Remembering an Excellent Effort to Understand the Market in 1978/1979
- by Bruce E. McKinney
A powerful story
I was recently given a gift by an old friend, old enough to have achieved emeritus status both with the ABAA and AE & RBH:
Annual Report of the American Rare, Antiquarian and Out-of-Print Book Trade, 1978/1979.
The year being reviewed was the traditional auction and library year from July 1st to June 30th, 1978 to 1979.
Talk about exciting. This volume is a 323 page exercise into market perspective and projection and what makes it interesting is that it was published in 1979. I do not have a right to reprint it but have taken the liberty to provide its introduction by Denis Carbonneau as well as an essay by John F. Fleming, a well known dealer of that era.
It seems good timing to remember that effort, given we, in our own way, are about to release a perspective and analysis on the rare book and paper market for 2020.
The Annual Report for 1979 is divided into sections:
Part 1. Auctions and Auctioneering
Part 2. Review of Specialized Areas
Part 3. Libraries and Librarianship
Part 4. Conservation of Material
Part 5. Trends of Bibliography
Altogether, including the introduction, 43 essays were provided. Many of the essayists were among the who’s who of the American rare book trade in that era. In many cases however the named writers may not have written their own pieces as those who are credited to contributing do not recall either their participation or, in some cases, to have ever seen the book. And I did find an explanation within the author’s expression of gratitude to those who interviewed and created accounts. That may have been the modus operandi: a call converted into an essay. However it was created, there is a sense of boots on the ground and this account provides a remarkable perspective.
The rare book field in America had been doing very well since the end of WW2 but the number of great copies was thinning. Fine examples were continuing to appear but genuine knowledge had long been in short supply. American Book Prices Current, since 1975, was democratizing rare book knowledge. As well, both Christies and Sotheby’s had recently introduced a 10% buyer’s premium and dealers were irritated and a sense of that, in my opinion, was expressed in Fleming’s warm embrace of Swann, suggesting they did not seem to be weakened by not charging a buyer’s premium. The relationship between the leading auction houses and dealers was fraught as auction houses, while acting coquettish with collectors, were relying on dealer bids to sell most of their lots. The Fleming essay to me suggests dealer patience was running thin. Whatever, by 1981, Swann was also charging a buyer’s premium. The market was changing.
Had the series of Annual Reports continued over the next 20 years I must say, I suspect neither Americana Exchange nor Rare Book Hub would have been needed. Our project arose from the rising complexity of the field at a time when crucial factors about rarity, bibliography and probability of reappearance were increasingly needed for collecting institutions and private collectors to quickly assess extensive priced auction history. As a collector what I needed to make competent judgments for myself I simply assumed the strong majority of serious collectors also needed and would want to do; to be able to gauge value, rarity and relevance to the point the collecting beast could in confidence be released to pillage. RBH does that today and I believe we are contributing to the market's strength. RRRRRRHHH!
In his way Mr. Carbonneau and his team sought to capture the scale and pace of the many categories of collecting just as we have over the past 18 years [2002-2020]. Our approach has been to be neutral and fact based, while providing every scrap of detail we have been able to find. I feel we are heirs to their ambitions.
Their approach was more personal and quite believable.
As AE and its later incarnation, Rare Book Hub, we have developed a service based on the proposition that information is vital to intelligent decision making about buying and selling books, manuscript, maps and ephemera. That proposition then in 1979 and 18 years ago when we began, appeared to some to be threatening to their business model but many, may I suggest, most book dealers today see the virtue of having a deep neutral database that institutions, collectors and dealers can rely on. What unites all in our community is desire, what divides is valuation. When the difference is explicable the differences can be bridged. When they cannot, collectors tend to try other fields or at minimum, other dealers.
Over the decades It has been said relentlessly that there are no new collectors while, as we have broadened our reach to virtually all auctions selling collectable paper worldwide, we are seeing the number of auctions, the volume of lots, and the percentage of lots selling rising. The market is looking very strong. To the concern as to whether there are new collectors, the answer is in the number of auctions, lots and turnover.
So it’s interesting that I received this precious volume recently just as we’re preparing the annual review for the field for 2020. I freely admit we don’t have 37 experts to review specific categories of collecting but we do make it possible for all interested to analyze all the data that has comprised the year; 1,857 auctions, 521,422 lots, and the total turnover 430,544 lots, so you can decide for yourself if you are comfortable in the collecting world we are in.
Denis Carbonneau’s introduction is page 2 of this article and John Fleming’s “Overview of the American Auction Market” is page 3.
If anyone can find Mr. Carbonneau I’d like to have his perspective. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org and phone number is 415.823.6678 [PST]