Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2009 Issue

Recipes for Recovery

Lee Kirk:


By Bruce McKinney

The book business, like the stock market, was a growth business for many years. Auction realizations increased and listing sites proliferated. Higher prices and the expectation of further increases justified the effort and cost to create listings and pay for online visibility. Both participation and prices at shows increased. Catalogues grew fat with ever more complex descriptions. And then the music stopped as liquidity, the driver of economic activity, declined in 2008. A year later real estate prices have stabilized and the stock market rebounded but the economy feels very different. The once almost invisible divide between essential and non-essential purchases has opened into separate markets and purchasing assumptions for the things we have to have and the things we want to have. Books, manuscripts and ephemera fall more into the second category and the effects are being felt around the world.

A year into the downturn it is clear that the field of books, manuscripts and ephemera is not going away but midway through 2009, we now know that someone stole the punch bowl. The causes of the decline are many and not the focus of this article. I'll mention them and move on: [1] decline in stock market and real estate prices; [2] growing supply of what we thought were rarities; [3] the rise of online inventory, [4] the increasing availability of online full text versions; and [5] the seeming decline in absolute numbers of buyers and collectors. Taken together, these factors are shaping a new reality. That booksellers are holding their own through the decline tells you a great deal about their resilience. To get past the downturn though, the words often used in the rooms of AA seem particularly prescriptive: you cannot continue to do the same things and expect a different outcome. The current environment demands adjustment, experiment and innovation. To understand what book dealers are doing to recover I asked a representative group about their situations and strategies. My questions: What does the path from decline to recovery look like? How do we get there?

I spoke first to Lee Kirk of Eugene, Oregon. She is a lifer, been in the trade for 40 years. The downturn in the market is distant thunder on her Main Street. "I've seen trends come and go. The first time I listed on Abe in 1997, I put up 50 items one night and had 8 orders the following day. That did not last. Neither will this downturn. Something always happens."

"Until then and even after I'll do what I do now. I listen. I buy. I sell." It sounds easy but it's not. She walks around with the wants lists of roughly 350 collectors, libraries, archives and museums in her head. "I like to talk to people and I'm a good listener." In the downturn, the work is full time and the income part time. "My real reward is to be both busy and effective at matching buying ambitions with material." She lists online but considers her listings "an open window through which potential customers can understand both what I sell and who I am. My goal is always to begin a relationship, not just sell an item." Her advice: "Price aggressively and be focused on your clients."

I next spoke to John Bruno of Flamingo Eventz. He organizes shows for the antiques and collectibles fields. "I know more about what isn't than what is." Show attendance is down and print advertising for shows is not working. My online promotion works but the audience online is looking for different material so as I shift to online promotion I am also adjusting the mix of material offered. The net is a more visual form."

Rare Book Monthly

  • Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Potter (Beatrix). Complete set of four original illustrations for the nursery rhyme, 'This pig went to market', 1890s. £60,000 to £80,000.
    Forum, May 30: Dante Alighieri.- Lactantius (Lucius Coelius Firmianus). Opera, second edition, Rome, 1468. £40,000 to £60,000.
    Forum, May 30: Distilling.- Brunschwig (Hieronymus). Liber de arte Distillandi de Compositis, first edition of the so-called 'Grosses Destillierbuch', Strassburg, 1512. £22,000 to £28,000.
    Forum, May 30: Eliot (T.S.), W. H. Auden, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, & others. A Personal Anthology for Eric Walter White, 60 autograph poems. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum, May 30: Cornerstone of French Enlightenment Philosophy.- Helvetius (Claude Adrien). De l'Esprit, true first issue "A" of the suppressed first edition, Paris, 1758. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Szyk (Arthur). The Haggadah, one of 125 copies, this out-of-series, Beaconsfield Press, 1940. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Fleming (Ian). Casino Royale, first edition, first impression, 1953. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Japan.- Ryusui (Katsuma). Umi no Sachi [Wealth of the Sea], 2 vol., Tokyo, 1762. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Computing.- Operating and maintenance manual for the BINAC binary automatic computer built for Northrop Aircraft Corporation 1949, Philadelphia, 1949. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Burmese School (probably circa 1870s). Folding manuscript, or parabaik, from the Court Workshop at the Royal Court at Manadaly, Burma, [c.1870s]. £8,000 to £12,000.
  • Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    K. Marx, Das Kapital,1867. Dedication copy. Est: € 120,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Latin and French Book of Hours, around 1380. Est: € 25,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Theodor de Bry, Indiae Orientalis, 1598-1625. Est: € 80,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Breviary, Latin manuscript, around 1450-75. Est: € 10,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    G. B. Piranesi, Vedute di Roma, 1748-69. Est: € 60,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    K. Schmidt-Rottluff, Arbeiter, 1921. Orig. watercolour on postcard. Est: € 18,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Breviarium Romanum, Latin manuscript, 1474. Est: € 20,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    C. J. Trew, Plantae selectae, 1750-73. Est: € 28,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    M. Beckmann, Apokalypse, 1943. Est: € 50,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Ulrich von Richenthal, Das Concilium, 1536. Est: € 9,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    I. Kant, Critik der reinen Vernunft, 1781. Est: €12,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ) / Die Volks-Illustrierte (VI), 1932-38. Est: €8,000
  • 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
  • Manuscript Masterpieces from the Schøyen Collection
    London auction, 11 June
    BROWSE NOW
    Christie’s, Explore now: The Holkham Hebrew Bible. In Hebrew, decorated manuscript on vellum [Toledo, 2nd quarter 13th century]. £1,500,000–3,000,000
    Christie’s, Explore now: The Crosby-Schøyen Codex. In Coptic, manuscript on papyrus [Upper Egypt, middle 3rd century / 4th century]. £2,000,000–3,000,000
    Christie’s, Explore now: The Geraardsbergen Bible. In Latin, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Southern Netherlands, late 12th century]. £700,000–1,000,000
    Christie’s, Explore now : Jean de Courcy (fl. 1420). The Chronique de la Bouquechardiere. In French, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Paris, c.1480]. £200,000–300,000
    Christie’s, Explore now: The ‘Catherine de Medici’ Hours. In Latin and French, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Paris, c.1485]. £120,000–180,000

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