Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2009 Issue

Institutions Are Still Buying


Study what a collection holds for clues to what they'll buy

David Whitesell of the American Antiquarian Society tells a different story but the melody is familiar. The Society recently reaffirmed its acquisition budget for 2009 and David said he expects declining prices simply to convert into increasing acquisitions. The Society's goal and mandate is to acquire one example of every printed item produced in America before 1877. The AAS is the rock star of bibliographic ambition and has been both creative and aggressive in its acquisitions. It actively pursues donations, bids at both catalogued and uncatalogued auctions, acquires via dealer catalogs and private offers, buys on eBay and on listing sites. Mr. Whitesell also scours bookshops armed with hand held electronic access to AAS's full inventory. Once acquired, the material is catalogued and added to the reference resources it provides to institutions on a subscription basis.

Doug Erickson of Lewis & Clarke College also confirms their continuing commitment to acquire. "We receive dealer and auction catalogues every day and wake up every morning hopeful of finding something meaningful for the collection." Special Collections at the College are funded primarily from tuition rather than from endowment. Mr. Erickson explains that relationships with dealers are complex. "They are directly responsible for this institution receiving important collections as gifts from collectors. We buy on eBay and on listing sites but our commitment to dealers is enduring."

Martin Antonetti, Curator of Rare Books at Smith College, is also steadily acquiring, this last year around 100 items, with an average value of just over $1000. Endowment has declined with the stock market and he is adjusting. He reads the steady flow of dealer catalogues, reviews offers and receives gifts to the collection.

Katherine Reagan, Curator of Rare Books & Manuscripts at the Carl A. Krock Library at Cornell referred me to a recent article by Gwen Glazer in the CU Chronicle Online, "Facing the same budgetary challenges as the university in the coming year, Cornell University Library will reduce acquisitions of library materials for fiscal year 2010. Cuts will be made in the materials budget, which supports the acquisition of books, subscriptions to journals, access to online databases, purchase of DVDs and other audiovisual items, rare and historic collections, and more."

In the downturn Ms. Reagan is also continuing to buy, seeking value in the purchase of newer collecting areas through relationships with a wide range of dealers. She also cites the importance of partnerships with collectors. Over time, the generosity of individual collectors has been essential to building the University collections. "They have the knowledge, passion and determination to pursue very focused material in ways that are beyond our capacities, in terms of the time it takes to assemble great collections. We can support and appreciate collectors and hope that in time they may view Cornell as an attractive home for their achievements." The University has received many important gifts over the years.

George Fox, eminence grise of PBA [Pacific Book Auctions], when recently asked about institutional buying at auction, said "their interest continues unabated. You can not sell them what they don't want but neither can you hold them back when they are determined to buy. Their interest never diminishes although their budgets go up and down." In the Bay Area he mentioned both Stanford and UC Berkeley as continuing to bid and acquire through the downturn.

Taken together, the picture that emerges is of a practical and determined group that will support their traditional sources, in some cases sell or trade duplicates, work with collectors toward the prospect, if not the promise, of meaningful gifts and in some cases, alter buying patterns to bid and buy on eBay and at traditional auctions. Taken together, as Terry Belanger pointed out, they are playing an important role in stabilizing the market simply by continuing to buy.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Abraham Lincoln, <i>Emancipation Proclamation by the President of the United States,</i> pamphlet, 1862. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the distinguished Ruby-Jackson family, Portland, Maine, 1853-1961. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens & the persons who served him, 1866-1907. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Autograph book with inscriptions by orators Moses Roper & Peter Williams, 1821-54. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Archive of letters, postcards, and greeting cards sent by Romare Bearden, 1949-87. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br>E. Simms Campbell, <i>A Night-Club Map of Harlem,</i> in inaugural issue of Manhattan, 1933. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Papers of the comedian Nipsey Russell, including a letter from MLK, 1929-2000. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Early German-American anti-slavery broadside, <i>Sclaven-Handel,</i> Philadelphia, 1794. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Edmonia Lewis, prominent sculptor, carte-de-visite by Henry Rocher, c. 1866-71. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br><i>The Black Panther: Black Community News Service,</i> 44 issues, San Francisco, 1967-1971. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Withers, <i>I Am A Man, Sanitation Workers Strike,</i> silver print, 1968. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> <i>March For Freedom Now!,</i> poster for the 1960 Republican Convention. $4,000 to $6,000.

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