Rare Book Monthly

Articles - March - 2009 Issue

Book Prices Down 30% Year Over Year at Auction

Pricegraph03-09

Book prices at auction have been slipping.


By Michael Stillman

Book prices at auction showed a continuing sharp decline during the first two months of 2009. The median price at auction for the period was 31% lower than for the same period a year ago. This compares to a decline of 21% for all of last year compared to 2007.

While the smaller sampling available for two months versus a year leaves a greater margin of error, there is no mistaking that there has been a very substantial decline in book prices at auction. However, the implication that prices have slipped further in 2009 is not necessarily true. Last year's 21% decline included sales from the first half of the year, when the market was still relatively strong. The decline was likely steeper in the last half of the year. The current estimated 31% drop may reflect the level of decline already in place by the last half of 2008, rather than further deterioration of the market in 2009. It will take more time to determine whether book prices are continuing to fall or have begun to bottom out.

What has been happening to prices at the bookseller level is less clear since such sales are not conducted in a visible marketplace as are auctions. However, anecdotal observation does not indicate a decrease in listing prices of anything near the 30% level. Most sellers appear to be opting for reduced sales over reduced prices. In a challenging economic environment such as the current one, sellers have three choices: (1) lower asking prices, (2) maintain asking prices but discount and bargain more aggressively, or (3) maintain current prices and wait for recovery. While it is impossible to know what kind of dealing may be going on behind the scenes, anecdotal reports we have from booksellers indicate sales are down, implying that most are holding fairly closely to past pricing.

Reports we received from sellers at the recent California Book Fair would support the belief that sales, rather than prices, are down at the bookseller level. Sales between dealers in the pre-opening period were reportedly very slow, indicating a great reluctance on the part of sellers to purchase new inventory. When sellers are selling, they need to replenish inventory. This is a sign that most dealers appear to be in a wait-and-see mode, rather than aggressively discounting in an attempt to boost sales.

What booksellers will do, or should do, in the days ahead is far less clear. Decisions will be made based on the immediacy of a dealer's need for cash and his or her belief in how long it will take for the market to recover. Those dealers in a strong financial condition may choose to wait out the storm. Those who will need greater cash flow in the months ahead may be better advised to start developing new strategies sooner rather than later. Recovery will come, but it appears almost certain that the time frame will be years, not months. Those whose survival under current conditions will be limited to months need to make adjustments now before time further erodes their financial strength. A business model that depends on a market turnaround by summer appears almost certain to be destined for failure. Even the more optimistic of economic forecasters do not see a recovery beginning until late in the year, and that does not mean prices will suddenly rebound by 30%. That simply means a slow return to growth. Other forecasters believe it will be years before real recovery comes. We do not mean to sound pessimistic, or be the bearer of bad news, but auction prices are a firm reality check for the book business. We believe the bookseller armed with realistic, even if unpleasant data, has a better chance of surviving and succeeding than one who builds a business model based on wishful thinking.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Darwin, Charles. <i>On the Origin of Species.</i> Presentation Copy. Sold for $500,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Darwin, Charles. Autograph Letter Signed, 3 pp, negotiating the 2nd American edition with Appleton. Sold for $21,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Hemingway, Ernest. Autograph Letter Signed, 8 pp, Paris, 1924, to his father discussing Bullfighting, Stories, and his new baby. Sold for $25,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Shakespeare, William. <i>Corialanus.</i> London, 1623. 1st printing [Extracted from the First Folio]. Sold for $50,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Swift, Jonathan. <i>Gulliver's Travels.</i> London, 1726. 1st edition, Teerink's A edition, fine, large copy. Sold for $21,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Fitzroy, Robert. Autograph Letter Signed to agent Thomas Stilwell, informing him of the progress of H.M.S. Beagle. Sold for $17,575.
    <center><b>Bonhams<br> Property from the Collection of Nicole and William R. Keck II</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Shakespeare, William. <i>Sonnets.</i> 1901. 2 volumes. Printed on vellum and illuminated by Ross Turner, bound by Trautz-Bauzonnet. Sold for $13,825.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Beardsley, Aubrey. <i>The Birth, Life, and Acts of King Arthur.</i> 1893-94. 2 volumes. Contemporary painted vellum gilt by Chivers. Sold for $5,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Assisi, St. Francis. <i>The Canticle of Brother Sun.</i> Illuminated on vellum, for the Grolier Society. Sold for $7,575.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Rackham, Arthur. <i>Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.</i> 1/500 copies signed by Rackham. Sold for $4,825.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Proust, Marcel. <i>Du coté de chez Swann.</i> 1st edition, 1st issue. Inscribed by Proust. Sold for $8,825.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Sergio Trujillo Magnenat, <i>Bogotá 1938 / IV Centenario / Juegos Deportivos Bolivarianos,</i> 1938. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> <i>McQueen Drives Porsche,</i> designer unknown, 1970. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b><br>Joe Bridge, <i>Bignan / A Des Ailes,</i> 1921. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Graham Simmons, <i>The Army Isn’t All Work,</i> 1919. $1,000 to $1,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Leonetto Cappiello, <i>Je ne fume que le nil,</i> 1912. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> <i>Attack of the 50 ft. Woman,</i> designer unknown, 1958. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Raymond Tooby, <i>Festival Guiness / Have You Tried One Yet?,</i> 1952. $600 to $900.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Francisco Tamagno, <i>Terrot & Co. / Dijon / Cycles Motorettes,</i> 1909. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b><br>A. Hori, Oakland / General Motors, circa 1925. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> James Montgomery Flagg, <i>Travel? Adventure? Answer – Join the Marines!,</i> circa 1918. $4,000 to $6,000.
  • <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Roberts, David. Twenty Lithographs of the Holy Land, 19th Century. $2,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Declaration by the Reps. of the United Colonies of N.A. 1775. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Composer Jerome Kern personal Letters, Albums and Other. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Paine, Thomas. <i>Common Sense,</i> London 1776. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Stowe, Harriet Beecher. <i>Uncle Tom’s Cabin,</i> Cleveland 1852. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Hobbes, Thomas. <i>Leviathan,</i> 3rd edition, London 1651. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Anno Regni Georgii III. Intolerable Acts and other Bills, 1774. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Wilberforce, William. An Abstract of the Evidence, 5 Letters, and two books. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Nightingale, Florence. Notes on Nursing and Signed Letters, ca. 1860 $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Tolstov, Leo. <i>War and Peace,</i> 5 volumes, 1886. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Dickinson, John. Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, 1768. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Twain, Mark. <i>Tom Sawyer,</i> 1877 [and] <i>Huckleberry Finn,</i> 1885. $4,000 to $6,000.

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions