Rare Book Monthly
Articles - November - 2008 Issue
Evidence of Interest when the Circumstances are Right
By Bruce McKinney
At auction on October 19th at John McInnis Auctioneers in Amesbury, Massachusetts, four lots in the category of Books, Manuscripts and Ephemera, did well. The evidence suggests it's all about publicity. The New York Times recently carried an article on the rising number of unsold lots in art auctions. The bad news never reached Amesbury.
John McInnis Auctioneers is not a household name much beyond Essex County along the eastern shore of Massachusetts but as they recently demonstrated it's not the dog in the fight but rather but fight in the dog that makes the difference. They aggressively promoted, posted early, contacted the editiorial departments of various media and were quick to respond to calls and emails. The reward was extensive publicity and sufficient bidding to push several items well beyond the expectations of a dour market.
The marquee item was a single lot described as the 18th century "Pike Archive" that contained an early book on Mathematics [the author's copy], the author's notebook including illustrations in color, a three-page letter from George Washington to the author expressing thanks for the copy proffered by the author to the soon-to-become first President. As well, a small broadside announcing the publishing project in 1786 was included. The same lot, with a $20,000 reserve, went unsold in a large cataloged sale in 2000 at Christie's in New York.
We recently believed the lot to be worth at least $35,000 as Washington letters of this type command this much on their own. Subsequent to the release of publicity about the lot, Lee Stein of Eveleigh Books identified the lot as the same material unsold eight years earlier. The story in AE Monthly [October] about it was then amended to include details of the prior auction result. Our subsequent expectation was that the lot would bring somewhat less money.
The lot then sold for $70,000 plus hammer [$80,500], a nice surprise for the consignor. The buyer's identity has not been disclosed.
Three other items also did well. A "first known portrait" of Harriet Beecher Stowe brought $4,000 plus commission [$4,600]. A Lincoln letter brought $4,750 and an Adams letter $8,000.
The lesson seems to be that the motivation of the auction house goes a long way to selling an item. At McInnis the Washington lot was highly important. They emphasized it and worked to raise interest. The result was an outstanding realization that an experienced manuscript dealer described as "wow."
These results come at a time when evidence is mounting that the declining economy is cutting into both sales and prices in the United States and Europe. The New York Times, quoting Bloomberg Business News, recently reported that "disappointing art auctions in London and Hong Kong this month cost Sotheby's $15 million in losses on guarantees to sellers." Elsewhere it is being reported that auction houses are reducing or eliminating open account facilities.