidu, complete galley proof of <i>The Broken Wing</i> signed with several holograph pages & an autograph letter signed to writer Edmund Gosse, 1916. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Fernando Pessoa, <i>Mensagem,</i> first edition, presentation copy, signed & inscribed, Lisbon, 1934. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Graham Greene, <i>The Basement Room,</i> first edition, Greene’s personal copy, signed with annotations throughout, London, 1935. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Abraham Lincoln, partly-printed document signed, call for troops issued during America’s first national draft just days before the NYC draft riots, 1863. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b><br><i>Les Chansons de Bilitis</i> by Pierre Louÿs, illustrated by George Barbier & F.L. Schmied, Paris, 1922. $8,000 to $12,000.

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions