Books, manuscripts, maps and ephemera at auction had been performing exceptionally well through 2018 with $609,830,918 of sales and then the 2019 market further increased with $725,695,460. Yes, there were some disturbing reports in Asia and the US western states during the last few months that a health crisis could be brewing but nothing was certain until February 11th 2020 when Covid entered our lexicon. But plans are hard to make and even harder to break, and there wasn’t any consensus that the yet-to-be-understood illness would be a game changer. So the ABAA kept to their plan to host the highly anticipated upcoming New York Book Fair March 5-8 at the Park Avenue Armory. Almost immediately thereafter Covid-19 become a national emergency as the show was closing. For its organizers and participants it was an accident of fate and extraordinary luck. A month later it became clear that the New York Book Fair would be the last national convention in the United States before America would get a handle on this terrible disease. In 2020, auction sales held steady at $725,036,096.
Simultaneously in 2020, the rare book field which has long been deeply populated with intelligence, the community quickly began to reimagine themselves in a world without physical book fairs for an extended period. Their answer, electronic fairs, would spring to life during that late summer and they quickly absorbed the widespread nervous energy of a field that long depended on fairs. There were some transactions although they weren’t as much as was hoped.
The auctions were holding up better based on lots sold, 430,544 in 2020 compared to 395,690 in 2019. The total dollars of sales however were virtually flat that means the average sale price fell by 8.18%. The world was adjusting and the auctions were functioning. What would 2021 be like?
The answer would be determined by the magicians at Moderna and BNTX who were developing vaccines. Vaccines have always taken years to develop and safety test but these new developers were explaining they’re using something new, MRNA, and by the summer on 2020 sleeves were being rolled up for the first jabs. Who could ever imagined?
And in late January 2021 as the vaccines were being rolled out nationally, simultaneously the greatest year for auctions for the rare book field in history was getting underway. That month’s total sales, compared to the same period just one year before, were up 76.67% and the sales for the full year would go on a tear rising 59%. Over the 20 years we have tracked and analyzed sales, the norm for auctions has been to sell about 75% of lots offered. In 2021, that number jumped up into the low to mid 80s even as the number of lots offered were rising as the average sale realization was increasing. It was quite an experience.
For 2021, total sales of collectible paper at auction reached $1,155,016,125. That worked out to be 521,461 lots at $2,216.
And now the question comes up, will 2022 confirm 2021’s exceptional results? And then, what will happen in 2023? That will be the big tell. As of the end of October, 2022 the current year is running close and it will depend on the final two months.
My guess is that 2022 will be somewhat comparable.
We are all going to be paying attention.