Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2009 Issue

Reality Returns to Bookselling

Decession

The next few years will be difficult


By Bruce McKinney

The median price of books, manuscripts and ephemera, measured across more than 220,000 lots sold at auction in 2008, fell 21% from 2007. The decline, which mostly occurred in the second half, saw the median price for the year fall to levels consistent with 2003 while masking a larger decline that, if sustained in 2009, will carry realizations back to levels last seen in 2000. Dealers and auction houses generally expect further retrenchment and auction houses are lowering estimates and reserves in response. Note: Median price is the midpoint of prices paid and differs from average price that is disproportionately affected by single high value transactions.

Reality in 2009 will now work itself out in public - mainly in the auction rooms where six-hundred fresh lots are posted each day. Should realizations continue to fall such experience will lead to lower expectations. It's a potentially slow and uneven process that may take several years as many online sellers will probably prefer to wait for recovery rather than adjust to a downturn they hope is temporary. They may wait a long time. Even when the economy was strong only a small percentage of old and rare books listed on line sold in any year. In recession, sell-through will further decline. At auction 70 to 76% of all listed items have sold over the past five years.

In what is shaping up as a tumultous year the spreads between auction realizations and online listed prices, which generally have run at a 3 to 2 ratio [$100 on a listing site, $67 at auction], may increase to 2 to 1 [$100 on a listing site versus $50 at auction]. In this scenario auction realizations decline while listing prices, at least short term, hold.

While the book business has unique problems it is also part of the real economy and the economy will be weak for an extended period. This is the eleventh sustained economic downtown [10 recessions, 1 depression] since 1900 * and looks to be neither garden-variety recession nor an absolute depression. Mike Stillman calls it a "decession" or, if you prefer, "repression" and it looks to be five years more or less. The Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, who teaches at Princeton and writes for the New York Times, has recently conveyed a sense of possible abyss. Frank Rich adds this: "While its become a Beltway cliche that America's new young president has yet to be tested, it is past time for us to realize that our own test is also about to begin." The economy is going to get tough and how much room there will be in the lifeboats for books is uncertain.

Historically, in the book business, sales rather than prices decline. In commercial fields that informally set prices based on observation of competitors' prices the variable is time and the rare book business, which is anathema to lowering prices, simply hunkers down. In this economic downturn that strategy is almost certainly not going to work because the economy, in recovery, will experience inflation that returns dollars that buy significantly less. After all binges there are then the headaches.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 15:</b> Paul George Lawler, <i>San Francisco – Hawaii Overnight,</i> 1939. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 15:</b> Around the World, <i>North German Lloyd,</i> designer unknown, circa 1910. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 15:</b> Michael Rudolf Wening, <i>Siam,</i> circa 1920s. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 15:</b> Sigismunds Vidbergs, <i>Spend Your Holidays at the Wonderful Seaside of Riga,</i> circa 1925. $1,200 to $1,800.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 15:</b> Jean Dupas, <i>“Where is this Bower Beside the Silver Thames?”</i> 1930. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 15:</b> Charles-Léonce Brossé, <i>Meeting d’Aviation, Nice,</i> 1910. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 15:</b> John Held Jr., <i>Nantucket,</i> 1925. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 15:</b> Seaverns W. Hilton, <i>Lewis and Clark, Northern Pacific,</i> 1920. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 15:</b> Fred Powis, <i>Jasper, Canadian National Railways.</i> $2,000 to $3,000.
  • <center><b>Arader Galleries<br>October Sale<br>October 10, 2020</b>
    <b>Arader Galleries, Oct. 10:</b> LA HARPE, Jean-Baptiste Benard de. 'CARTE NOUVELLE DE LA PARTIE DE L'OUEST DE LA LOUISIANNE'. $800,000 to $1,200,000.
    <b>Arader Galleries, Oct. 10:</b> AUDUBON, John James. Great Blue Heron, Plate 211. $250,000 to $350,000.
    <b>Arader Galleries, Oct. 10:</b> REDOUTE, Pierre-Joseph. Watercolor for plate 456: Bromella ananas (Cultivated Pineapple). $450,000 to $550,000.
    <b>Arader Galleries, Oct. 10:</b> COOK, Captain James. <i>A set of the three voyages comprising...</i> London: 1773-1785. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Arader Galleries, Oct. 10:</b> KEY, Adrien Thomaszoon. Abraham Ortelius. Oil on Panel. $400,000 to $450,000.
  • <center><b>Doyle<br>Fine Literature<br>September 30</b>
    <b>Doyle, Fine Literature:</b> WHITMAN, WALT. <i>Leaves of Grass.</i> First Edition. $150,000 to $250,000.
    <b>Doyle, Fine Literature:</b> MILNE, A.A. and SHEPARD, E.H. <i>Now We Are Six.</i> $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Doyle, Fine Literature:</b> HEMINGWAY, ERNEST. <i>A Farewell to Arms.</i> $7,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Doyle, Fine Literature:</b> NABOKOV, VLADIMIR. <i>Lolita.</i> First American Edition. $5,000 to $8,000.
    <center><b>Doyle<br>Fine Literature<br>September 30</b>
    <b>Doyle, Fine Literature:</b> RAND, AYN. <i>Atlas Shrugged.</i> $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Doyle, Fine Literature:</b> STEINBECK, JOHN. <i>To a God Unknown.</i> First Edition. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Doyle, Fine Literature:</b> WELLS, H.G. <i>The Works of H.G. Wells.</i> $4,000 to $6,000.
    <center><b>We Invite You to Consign!<br>Rare Books, Autographs & Maps</b>
  • <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Selections from the Library of<br>Gerald and Barbara Weiner<br>Live and Online<br>October 8, 2020 / 10am CT</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Oct. 8:</b> DARWIN, Charles Robert. <i>On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.</i> London: W. Clowes and Sons for John Murray, 1859. [With] autograph note signed. $60,000 to $80,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Oct. 8:</b> [FINE PRESS & LIVRE D'ARTISTE]. -- [KELMSCOTT PRESS]. CHAUCER, Geoffrey. <i>The Works ... now newly imprinted.</i> Edited by F.S. Ellis. Hammersmith: Kelmscott Press, 1896. $60,000 to $80,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Oct. 8:</b> LAWRENCE, Thomas Edward. <i>Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a triumph.</i> [London: Privately Printed], 1926. $60,000 to $80,000.
    <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Selections from the Library of<br>Gerald and Barbara Weiner<br>Live and Online<br>October 8, 2020 / 10am CT</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Oct. 8:</b> SHAKESPEARE, William. <i>Mr. William Shakespear's Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies…</i> London, Printed for H. Herringman, E. Brewster, R. Chiswell, and R. Bentley, 1685. $60,000 to $80,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Oct. 8:</b> AUDUBON, John James. <i>The Birds of America…</i> [1839-] 1840-1844. -- AUDUBON, John James and John BACHMAN. <i>The Quadrupeds of North America.</i> 1849-1854. $60,000 to $80,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Oct. 8:</b> OGILBY, John, trans. [MONTANUS, Arnoldus]. <i>America: being the latest, and most Accurate Description of the New World…</i> London: Printed by the Author, 1671. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Selections from the Library of<br>Gerald and Barbara Weiner<br>Live and Online<br>October 8, 2020 / 10am CT</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Oct. 8:</b> HOBBES, Thomas. <i>Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill.</i> London: printed for Andrew Crooke, 1651. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Oct. 8:</b> BLACKWELL, Elizabeth. <i>A Curious Herbal, containing Five Hundred Cuts of the most useful Plant which are now used in the Practice of Physick…</i> London: John Nourse, 1739. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Oct. 8:</b> MILTON, John. <i>Paradise Lost.</i> London: Printed by S. Simmons ... to be sold by T. Helder, 1669. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Selections from the Library of<br>Gerald and Barbara Weiner<br>Live and Online<br>October 8, 2020 / 10am CT</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Oct. 8:</b> MALCOLM X. Typed letter signed ("Malcolm X"), to Alex Haley. Cairo, Egypt, 18 September 1964. " 1 page, 8vo. $6,000 to $8,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Oct. 8:</b> TOLKIEN, John Ronald Reuel. Autograph letter signed (“JRRT”). To George Sayer, Oxford, 7 August 1952. 2 pages, 8vo, creased; morocco folding case. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Oct. 8:</b> WRIGHT, Frank Lloyd. Autograph manuscript signed ("Frank Lloyd Wright"), entitled "To the Countryside." N.p. [Taliesin?], [June 1926]. 2 pages, 4to, creased. $4,000 to $6,000.

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