Rare Book Monthly

Articles - January - 2010 Issue

Acquiring in the Dark, Selling in the Light

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

  • Sotheby’s, July 11: Galileo, Document annotated and signed by Galileo, dated Padua, 1595. £500,000 to £700,000.
  • Bonhams, July 15-25: THE AUTOGRAPH COLLECTION OF ISRAEL WITKOWER. $8,000 - $12,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: GEORGE WASHINGTON SIGNED DISCHARGE. June 9, 1783. $8,000 - $12,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: "Shhhhh!" A DAVID SHANNON ILLUSTRATION FROM DAVID GETS IN TROUBLE. $2,500 - $3,500
    Bonhams, July 15-25: PICASSO, PABLO. Le Carmen des Carmen. Paris, 1964. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: RARE AUTOGRAPH OF AMERICAN NAVAL HERO CAPTAIN JAMES MUGFORD. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: KARA WALKER SILHOUETTES FOR TONI MORRISON'S FIVE POEMS. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: FIRST APPEARANCE OF PINOCCHIO IN ENGLISH. COLLODI, CARLO.New York, 1892. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: BONAPARTE, JOSEPHINE. Autograph Note (unsigned) in French. $1,000 - $1,500
    Bonhams, July 15-25: FROST ON MATTHEW ARNOLD.Autograph Letter Signed to Adams, July 27, 1934. $800 - $1,200
    Bonhams, July 15-25: ELIAS BOUDINOT'S COPY OF BARLOW'S COLUMBIAN EPIC. $800 - $1,200
    Bonhams, July 15-25: A SIGNED HART CRANE BROOKLYN BRIDGE POSTCARD TO EDWARD DAHLBERG. $600 - $800
    Bonhams, July 15-25: A STOCK CERTIFICATE SIGNED BY THE "QUEEN OF WALL STREET," HETTY GREEN. $700 - $900
  • Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    18th July 2024
    Forum, July 18: Rowling (J.K.) Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, first hardback edition, 1997. £40,000 to £60,000.
    Forum, July 18: Binding.- Lucian of Samosata Opuscula Erasmo Roterodamo interprete, first Aldine edition, Venice, Heirs of Aldus Manutius and A, 1516. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, July 18: Bacon (Sir Francis). De Dignitate et Augmentis Scientiarum Libri IX, Pierre Gassendi's copy gifted him by Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, Paris, Typis Petri Mettayer, 1624. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    18th July 2024
    Forum, July 18: Shakespeare (William). The First Part of Henry the Fourth, with the Life and Death of Henry, Sirnamed Hot-Spurre…, Printed by Isaac Jaggard, and Ed. Blount, 1623. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, July 18: Darwin (Charles). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, third edition, presentation inscription 'From the Author' in a secretary's hand, John Murray, 1861. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, July 18: Teague (Violet). Geraldine Rede. Night Fall in the Ti-Tree, first edition, Melbourne, Sign of the Rabbit, 1905; and another. £10,000 to £15,000.
    Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    18th July 2024
    Forum, July 18: India.- Primrose (Gen. James Maurice). Collection of 24 original drawings from his time in India with the 43rd Regiment of Foot, circa 1855 to 1864. £10,000 to £15,000.
    Forum, July 18: Manet (Édouard). Trente Eaux-fortes originales, the complete portfolio, Paris, A. Stroelin, 1905. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, July 18: Bible, English. [The Holy Bible], first edition of the King James Bible, the Great 'He' Bible, [Robert Barker], [1611]. £6,000 to £8,000.
    Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    18th July 2024
    Forum, July 18: America.- Mathews (Alfred E.) Pencil Sketches of Montana, first edition, New York, Published by the Author, 1868. £6,000 to £8,000.
    Forum, July 18: Bawden (Edward). Original dust-jacket artwork for 'The Outsider' by Albert Camus, [c.1946]. £4,000 to £6,000.
    Forum, July 18: World.- Fries (Laurent). Tabula Nova Totius Orbis, woodcut map, [c.1541]. £3,000 to £5,000.

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