The Power of Book Auction History

- by Bruce E. McKinney

An early book auction


The history of book auctions in America is first found in newspapers, where before there were printed lists of material offered, there were announcements of sales. In fact most 18th century American auctions exist today only as newspaper advertisements and reports. Account books, diaries and broadsides that are in many cases yet undiscovered, may elaborate this history in time.

In the nineteenth century book auctions take flight and the auction catalogue in the form and function we recognize today emerges. The descriptions are brief and estimates an innovation left to the future. White literacy, a few percent in 1800, reaches a reported 90% by 1876 and the book auction, riding the crest of surging national literacy, finds its peak. The 20th century will see both the number of sales and lots continue to increase until around 1920 but because the population is increasing even faster the phenomenon of the book auction as an event declines.

The sales of important collections begin in earnest in the 1860s though the concept of important was then and is today still evolving. One hundred and fifty years ago important was all to do with volume. Sales continued for days and the lots ran into the thousands. The emphasis was on knowledge; the focus on first editions and absolute rarity obsessions that had yet to take hold. Wealthy collectors bought shelves of books because single volumes were so cheap. The purchase and sale of libraries was a known concept.

The golden age of auctions extends from 1875 to 1925. In this period important material is available, the wealthy have extensive means, literacy is celebrated, and cultural alternatives are fewer. The rising wealthy collect books to convey an impression of knowledge and sophistication that is a good fit with Victorian understatement. It is the golden age of the printed word and the frequency and scale of the book auctions reflect it.

Here is an example of all auctions listed in the ABAC for 1864. Listed auctions conducted in 1864