A Letter from New York
Dealers did nothing to deserve this bad luck. They have more or less continued to do what dealers have done while behind them a Greek chorus, 20,000 strong of mostly at home book sellers have stuffed the listing sites with similar sounding items. The Chinese have a saying, in fact a curse: "may you live in interesting times." Louis the XV may have been speaking of the internet when he said: "apres moi le deluge." Listings on line now exceed 160 million offers. Most sellers these days list material somewhere. Countless others want to. No one knew that listings would explode, listing times extend and so many items sink into an oblivion of countless options. On Abe today there are 1,526 copies of Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, more than 30 of them first editions. Only a decade ago few understood there was such an imbalance between the copies available and buyers for them. But we know now and dealers own many of them.
For this show, and others like it, the news is better; the material first rate, most of it the valuable, obscure and desirable. Dealers know what to bring and collectors increasingly know what to buy.
Back home, the common and out-of-favor await online inquiries or eventual tough decisions. Rank and file books have already entered a severe bear market, the bad news leavened only by continuing reports of strong sales at the top. Signed copies and uniquely bound examples do well, the rest compete in an increasingly congested electronic marketplace.
Around town, in the run-up and aftermath of the show hammers have been falling in the auction rooms. Nine sales have been offered and 84% of all lots sold, raising $20,283,251 plus an additional $506,000 if the 1917 Curtiss MF Flying Boat that Bonham's sells is included. Results of the book fair are not disclosed but, by all accounts, the participants also did well.
The auctions have it easier. They rarely own what they sell and so more easily shift with changing taste and expectation. Their job is to transact, not fret over the last dollar. They select consignments from the many offered and otherwise pursue the highly salable if they know where it is. Dealers must dispose of what they have.
These days collectors are increasingly knowledgeable about their subjects while dealers continue to have an edge in their understanding of condition and its importance to value. But this gap also narrows, the learning curve from first mistake to knowledgeable buyer now a year and sometimes less.