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The Rare Book Market Today

By William S. Reese

For the Yale University Library Gazette
Vol. 74, Nos. 3-4. April 2000, and reprinted
as a separate pamphlet by the Yale 
University Library.

[This is a slightly revised version of a talk presented at Brown University in the fall of 1999, which was filmed by C-SPAN and televised on their Book TV program.]

Later this evening, when we adjourn to the Beinecke Library, we will view an exhibition that commemorates the contribution a determined group of collectors and librarians made toward building the research collections now available at Yale. On one hand, this show is an exercise in local patriotism. It demonstrates how a disparate group of individuals, connected by a love of books and manuscripts, and reacting alternately to seeds of learning planted as undergraduates and to the blandishments of the keepers of the Yale Collections, added extraordinary things to the University’s holdings of the raw material of scholarship. It reminds us that great research libraries come into being through persistence, commitment, determination, and the generosity of donors.

To that noble string of superlatives we can add another essential: the marketplace. Without a market and without what the Internal Revenue Service calls "a willing buyer and a willing seller, neither party being under any compulsion to buy or sell," the books and manuscripts that make up this unique collection could not have found their way here, and this institution could not have been created. The history of the market is the central, if submerged, element, in the story of every great library and collection.

Apart from the content of books and manuscripts there is no more intriguing question in the rare book world than "What is it worth?" In 1864, when the great Americana collector, George Brinley of Hartford, bought a Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in English North America, from the dealer, Henry Stevens, he offered "one thousand dollars in greenbacks" on the condition that Stevens not reveal the details of the transaction. "Among Yankees," Brinley observed, "the first question, when you have bought something, is ‘What did you pay?’" Brinley’s Bay Psalm Book now resides in the Beinecke Library at Yale. When Yale very publicly purchased it at auction in 1947, it paid $151,000, then the highest price ever paid for a printed book. It is not exactly priceless today, in the sense that the market would place a value on it if it were for sale; but it is priceless in the sense that Yale has no plans to sell it. In fact, the Yale copy was the last to trade publicly, and the final privately held copy was given to the Library of Congress in 1955. Its rarity in the marketplace is now absolute. A collector today who wanted one of the eleven surviving copies of the Bay Psalm Book would be frustrated because they are all in institutional libraries.

The sales history of the Bay Psalm Book is an extreme example of the single most important factor in the market today: the essential scarcity of material. Without understanding the history of the marketplace, we cannot grasp the modern world of rare books.

* * * * *

At the end of World War II, one might say that rare books were common. The rare book market, like every kind of antiques market, had suffered a prolonged depression through the 1930s. The glamorous prices of the famous Jerome Kern sale of 1929 looked as foolish a speculation as stocks; there were many books and few buyers. The war further retarded the market in the United States and Britain, while its upheavals literally turned Europe upside down and shook it. Not since the catastrophes of the Napoleonic Wars were so many great fortunes brought low, so many ancient libraries overturned. The result was a vast outpouring of material from private and institutional hands into the marketplace. The late Lawrence Thompson, who built extraordinary collections for the University of Kentucky, told me that in the harsh winter of 1945-46, he sent several boxes of canned goods to a friend from before the war, the head of the Austrian National Library. In return, the librarian sent Larry a set of Haebler’s monumental collection of incunabula leaves, worth tens of thousands of dollars today, as a thank-you for saving his family from starvation.

In retrospect, 1945 probably marks the greatest buying opportunity for rare books in history, an opportunity that in fact extended to every sphere of the antiques and fine arts market. Buyers with deep pockets could be discriminating in what they bought and hard-nosed about what they paid. The wealth of material also broadened the marketplace, because books were so plentiful and cheap that even an academic salary, carefully applied, could build a major collection in some fields. A wealth of supply always broadens a market, while a dearth constricts it.

What changed the market was institutional acquisition. The 1950s and ’60s saw explosive growth of major libraries, mainly in the United States. Huge research libraries, notably at such schools as the University of Texas and the University of Illinois, were created in a remarkably short period of time by wholesale methods. It was easier to buy whole private collections and sort out duplicates later, than to acquire book by book. The gifts of major private collections to universities added to the speed of this rearrangement of resources. Within twenty years, a vast number of books had been absorbed into institutions and the first twinges of scarcity began to be seriously felt. As a well-known dealer of the period, Richard Wormser, noted at the height of the institutional market, "Rare books are becoming scarce."

The best contemporary reviews of the rare book market in the 1960s and ’70s were made by the late scholar, collector, and long-time president of the Guggenheim Foundation, Gordon Ray, in his studies, The Changing World of Rare Books, in 1965, and nine years later in 1974, The World of Rare Books Re-examined. These can be found in his posthumous collection of essays, Books as a Way of Life, co-published by The Grolier Club and the Morgan Library. Ray’s essays are a touchstone, which I will refer back to in my discussion of the modern market, because of his acute insider’s view of the period and his quotation of a number of contemporaries. Like him, I have sought opinions from several dozen acquaintances with long experience in the book market; and, like him, I will quote their views anonymously.

In retrospect, 1965 roughly marks the point when the rare book market shifted from a buyer’s to a seller’s market. As one of Ray’s correspondents noted then, "’it only needed a relatively small increase in demand to tip the scale from ‘ample supply’ to ‘extreme unavailability.’" There was, he thought, "a narrow margin between glut and scarcity." While Ray was quick to perceive the role the institutional acquisition binge had played in altering the market, few of his interlocutors saw it that way. They generally blamed the dealers for the unprecedented run-up in prices. One collector demanded a boycott on buying until the thieving dealers saw reason; and another moaned that the very "meaning of value" had been destroyed.

The glory days of the institutions lasted another decade. Their decline as the major consumers of rare books began in the early 1970s, when the successive blows of oil-shock inflation and loss of government funding slowed their growth. In the 1980s, their ability to compete with private collectors was increasingly undermined. By this time, however, most of the rare books of the world had moved into libraries. The float (those rare books in private hands which can be bought and sold) is only a very small part of the pie.

The resulting scarcity of supply is the essential issue in the modern rare book market. Collectors feel that the chance to buy an important rarity may be their last. Dealers wonder how they can replace stock once it is gone. Librarians wonder how they can fund purchases, or if the needs of their institution justify holding a fortune in little used special collections. One of my more neurotic colleagues oscillates like alternating current, depending on his day’s sales, between the conviction that there is no one left who will pay his prices and the fear he won’t be able to buy any more books himself. Everyone feels the limitation of the shortage of material, and reacts accordingly.

* * * * *

A discussion of the modern international rare book and manuscript market must begin by speculating on its actual size. Speculation it must be, because the only reliable figures available from which to compile a total are those published by the auction houses, who release figures either because they are publicly traded or because they voluntarily choose to do so. A number of Continental houses do not advertise their annual sales numbers. There are no publicly held rare book firms, and although a few have multiple owners or are held by employee trusts, the majority are single-owner or family concerns with less than no interest in divulging their finances. The vast majority of the world’s rare book business is conducted in the United States, Great Britain, and Western Europe, with smaller centers in Japan and Australia, but the clientele is truly international.

My estimate of the world rare book market today is an annual sale total of $400-$500 million. I hasten to repeat that this is a guess, although an informed one based on close scrutiny and several decades of almost non-stop gossip. The actual number is not as important as the understanding that, compared to the larger art and antique markets, it is not that big, and in terms of the private capital in the world today, minuscule. If one major art collector eschews Impressionists for books, it is enough to seriously affect the market. Within any specific sub-genre, waves can be generated with much smaller resources. The market of scarcity is a small and easily distorted pool.

Estimating the rise in prices in the rare book market is also a difficult enterprise. When people disagree widely and broadly on what constitutes fair value for something, and there is conflicting or contradictory evidence on which to draw, you have what Wall Street calls an "imperfect market." The rare book market is a very imperfect market because there are literally millions of out-of-print and rare books, and only partial published or cyberspace guides to asked or obtained prices. This is changing rapidly, because of the Internet, but there is certainly no accurate index. Historically, the consistency of prices in the market was supplied primarily by dealers’ memories and their comparative views of value, with some reference to auction records. On common books, this has often created a surprising degree of consensus; but the rarer the piece, the more the price becomes a matter of opinion. Besides individual book prices, while interesting, are no more indicative of the overall market than individual stock prices. The fact that a nice copy of the first edition of the Lewis and Clark expedition has gone up one hundred times since 1965 is really no more informative than knowing that you should have bought Microsoft when it went public. A broader index is needed.

In 1993, I issued a catalogue entitled The Streeter Sale Revisited. Its basis was the auction of the Americana collection of Thomas W. Streeter, which took place at Parke-Bernet Galleries in New York between 1966 and 1969. Streeter was one of the greatest American collectors of the 20th century, and a long-time friend and benefactor of the Yale library. His Texas collection was sold to Yale in 1955 and is one of the pillars of the Western Americana Collection. The sale of his general collection, with 4421 lots, realized $3.1 million, at that point the largest dollar total of any book sale in the United States. At the time, it was viewed as a premier example of the madness of modern prices that Gordon Ray’s correspondents had deplored. But it has proven to be a market baseline rather than a peak, and remains the effective measuring stick of Americana.

My catalogue listed 380 items in my stock of which copies had appeared in the Streeter sale. With about eight percent of the items in the sale, I had a decent statistical sample. Between the mid-point of the sale in 1968, until 1993, my average price was seven times the Streeter price. Over that period, inflation was about four times. Individual items varied radically, from being listed at the same price as Streeter, to 120 times the Streeter price. Some of this variation had to do with the vagaries of the sale itself, but most reflected shifting interest in specific genres and the general increase in rare book prices.

Using the books in my stock in January 1999, I recalculated across the board figures, and found the average book was now priced at ten times the Streeter figure. However, in such strong areas of present-day interest as Pacific voyages or cartography, figures of twenty and thirty times Streeter were not at all uncommon. There are even larger multiples. In April 1999 at Christie’s East the Streeter copy of Samuel Lewis’ 1818 map of the United States sold for $12,650, or 253 times its price of $50 at the Streeter sale. This is all very unscientific, and limited to my own specialty of Americana; but again, the specifics matter less than the overall lesson: the price of rare books in the market has generally continued to rise sharply, and no one today would suggest that a boycott could stop it.

A chance to make a somewhat more scientific analysis of the market came in May 1999, with the sale of the library of Dr. Frank T. Siebert, long known as one of the great specialist collectors of Americana. Siebert’s collection is certainly the greatest group of Americana to be sold at auction since Streeter, and not surprisingly many of the same titles appear in each. The similarity of circumstances and materials make the comparison a particularly apt one. Both were landmark auctions of notable collections staged in periods when the economy was strong and the mood of the market was optimistic.

Of the 548 lots in the Siebert sale at Sotheby’s on May 21, 1999, seventy-one were titles which also appeared in the Streeter sale, and which were essentially similar (I eliminated from the sample books lacking maps or which had elements that made them unfair comparisons). In the Streeter sale these realized $70,200. At Siebert, the same books went for $1,136,490, or 16.19 times the Streeter prices. Individual items ranged from one book that sold for slightly less than its price at Streeter to 109 times the Streeter price, for Joseph Howard’s map of Ohio published in Delaware, Ohio in 1824, $70 at Streeter, $8625 at Siebert.

Looking at the seventy-one items at the Siebert sale, one is immediately struck that half of the value was realized by four books, all of which are famous rarities and monuments of colonial cartography. They had been four of the five most expensive books in the Streeter sample. These were John Smith’s Description of New England, $5500 at Streeter and $211,500 at Siebert, both copies notable for having the nearly impossible to obtain first state of the Smith map of New England; the famous Popple map of British North America of 1733, $5250 at Streeter and $112,500 at Siebert; the 1632 collected edition of Champlain’s Voyages, $2700 at Streeter and $134,500 at Siebert; and the 1755 Lewis Evans map of British North America printed in Philadelphia and accompanying pamphlet, $2400 at Streeter and $112,500 at Siebert. These four stellar pieces totaled $15,850 at Streeter and an extraordinary $571,000 at Siebert, or thirty-six times the Streeter price.

If we take the remaining sixty-seven items in the sample, the Streeter cost was $54,350 against a Siebert cost of $565,490, a growth of 10.4 times across a broad range of material which I think accurately reflects the general market. The most expensive single item of the group at Streeter was Philip Vincent’s 1638 pamphlet on the Pequot War. At Siebert it went to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum for $46,000, or seven times Streeter. Some Streeter books, in retrospect, went so strongly at that sale that it was hard for them to achieve a large multiple at Siebert: Josselyn’s account of New England was overpriced at Streeter at $4250, but on the money at Siebert at $12,650. Of course, this went the other way, such as Hubbard’s History of the War in New England of 1676, cheap at Streeter at $1100 and on the money at Siebert at $40,250. Across the sample these average out, and many of the items fall in the 10:1 or 11:1 ratio, which matches the overall figures with the great rarities removed.

As much as these multiples may seem like huge jumps forward, they are not necessarily that large in terms of other indexes of asset growth or, to take a contemporary buzz term, "asset inflation." Compared to some areas of art and antiques, and many areas of real estate, there is nothing out of the ordinary in the growth of book prices. No one would be surprised if I told them a piece of prime Hamptons real estate was worth thirty-six times what was asked in 1966. Indeed, if we look further back, to the 1920s, there was much closer parity between the rare book and fine arts markets than there has been in the post-World War II era. In this sense, there is a good argument that rare books as a class have been undervalued and out of favor, and that some of the leaps forward of recent times reflect new buyers recognizing this and restoring books to something like their old position in the overall framework of value.

* * * *

When Ray reviewed the role of institutions in 1974, the first cracks were appearing in their dominance of the rare book marketplace, and it was generally conceded that they had steadily lost ground from 1970 on. Nonetheless, his survey of leading dealers placed institutional purchasing at roughly 40% of the market. This was already a significant decline from some of his 1965 figures, which had suggested that libraries accounted for 60% at that time. Today, the role of institutional buying has sunk dramatically. One leading dealer described it to me as "diminished almost to non-existent" for his firm, while another reported it accounted for only 5% of sales. Both of these dealers are carriage-trade generalists, and so have stocks less suited, perhaps, to institutional buying. Specialist dealers probably have a larger percentage of institutional business, but even here the level seems to be 15% plus or minus, the level at which I find myself in Americana. In a few instances, private angels for specific collections have allowed a few institutions to compete beyond their own means. Without such support, sometimes dramatically summoned for a specific icon such as the Declaration of Independence by Williams College, and later by the Morgan Library, virtually all of the institutional buyers would be shut out of the top end of the market entirely.

What happened? The first blow was the loss of federal funding for retrospective book purchases, which greatly enhanced budgets until such programs ended during the Ford administration. The soaring cost of maintaining physical plants and the inroads of inflation through the early 1980s lost ground which was never recovered. Rare book purchases were an easy line item to trim from a budget. For many institutions, straitened finances revealed an essential lack of faith in the role of special collection, or a belief that their potential function was better served in alternative formats such as microfilm or CDs. The decline in institutional buying stems from a three-fold loss: decline in funds available to buy, the acceleration of the market away from remaining funding, and a smaller pool of libraries participating in the market at all.

The ability of institutions to attract gifts of books from private donors has also declined. Changing tax laws are the foremost reason for this. From the 1930s through the 1970s, the marginal tax rate stood at 90% and then 70%. Given the enormous capital appreciation many collectors of this era had in their collections, and the tax bracket major donors found themselves in, the gift of a collection had immense tax advantages. The new tax structure of the Reagan years onward made such gifts far less appealing, although the retention of a 28% capital gain rate on the sale of "collectibles" — that horrible word — encourages possible gifts slightly. The post-Nixon Papers revision of the laws governing the deductibility of personal papers was another blow. Prior to 1976, writers had substantial incentives to donate their personal archives to libraries. After the change in the law, they could only deduct the cost of paper and materials. The effect has been to radically diminish the number of archives given, and has often caused them to be broken up in the market.

Another reason for declining gifts has to do with the cost of books to private buyers. Many collectors today are forced to think of their books as capital assets, not because of an investment strategy, but because of their sheer price. It may be much harder for them to reconcile the gift of a collection which represents a significant asset with estate planning for their heirs. The frequently stated view that many modern collectors are simply investors must be weighed against their outlay.

Friends groups are not a new idea in the library world, and to a degree they have subsidized collection growth. In recent years, several libraries, notably the Library of Congress and the Huntington Library, have created super-friends groups with the specific goal of funding major acquisitions. These are distinctly different than the tiers of "friends" created by such institutions as The New York Public Library for massive campaigns aimed at bricks and mortar or endowment funding. While the Library of Congress and the Huntington programs seem to work well, both have ceded part of the decision-making process on what to buy to the donors, who sometimes have a magpie-like fascination with large shiny objects over substantive texts, the same preference for high spots which dominates the private market.

Although institutional buying has slowed tremendously, and more and more libraries are deaccessioning duplicates or what they deem "out of scope" materials, the net flow of books and manuscripts into permanent homes is still slightly positive, and so their participation continues to reduce the float in private hands. However, there are few libraries that are major forces in the acquisition of material. I doubt there are ten institutions in the United States today spending a million dollars a year on rare book and manuscript acquisitions from budgeted funds. In the rare book market of today, the once dominant institutions are only sporadically able to compete with the private market.

The decline of this portion of the market has affected some areas of books much more than others. Since they are building on existing collections and often aiming at comprehensive holdings in a particular field, libraries are equally interested in the obscure and the ephemeral as the famous standard works. This tended to keep prices more uniform, and encouraged the rise of the specialist dealers, who built stocks and careers filling in the gaps. Some of this esoterica has now returned to its historic state of unsalability, as the private market focuses on the more famous titles.

A more subtle aspect of the shifting market structure is its effect on the book trade. There was no easier time to enter the book business than the 1950s and ’60s, because it was far easier to establish oneself with institutions as customers. They were essentially democratic in their buying, and their addresses and wants were readily obtainable. A bookseller could enter the business without the background of working for an older firm, and sell mainly to libraries while building up an acquaintance with collectors. It takes time to develop the stature and reputation that leads to strong private customers. The loss of these public consumers has raised another barrier to entry into the book trade, whose preceding generation came of age in the institutional heyday.

* * * * *

It is collectors, then, who have come to dominate the modern rare book market. Who are the collectors of today? Almost uniformly, my correspondents among dealers, librarians and collectors shared the same view. All felt there were more collectors, but that the majority of them were casual in their approach, without "staying power," as one dealer put it, and with a tendency to collect high spots and not attack subjects in detail, which was seen as the hallmark of an older school of collecting. One auctioneer wrote, "There are ‘more’ new collectors in my view. The majority of new collectors entering the market appear to be chasing the same books in their chosen area of specialization (‘nifty fifty’ titles). New collectors taking the ‘in depth’ approach are very rare in themselves." A librarian saw "two distinct generations. The older (sixty-five and over) tend to be better educated, more disciplined, more focused, more serious, less given to regarding books as (re)salable commodities."

These remarks have to be taken with a grain of salt, I think. In 1974, seeing the tide turning in favor of the collector, Ray was concerned with the supposed invasion of the market by "investors," the same generation now viewed as the tried and true veterans. In fact, the book market, like every area of antiques and art, has always had its speculators, its high-spot buyers, and its flashes in the pan who joined the fray for a few years and then went on to other things. It has also had its Jay Gatsbys, who liked the look of a room full of books more than the books themselves. I recommend Edwin Wolf’s biography of the great bookseller, Dr. Rosenbach, to anyone who thinks there was a golden age of knowledgeable, scholarly collectors with no investors, high spot fanciers, or imperious moguls to keep them company.

Having said this, I think there is much truth in my colleagues’ view of the high end of the present market. The focus on high spots is undeniable. The major Printing and the Mind of Man titles, the key books in every field from science and medicine to Americana, the large color plate books and atlases, have leapt far ahead of the rest of the market. Furthermore, these books are far more salable for both dealers and auctions. They don’t stay in stock. Price, when it comes to a prime example of a major book of this sort, is less and less of an issue. An important modern collector commented, "Big money will pay any price for something they want."

If I drew a profile of the major collector who drives this market, it would be this: First of all, well educated and very bright, although seldom specifically knowledgeable in his or her collecting field. Second, an entrepreneur, often someone who has made a great deal of money either through creating a company or in finance. Third, an extremely busy person, who is fitting collecting activities in between hard-driving business. Fourth, someone who does not necessarily look on their collecting purchases as an investment, but who is extremely conscious of the market and comparative values, and does view the books they buy as a capital asset. Fifth, as a net result, a quick study who can be convinced to go after a major piece but cannot afford the time to become deeply involved in the details of a field; or, as one dealer put it to me, "rich and cultured but no longer passionate."

Time to work at collecting seems a key element here, and of course, this is what all of us have the least of in the modern world. I know one major collector who budgets several hours one morning a week to review his collecting activities with his curator. How can one become deeply engaged on such a schedule? Collecting is (or can be) a very time consuming thing to do. It takes time to read books, look at books, and think about books, and as we all know, "book openeth book." Without the investment of time and involvement, the gravitation to high spots is not surprising. To quote another dealer, "Much of what is out there to be bought requires more time and knowledge than most current collectors want to devote. People all seem in such a hurry."

In the 1980s, the art market was a scene of public and flamboyant excess in collecting, followed by a dramatic crash and burn in the recession at the end of the decade. The fine and decorative arts markets are quite healthy now, but they contend with the same issues of scarcity of the best material. They market in contemporary art has never recovered the roaring character of a decade ago. The ’90s have been characterized by less showy and more sophisticated pleasures, including book collecting, which I think has generally enjoyed a revival in interest compared with other possible outlets for the collecting urge. No doubt some have sensed more intrinsic value in rare books than modern art. Those who collect books today might well have chosen paintings as a theme to pursue a decade ago. This has brought some very wealthy people into the high end of the book market.

Because of this, I think, some of the attitudes of the art market have come with them. The concept of the masterpiece, of a collection as a series of dramatic statements, is intimately connected with the high-spot urge. The contextuality of the old in-depth style collection is far less fashionable than the diverse juxtaposition of memorable sound-bites. One well known mogul to whom I was showing an extremely expensive book told me he would buy it if I could explain its importance in twenty-five words or less. I made it in twelve, but not because there wasn’t a great deal more to say. Another said that he wanted to collect items he could show to his friends that involved historical figures they had heard about, and so could appreciate. This is indeed book collecting as art collecting, a series of objects to be viewed and discussed.

I don’t have the slightest problem with people collecting exactly what they want. It is a voluntary activity and the collector’s money. But I do believe that a collection of books in context is greater than the sum of the parts, and that there is a good deal of pleasure to be gained from the exercise of putting such a collection together. In my experience, there are many book collectors who operate on these principles to the extent they can afford. I do not think that the high spot mania is universal, but the intensive collector is becoming rarer. Another dealer commented, "It seems that the definitive, in-depth collection is on its way out. Collecting a single author’s complete works and ephemera has been replaced, to a great extent, by focusing on the key one hundred books or so in each field."

Increasingly, the rare book market seems two-tiered: the world of major trophy books, famous authors and famous titles; and the remainder of the market. There are certainly collectors with a foot in both camps, and as a prominent bookseller reminded me, collectors are as diverse as those selling books. Thoughtfulness and intelligence can be found at every level. The difference now is that, given the relatively small pool of the market and the immense wealth generated in the world in the ’90s, it only takes a few new buyers with sums moderate in the terms of the art market, to turn the little old book market on its head. A man with a million dollars a year to spend will not make any real impression in the painting world, but in the book market such a sum will command a great deal of respect. Aim to spend ten million a year (one medium size Impressionist) and the buyer in a hurry is almost necessarily limited to grand books and high spots in order to spend the money.

* * * * *

Let us turn to the sellers of books.

I believe that the dominant factor in setting the pace and style of the modern market has been the auction houses, primarily the two largest, Christie’s and Sotheby’s. By my guesstimates, the auction markets in rare books are a quarter or less of the total market, but the impact of the two major houses on the high end of the market, and its tone, have been greater than their actual market share.

Auctions have always played a significant role in the rare book market, traditionally this was largely as a wholesaler to the trade. Even sales aimed more directly at a retail market (generally dispersals of well known individual collections) were dominated by booksellers bidding for customers. Auction catalogues typically provided a minimum of information, and no estimates of value, requiring all but the most knowledgeable bidders to seek professional advice on their bids. While acknowledging their role in a general way, Gordon Ray found auctions such a small factor in shaping the book world that he devoted only a paragraph to them in the one hundred pages of his 1965 and 1974 overviews. At that time, Sotheby’s was still Parke-Bernet Galleries and holding frequent shelf sales of books, mainly aimed at the trade, in their old Madison Avenue premises, while Christie’s had yet to establish an American operation.

The last twenty-five years have seen sweeping changes in the auction world that have radically affected all antiques markets. In a nut shell, the big houses have decided to go retail and aim their wares directly at collectors, rather than working through dealers as essentially wholesale operations. Many observers see the crucial moment in this history as the 1983 purchase of Sotheby’s by shopping mall magnate Alfred Taubman, and the subsequent application of modern marketing techniques to a business that had been financially moribund. Equally important was the decision to begin publishing estimates, thus providing a guide of sorts to non-professionals and encouraging direct collector bidding, and the imposition of the buyer’s premium, originally 10% and now 15% on lots up to $50,000, on the buyer. The premium allowed the houses to charge the seller a smaller commission on the nominal sale, or "hammer," price, giving the houses more room to compete with booksellers who were trying to buy collections privately. In the words of a veteran auctioneer, "As sellers, they are aiming to retail their wares, by-passing the dealers, with elaborate and puffed-up descriptions, often with unrealistically high pre-sale estimates. In many instances nowadays they take a capital position in the articles they offer for sale and they are willing to bankroll potential purchasers."

The intense struggle between Sotheby’s and Christie’s for the top of the auction market has developed two extraordinary marketing machines, moving in lockstep to counter each other’s innovations. Their multi-million dollar promotional efforts make it common for major properties to take a world tour, moving from views in Los Angeles, Tokyo, and London to a New York sale. The elaborateness and presentation of their catalogues exceeds that of all but a few dealers. An important sale can immediately command major media attention. There are no dealers who can compete with this kind of marketing muscle.

Ironically, within the houses, one of which began in the 18th century as a book auction firm, the book departments are the odd parties out. Nowadays, the economics of Sotheby’s and Christie’s are geared to big individual lots. The rainmakers of both are Impressionist paintings, where one important canvas can make more money in a minute than all the book sales for the year, and jewelry, which compacts great value in a small space. The new owner of Christie’s, who made his fortune in managing productivity per square foot in his French department stores, is as aware of these formulae as those who remade Sotheby’s. It is significant that both houses, in the United States, are run by former chief financial officers who built their reputations on controlling the bottom line, not by experts in the wares for sale, as in the past.

The major houses want to sell items with a minimum value of $5000 per lot. In the book market, this immediately excludes the vast majority of medium range rare books, those priced from $250 to $5000. It places an emphasis on the promotion of high spots and the kind of colorful, visually appealing material that most readily crosses the line with the art markets, or on well-known authors and titles. Even with this sort of material, the labor intensive, space intensive needs of the book departments puts them at a disadvantage within the organization. Neither major house could ever abandon books and manuscripts, of course, even if they failed to be cost effective, because that would cede a whole genre to the rival, and the ability to handle an entire estate may be the key to more profitable consignments. For example, at the sale of Mrs. John Hay Whitney’s estate in April, there were over 150 book lots, and about 1400 lots in all; but two paintings, a Seurat and a Cezanne, were estimated at $25 to $35 million each, and the Cezanne realized $60 million. For such plums, both houses will gladly handle whole house loads of comparative knick-knacks.

The success of the major houses in pumping up the high end of the market is undeniable, and to veteran dealers like myself, often disconcerting. Illogical as it may seem, experience shows repeatedly that buyers will pay prices at auction that they will refuse to pay in cold blood, so to speak, from a dealer’s stock. Whether it is the excitement of the chase, the feeling that a bargain may be had (and there are bargains at times), the impression that auctions represent some form of "perfect market," or simply the advertising muscle that gets the most competitors into one arena, the auction markets in recent times have produced some unaccountable results. In the end, it only takes a few bidders to make a horse race. The Peter Hopkirk sale of Asian travel, held by Sotheby’s in the fall of 1998, was a case in point. The single owner sale of a popular author who collected in his field of authority was, as ever, a good starting point. The sale became a battle between three bidders who virtually shut out all others in the sale room, paying prices that were frequently multiples of the copies available in the trade. Two of the bidders had never bought from dealers, and one of them rejected advances by dealers after the sale, stating that he bought only at auctions because he knew he was paying the "right" price.

The Hopkirk sale is perhaps an extreme example, and naturally the auction magic does not always work. In general, however, the major houses have put the dealers on the defensive, especially at the high end of the market, and to a large degree have defined the high end. This is true in every area of art and antiques. They have helped to expand the market, but they have also contributed to its narrowing and increased focus on high spots and trophy books in general.

* * * * *

The book trade, the traditional supplier of rare books, has also evolved.

In 1965 and again in 1974, Gordon Ray was struck by the degree to which the affluence and prestige of the trade had increased after the long drought of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. He attributed this to the rise in prices, the general affluence of the market, and the degree to which increased scarcity had "put dealers in the driver’s seat." He also noted the decline of the general antiquarian store in favor of specialists, and the rise of the book fair, a new phenomenon at the time.

In many respects, the trends noted by Ray have continued. If anything, to judge by the professional trade organizations and the tone of the larger book fairs, at least as many people are making a decent career in the antiquarian book business as ever did. The leading dealers are certainly doing far better than that, both in terms of income and the growth of their capital investments in their inventories. But it would be inaccurate to view even the top of the trade as "in the driver’s seat." Looking over one shoulder at the scarcity of supply and another at the competition of the auction houses, and struggling to come to grips with the potentials and pitfalls of the Internet, I cannot think of any of my colleagues who feel complacent about their situation.

The trend from generalist open stores to specialists, often operating from their homes or by appointment, has now reached a point where there are virtually no generalists left. Everyone agrees this is a loss and a pity. The access to browsing amidst a large general stock of antiquarian books was a traditional beginning point for many book collectors. One could get a feeling for different fields, comparative ideas of price and condition, and a general sense of the way the book world worked without any real outlay of cash. One by one, such stores have closed, the victims of urban deterioration, high rents, staffing costs, and the difficulty of obtaining stock. Their departure has made it far more difficult for beginning collectors to find a foothold in the market. This is another reason for turning to auctions, where large and diverse groups of books can be viewed in what is now a retail setting.

Most antiquarian booksellers are now specialists to some degree. Typically, they have not had open shops, but have aimed at a national or international market by catalogue or personal contact. The era of institutional domination did much to foster this transition, but it has remained the most effective way for most booksellers to operate. In an imperfect market, knowledge is both power and money, and specialization allows a dealer to become the master of some domain, no matter how small, that they may know as well as or better than anyone else. It also concentrates the investment in a reference collection and inventory. The up side of this evolution is that a good specialist dealer can bring unprecedented levels of skill and expertise to their topic. The down side is the difficulty of connecting with the potential buyers, or for the nascent customer to attain the confidence level in the dealer that grows from personal contact. It requires that the buyers already know to some degree what they want.

Book fairs sought to solve this problem, by providing a forum where collectors, librarians and dealers could meet, become acquainted, and hopefully do business. Certainly the concept has grown in popularity. From two large and several small fairs a year in 1974, the enterprising attendee could now visit at least one fair per weekend, featuring as many as the 250 exhibitors at the last San Francisco book fair. Fairs are now an integral part of the business, although few large dealers report them accounting for any significant part of their annual sales. For many dealers, they are at least as much a buying opportunity as a place to make sales, and attendance at the smaller regional fairs a more effective form of book scouting than trying to visit a number of booksellers in their homes and shops. The impact and excitement of fairs, however, has certainly been diluted by their ubiquity. The New York book fair in its early days was an event with a capital "E," with a sense that everybody who was anybody in the rare book world was there. It is still an event, and the best such in the world, but there is little opening night glamour to it. On the lower end of the circuit, especially the Provincial Booksellers’ fairs in England, many dealers simply move the same stock from venue to venue, and the attendance at several in succession leaves the visitor with an odd sense of déjà vu.

The paramount problem for most of the trade is inventory: how to find it, how to buy it, how to fund it. These days the right kinds of books sell themselves, especially if they fit the high spot profile. The most difficult aspect of the book business is buying good material at a price that leaves some room for profit. Equally crucial is paying for it. The rare book business is capital intensive. It takes a significant sum of money to build and maintain a large inventory, and most booksellers are badly under-funded. This has always been true to some extent, but the trade is more stratified than ever between the well-capitalized dealers and those who are not.

The cost of building a large inventory has made it harder for young persons to enter the trade. For decades, there has been concern about where the next generation of booksellers will come from. The answer, increasingly, has not been youngsters coming up in the business, but either collectors turning their hobby into an occupation, or persons in middle age entering bookselling as a second career. Both types are more likely to have some capital, but neither are they best suited to insure the continuity of knowledge and tradition that the trade, happily, has still managed to maintain. Having myself started in the business at nineteen, I am deeply conscious of the privilege I had in knowing elder statesmen in the trade whose memories went back to the period of the First World War, and who had known those who preceded them in the late 19th century. Certainly, there are few rare book dealers under forty, and it seems to me entry into the trade has become comparatively more difficult every year since I began selling books in 1975.

Overall, I believe that the rare book trade is healthy, with a broad range of talents and levels, and with a predominance of leading dealers who are still in mid-career. But pressures of supply, competition from the auctions, and capital needs press in and there is little room for complacency.

* * * * *

Finally, I turn to the new frontier of bookselling, the Internet. The potentials and pitfalls of online bookselling and auctions are closely tied to the future of the rare book market. Much has happened already, although the eventual impact of these new markets is still a matter of speculation.

Much of the antiquarian book world embraced computers a long time ago, and the ability to catalogue and arrange a book inventory in a database was a huge step in efficiency. This, and the use of online union catalogues such as the ESTC, made the trade much more prepared to leap with both feet into online selling. No area of the antiques or fine arts business has moved as swiftly to use the Internet as the rare book business.

I think the Internet has been a tremendous boon to the out-of-print and less expensive end of the antiquarian trade. In fact, it has remade those businesses. In the past, the hardest thing to find was an out-of-print but inexpensive book, because it was not worth anyone’s time to look for it. Likewise, the general out-of-print shops suffered from the same malaise that killed the urban general antiquarian business. The online revolution has revitalized many businesses and opened a whole new potential market for rare books.

Last summer I was returning from looking at a book collection in northern Vermont and stopped to see a used book dealer in a small resort town in mid-state. He was busily loading his stock onto one of the online services. In the past, he told me, his store had been barely viable, and virtually dead except for the two months’ windows in summer and winter when the resort was in season. Now he was making fifty sales a day on the Internet, was always busy, and could expand and prosper, while living where he chose in rural Vermont. The Internet had not hurt his open store, it had saved it.

Virtually every bookseller I have talked to has been pleased with their Internet sales. For many, it has been a means of moving almost forgotten inventory, although not without hidden cost in staff time. A major West Coast dealer wrote to me, "We’ve had our stock up for less than a year, but it already represents 50% of our invoices. However, these receipts total less than 5% of our gross sales; an interesting comparison. There is a lot more work involved than it appears in answering the various queries—it has helped us clear out a lot of old stock, a lot of odd-ball, very specific pieces." Similar comments came from others. The Internet has unquestionably added immensely to the liquidity of the market, moving millions of items from static stock. It has also greatly enhanced the ability of booksellers to connect with customers, especially valuable to the specialists without stores.

Another potential benefit of the Internet is the possibility of acquainting millions of people with the very existence of the out-of-print and rare book markets. Certainly, only a limited number of these will ever participate, but for those that do, the online listings may operate as a single vast generalized antiquarian store. The degree of success of this market so far, as well as the growth of the new book market via Amazon.com and the superstore book chains, can only be heartening to those who value books and literacy. Whether this sense of an expanding market carries into the more expensive antiquarian market remains to be seen. I hear anecdotes of single sales of upper range material, but the vast bulk of transactions are unquestionably in the $500 and under range. My feeling is that the higher end of the market will always require personal contact and the confidence of the buyer in the expertise of the seller. Contacts may be made on-line, but major sales will only come with cultivation.

One aspect of the Internet explosion, and the online listing of millions of books in a few sources, has been to create a far larger source of pricing information than has ever previously existed. The effect of this on the highly imperfect book market will be enormous. Buyers can easily comparison shop, and sellers can deliberately undersell other listings. The individual dealer operating from home will here have the advantage over larger firms with payrolls, rents, and other overhead. Vastly more part-time booksellers will operate on the marginal edge of the business. The result will be an increasingly perfect market on the lower end. To what degree this will affect more expensive books is hard to say. Many dealers do not list the top material in their stock in order to protect their cataloguing information and their prices asked. The Internet is a two-way street, and controlling information will become as important as posting it as the market evolves.

The greatest unknown is the impact of online auctions. Books appear with regularity on eBay, often misdescribed and uncollated. The advent of the amateur bookseller will bring its share of confusion. Sotheby’s promises to launch their first online book sale, after many delays, in January 2000, but is limiting the sellers to an invited group of established dealers. The trade seems deeply divided in their opinions on whether this is a great opportunity or yet another way for the auction houses to do in the dealers. Only actual experience will begin to show us the direction these sales will take. We should remember that playing around with online auctions is time consuming for buyers, too. eBay has already developed a group of junkies who treat it as a giant, endless yard sale.

The Internet and its potentials certainly represent an important aspect of the future of the rare book market, a future that seems inevitably more fast-paced and more competitive. Once again, fewer books are being pursued more quickly by more people. To many of us, this may seem the antithesis of what we seek in the world of rare books.

* * * * *

Let me summarize the market today as I have reviewed it. The dominant theme is the scarcity of material, which has led to ever-sharpening competition, especially for the best pieces. The institutional buyers who led the market from 1945 to 1975 have been largely displaced over the last quarter century by the resurgence of private collectors, who now command the vast majority of the market. This shift, and the changing tastes of the collectors at the top end, have advanced the prices of the best known "high spot" books far more rapidly than the rest of the market, as private buyers tend to focus on a narrower spectrum of material. Changing fashions in collecting have been influenced by the style and nature of the auction houses, who have become important retail outlets over the last twenty years. Their activity, particularly the two major houses, has threatened the traditional role of dealers as vendors and advisors to the collectors who are now the heart of the market. Dealers, in their turn, have generally chosen to concentrate their talents in specialties, where they still possess more knowledge than the rest of the market, and have embraced technology and the Internet to make themselves more efficient and broaden their customer base. All parties are embarking, with gusto or trepidation, on the wide new world of the Internet, whose potential to alter and evolve the rare book market is vast. The traditional market place in rare books is a rapidly changing world.

Amid this swift-paced scene, however, I still find that the elements which drew me to rare books in the first place remain with us. There are vast areas to explore, fields still comparatively undervalued, and great pleasure to be had in assembling a group of related books and learning from their text and format. The rare book market continues to thrive, despite less material, higher prices, and a more competitive world for all concerned. All of us who love the world of books must hope it can continue to do so.

 

— Copyright William Reese 2011 —


 

 

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