Rare Book Monthly

Articles - March - 2007 Issue

Auction House Perspective: Who is the new book collector?

Doug Johns: Seeing a future in the past


By Bruce McKinney

This month I interviewed representatives of three auction houses about who is and where is the new book collector? They are Dr. Martin Gammon of Bonhams & Butterfields, Doug Johns of Johns' Western Gallery, and George Fox of PBA Galleries. In February I asked four dealers the same question. The differences both between what booksellers had to say and what auction representatives this month are saying illustrates the complexity of the book, manuscript and ephemera categories as well as the differences in approach taken to them in the auction field. A seemingly simple question yields complex clues if no outright answers.

The auction house sale banner furls high above a diverse community and has for hundreds of years. For generations beyond personal recall possessions have been redistributed within the community by inheritance, gift and sale, often by auction. In North America for 350 years and in Europe for much longer, such sales, often including books, have been cried out and hammered. Down through time "by auction" has emerged as a synonym for sale by necessity and what this simply means today is that at a time fixed items will be sold for prices determined by demand. By comparison, what a dealer offers is a set price with the time of sale unknown. Both approaches have their virtues and auction their necessity. Printed material at fixed prices dwarfs books at auction though the market for books at auction has been growing exponentially.

Auction is a term that has one basic meaning but many different forms. And as different as these forms are they are all several magnitudes removed from the four dealers we interviewed in February. They differ in how they describe, how they promote, what they charge, where they sell and who they sell to: all the time retaining characteristics that define them as auctions. Perhaps the largest differences are in the basis for sale and few auctions houses have only one. Without reserve means that should someone bid just a dollar, and no one else bid, a Gutenberg Bible could sell for that price. Such sales [in principal but not for a Gutenberg as far as we know] occur, most often in the country circuit where, by midnight, all will be sold or sent to the dump. This is why auctions are interesting. You never really know what is going to happen.

All this is to explain how auctions, while selling similar and often the same material as dealers, are a very different breed. In Vegas this mentality takes them to the high stakes tables so it's surprising to interview three auction men that hardly seem like gunslingers. Appearances apparently are deceiving.

Rare Book Monthly

  • Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Winston Churchill. The Second World War. Set of First-Edition Volumes. 6,000 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: A.A. Milne, Ernest H. Shepard. A Collection of The Pooh Books. Set of First-Editions. 18,600 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Salvador Dalí, Lewis Carroll. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Finely Bound and Signed Limited Edition. 15,000 USD
    Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ian Fleming. Live and Let Die. First Edition. 9,500 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter Series. Finely Bound First Printing Set of Complete Series. 5,650 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ernest Hemingway. A Farewell to Arms. First Edition, First Printing. 4,200 USD
  • Potter & Potter Auctions
    How History Unfolds on Paper:
    Choice Selections from the Eric C. Caren Collection
    Part IX
    Starting 10AM CST
    April 18, 2024
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: [RUTH, George Herman “Babe” (1895-1948)]. Signed photograph. Circa 1930s. 191 x 248 mm. $1,500 to $2,500.
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: HARRISON, Benjamin. Document signed (“Benj Harrison”) as governor of Virginia, certifying the service of Daniel Cumbo, a Black Revolutionary soldier. $6,000 to $9,000.
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: ONE OF THE FIRST PRINTED ANNOUNCEMENTS OF THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. $4,000 to $6,000.
    Potter & Potter Auctions
    How History Unfolds on Paper:
    Choice Selections from the Eric C. Caren Collection
    Part IX
    Starting 10AM CST
    April 18, 2024
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: FIRST PRINTING OF LINCOLN’S IMMORTAL GETTYSBURG ADDRESS. $4,000 to $6,000.
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: HIGHLY IMPORTANT MORMON ARCHIVE. ALLEY, George. Archive of 23 Autograph Letters Signed by Mormon Convert George Alley to His Brother Joseph Alley. $10,000 to $20,000.
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: [AVIATION]. [ARMSTRONG, Neil A.] Aviation Hall of Fame Gold Medal MS64 NGC, Awarded to Neil Armstrong in 1979. $2,000 to $3,000.
    Potter & Potter Auctions
    How History Unfolds on Paper:
    Choice Selections from the Eric C. Caren Collection
    Part IX
    Starting 10AM CST
    April 18, 2024
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: NEWLY DISCOVERED FIRST PRINTING OF "WITH MALICE TOWARDS NONE... " FROM THE ONLY NEWSPAPER ACTUALLY ALLOWED TO PARTICIPATE IN LINCOLN’S SECOND INAUGURAL PROCESSION. $4,000 to $8,000.
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: THE MOST IMPORTANT GEORGE WASHINGTON DOCUMENT IN PRIVATE HANDS; GEORGE WASHINGTON’S COMMISSION AS COMMANDER IN CHIEF, 1775, ONE OF ONLY TWO ORIGINALS. $150,000 to $250,000.
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: A VERY RARE ACCOUNT OF BLACKBEARD’S DEATH AND ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT PIRATE ITEMS EXTANT. $3,000 to $5,000.
    Potter & Potter Auctions
    How History Unfolds on Paper:
    Choice Selections from the Eric C. Caren Collection
    Part IX
    Starting 10AM CST
    April 18, 2024
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: EDISON, Thomas. Patent for Edison’s Improvements on the Electric-Light, No. 219,628. [Washington, D.C.: U.S. Patent Office], 16 September 1879. $2,000 to $3,000.
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: [VIETNAM WAR]. The original pen used by Secretary of State William P. Rogers to sign the Vietnam Peace Agreement, Paris, 27 January 1973. $10,000 to $15,000.
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: SONS OF LIBERTY FOUNDER COLONEL BARRÉ ANNOTATED TITLE-PAGE, “WHICH OUGHT TO ROUSE UP BRITISH ATTENTION”. $4,000 to $6,000.

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