Sales of Books and Paper at Auction Surpass $1 Billion for the First Time

- by Michael Stillman

Going Up!

The good news kept getting better in 2021 in the rare book trade. 2020 had been a surprisingly good year, with prices of books and collectible paper at auction rising by 3.6%. 2021 was much better. This time prices rose 8.8%. This was based on the median, or midpoint of all lots sold during the year. While based on anecdotal comments booksellers did not participate in 2020's party, they did in 2021. Dealers' sales, unlike auctions, aren't public knowledge, but based on the upbeat comments we have heard, it sounds like the wealth has now been spread around. Covid may have lingered around another year, but the book trade seems to have developed immunity from its consequences.


The increase in prices was not based on a shortage of paper collectibles being offered. That number skyrocketed too. There were 636,853 lots offered, up from 521,422 in 2020, an increase of 22%. Lots sold rose from 430,544 to 521,461, an increase of 21%. The result was dollar volume of all sales increased from $725 million to $1.15 billion! That is by far a new record.


The sell through rate was also strong, with 82% of all lots offered being sold. That was down slightly from 83% the previous year, but it was still only the second time sell-through has exceeded 80% since we have been tracking sales in 2004.


In 2021, for the first time, over 50% of the lots sold for more than the highest estimated price. That number was 48% in 2020. Only 33% either sold under the low estimate or not at all. 17% sold within the range or did not have an estimated sales price. Prior to 2020, there were more lots selling either under the low estimate or not at all than over the high estimate. It is a sign that auction houses were not keeping up with the rise in prices when generating their estimated sales price.


In no surprise, the fourth quarter was again the busiest time of year. 30.5% of lots were offered in the fourth quarter, 27.7% in the second quarter, 22.2% in the third quarter, and 19.6% in the first quarter. The third quarter, summertime, has traditionally been the slowest time, but houses have been shifting more sales from the winter to summer months. Perhaps that is an aberration based on the intensity of the pandemic in the early months of the year. In a first, August was no longer the slowest month of the year. It constituted 5.9% of lots offered vs. only 5.7% in January. Ten years ago, only 5,213 lots were offered in August. Last year it was 37,459. So much for summer vacation.


The highest average price was reached at Christie's King Street – London location at $53,090. The previous year it was only $28,912 at Arader Galleries. Runner-up went to Sotheby's New York at $37,645. Next came Christie's New York at $26,889, Christie's Paris $25,775, Arader Galleries $20,681, Bonhams Los Angeles $17,223, Sotheby's London $14,812, and Freeman's $13,898. There was also plenty of material offered for those whose budgets are not in this range. Michael Treloar's auctions in Adelaide, Australia, averaged $51 per lot, Pot of Gold Liquidations $56, and the Mennonite Historical Society $70. There are lots of great deals for new collectors looking to get a toe in the water.


Once again, the runaway leader in lots offered was Heritage Auctions of Dallas, offering 218,619 in the category. Next was Catawiki with 20,935, RR Auction 14,990, Kiefer 13,464, and PBA San Francisco 11,721. Others offering over 10,000 lots in the category were Forum Auctions, Holabird Kagin Americana, Mirabaud-Mercier, Bubb Kuyper, and Trillium.