Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2006 Issue

Auction Prices Inch Forward in 2005



In 2005, 29% sold for less than the low estimate, versus 27% in 2004. This 48%-29% ratio is a bit misleading, since unsold items are also items that were unable to attain the minimum bid. If these are added to items sold below the minimum, below minimum offers exceeded above maximum ones by a ratio of 48%-35%. Last year, it was 45%-37%. It would appear that anticipated selling prices in 2005 rose faster than did actual prices.

Results from individual auction houses are always intriguing, though the data may be more of a curiosity then meaningful. For example, high median prices primarily reflect the quality of material handled, rather than the performance of the auction house. However, this information can help a buyer determine which houses are most likely to offer items they can afford, or inform the seller which ones are appropriate to handle the level of books they wish to sell.

In 2005, as in 2004, the highest prices were achieved by the various Christie's and Sotheby's locations. These two houses have long dominated the very high-end book market, and 2005 was no exception. Christie's Paris auction had both the highest median and average sale, just as they did in 2004. Their median price was $6,696, down from $7,344 last year, but their average price rose from $22,391 to $24,899. Sotheby's New York just missed the top with a median of $6,600. Ten of the twelve highest medians were held by the five Christie's and five Sotheby's locations. Only Dorothy Sloan, of Austin, Texas, with a median price of $1,725, also broke into the top ten. The lowest for the big two was Christie's of London-South Kensington, still at a healthy $1,310. Four other houses had a median sale price over $1,000: Skinner's of Bolton, Massachusetts, Bonham's San Francisco, and Swann's and Doyle's of New York. Only four houses had a median sale of under $100, a sign that the level of material sold at traditional auctions still remains well above that of eBay.

The most active of houses was Bloomsbury's of London, with almost 15,000 lots. That was about 600 more than runner-up Christie's, though their number came across all five locations. Of course, Christie's and Sotheby's do enormous volumes of other material, but we are including only books and book-related items.

Much more information can be gleaned from the data made available to the public by the Americana Exchange. However, the AE cautions against drawing any wrong inferences from the data. For example, figures about selling over and under maximum and minimum estimates say more about the way the house estimates than about their success at selling. Some houses tend to estimate low, others high. It is a double-edged sword. Estimating low can encourage more people to bid, a positive, but may also encourage them to bid low, a negative. However, this information can be useful to the bidder in determining how to bid at a particular house. For example, a bid below estimate is less likely to be successful at a house that rarely sells below the low estimate than at one which often does.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Abraham Lincoln, <i>Emancipation Proclamation by the President of the United States,</i> pamphlet, 1862. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the distinguished Ruby-Jackson family, Portland, Maine, 1853-1961. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens & the persons who served him, 1866-1907. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Autograph book with inscriptions by orators Moses Roper & Peter Williams, 1821-54. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Archive of letters, postcards, and greeting cards sent by Romare Bearden, 1949-87. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br>E. Simms Campbell, <i>A Night-Club Map of Harlem,</i> in inaugural issue of Manhattan, 1933. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Papers of the comedian Nipsey Russell, including a letter from MLK, 1929-2000. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Early German-American anti-slavery broadside, <i>Sclaven-Handel,</i> Philadelphia, 1794. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Edmonia Lewis, prominent sculptor, carte-de-visite by Henry Rocher, c. 1866-71. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br><i>The Black Panther: Black Community News Service,</i> 44 issues, San Francisco, 1967-1971. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Withers, <i>I Am A Man, Sanitation Workers Strike,</i> silver print, 1968. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> <i>March For Freedom Now!,</i> poster for the 1960 Republican Convention. $4,000 to $6,000.

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