Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2009 Issue

Auctions: Is the market bottoming?

Sothebys.9773.Sir Harford Jones archive: BP217,250


By Bruce McKinney

For only the second time in the past year an entire month of auction results is providing positive comparisions to the previous month. It's an encouraging sign that the market may be bottoming. The percentage of lots sold however continued to decline although the drop was small, 1% from 69% to 68%. Because virtually all lots would sell, if unreserved, the continuing decline in percentage of lots sold suggests that consignors are continuing to impose reserves above what the market is willing to pay. In February, the market also upticked but quickly gave way to four months of decline. It will take several more months to establish whether the upturn in July is a blip or a trend.

The median lot value peaked in January 2008 at $488 and may have bottomed in June at $372.

The worldwide market for books, manuscripts and ephemera naturally divides by currency: dollar, Euro and Pound. Of the 21 documented auctions conducted in July nine were denominated is Pounds, four in Euros, and eight in dollars. Total sales for all 21 auctions was $16,097,175. The nine English sales generated $13,206,514 or 82% of total.

When viewed by percentage of lots sold the English sales were best but hardly better than the American sales. The Euro denominated sales, all conducted in Paris, were the weakest:

9 English Sales 71%

8 Dollar Denominated Sales 68%

4 French Sales (in Euros) 54%

July is traditionally an important month for auctions in the United Kingdom.

A fundamental tension between lot reserves and bidder appetite continues to hold the market in check. Auctions traditionally sell 75% or more of all lots offered. Individual auctions will occasionally fail but the overall market perform well. A sell-through percentage of under 70% suggests reserves continue to be too high. Buyer enthusiasm may return but it seems possible, probably likely, that a further cut in reserves of about 10% will significantly increase the percentage of lots sold.

The graphs for Trends in Book Auction Prices have been updated. Click here to see them.

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Every 18 hours, more or less, a documented traditional auction completes somewhere in the world. The sale may be in North America, Europe, Central America or Australia; in New York, Sydney, London, Paris, Los Angeles or in any of the other places documented book auctions are conducted. A few days later the sold and unsold lots are confirmed and realized prices added, the sale then archived in the Americana Exchange Database. AE covers all such auctions as a free service for auction bidders and auction houses.

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Reports are emailed once a week, early Monday morning. During 2009 we expect to document close to 500 sales, an average of almost 40 a month.

We also release, once a month, graphs updating auction activity through the end of the preceding month. The Charts for July are now posted. Click here to see them.

Rare Book Monthly

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    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: HARRISON, Benjamin. Document signed (“Benj Harrison”) as governor of Virginia, certifying the service of Daniel Cumbo, a Black Revolutionary soldier. $6,000 to $9,000.
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: ONE OF THE FIRST PRINTED ANNOUNCEMENTS OF THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. $4,000 to $6,000.
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    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: FIRST PRINTING OF LINCOLN’S IMMORTAL GETTYSBURG ADDRESS. $4,000 to $6,000.
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: HIGHLY IMPORTANT MORMON ARCHIVE. ALLEY, George. Archive of 23 Autograph Letters Signed by Mormon Convert George Alley to His Brother Joseph Alley. $10,000 to $20,000.
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: [AVIATION]. [ARMSTRONG, Neil A.] Aviation Hall of Fame Gold Medal MS64 NGC, Awarded to Neil Armstrong in 1979. $2,000 to $3,000.
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    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: NEWLY DISCOVERED FIRST PRINTING OF "WITH MALICE TOWARDS NONE... " FROM THE ONLY NEWSPAPER ACTUALLY ALLOWED TO PARTICIPATE IN LINCOLN’S SECOND INAUGURAL PROCESSION. $4,000 to $8,000.
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: THE MOST IMPORTANT GEORGE WASHINGTON DOCUMENT IN PRIVATE HANDS; GEORGE WASHINGTON’S COMMISSION AS COMMANDER IN CHIEF, 1775, ONE OF ONLY TWO ORIGINALS. $150,000 to $250,000.
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    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: EDISON, Thomas. Patent for Edison’s Improvements on the Electric-Light, No. 219,628. [Washington, D.C.: U.S. Patent Office], 16 September 1879. $2,000 to $3,000.
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