Rare Book Monthly

Articles - January - 2010 Issue

Acquiring in the Dark, Selling in the Light

Jefferson

Jefferson: An internet collector if alive today


By Bruce McKinney

The world of books, manuscripts and ephemera enters a new stage and you can tell it is life changing by the anxiety it causes. What continues to emerge is clarity on the buy-side that is as comforting to buyers as it is discomforting to sellers because it clarifies price, value and rarity. It turns buyers into negotiators and introduces skepticism into relationships that have long been characterized by trust. As a consequence dealers increasingly encounter buyers who know not just the material but its pricing history and expect to acquire it within a logical price range consistent with condition. Such an approach is essential for the collector who pursues a passion and wishes, if not expects, their collection[s] to make economic sense - if not by comparison to stock market investing, at least as a repository of value that can eventually return to the market or be gifted for its tax benefit. Of course, if such purchases are financially unimportant, the acquirer may all but ignore references to fair or appropriate valuation. Most committed collectors however do not intend to waste money, nor do they have unlimited resources, so the emergence of valuation tools significantly alters collector attitude about price. The significance of this change is increased by the steep decline in prices since the 4th quarter of 2008.

Because prices, at auction, for books, manuscripts and ephemera have generally fallen by a third over the past sixteen months the scale of negotiation has moved from the "gentleman's 10%" into the realm of the traditional dealer discount: 20% and beyond. The difference is substantial though there are no rules about it and often no easy way to tell who is discounting, and how much.

The challenge to know who and what is negotiable is significant because perhaps 10% of dealer material has already been reduced, in some cases substantially, while most other dealers have held firm, believing their prices may be possibly high but only when judged in the short term. Even then, among those reducing prices, these reductions are not typically uniform. In other words some inventory may be negotiable while other material is not. As well, for some dealers, their costs may be uncomfortably close to current valuation and this affects their willingness to negotiate. From the acquirer's perspective a seller's cost is irrelevant but it's important to dealers, many of whom refuse to take losses irrespective of current valuation. This creates a mine field for buyers and a dilemma for dealers. What is appropriately priced? Dealers resolve this to some extent with negotiation.

These days the coded language to establish the scale of negotiation is "would you consider an offer?" That's the open door to larger discounts. If a dealer has already reduced their prices they'll explain their position immediately. If they have not they may be willing to talk. While the market is down this approach will be both common and effective. When dealers sense the market is recovering the range of negotiation will narrow.

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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