Antiquarian Book Auctions, Part 1

Even though I've been an antiquarian bookseller for almost four years and I've purchased some good items for myself and for my customers at auction, I've always been a little bit intimidated by live auctions.

Live auctions seem as if they are fraught with all kinds of peril for the uninitiated: Should I bid higher than I planned just because two or three other bidders in the room (the market?) seem to think this book is worth more than my maximum (the price I thought the market could bear)? Why didn't I examine this book more carefully during the preview? Was it the first printing or the second that has the all-important lithograph map? Even though I can't recall, should I risk it and bid anyway? When I'm caught up in the heat of bidding on an item I simply must have, will I remember that when I purchase a book at auction that the hammer price isn't usually the final price--there is a buyer's premium from the auction house (around 20% at many auction houses) and a fee for shipping and insurance. When that's all added in, is it worthwhile for me to purchase this book for resale?
Live auctions require patient souls and alert minds. Sometimes I've waited for a hundred or more items to be auctioned off before the item in which I'm interested comes to the block. If I'm not careful, I might miss it. You know that I share my mistakes as well as my successes on this blog, so I may as well tell you, I speak from personal experience: Once, during a particularly long auction, I read a book while I waited for "my" item to come up. I should add that when I read I tend to block out the sound of everything around me. This is not necessarily a good thing for book buying. When my item, item 344, came to the block, I was so engrossed in reading that I didn't even notice. It was quickly bought by someone else. I went home empty handed after sitting through over 300 lots of books for sale. Another day in the life of a newish antiquarian bookseller and no new inventory to show for it.

Live auctions also have a psychological component--the possibility of getting caught up in a bidding war and going home with a book that I will end up selling for less than what I paid, the wondering whether the fellow next to me who just rubbed the side of his nose did so as a subtle gesture to the auctioneer that he would like to increase his bid. Oh my goodness--when I fan myself with my auction catalogue (the few auctions I've attended are often in small, warm, cramped quarters) will the auctioneer assume incorrectly that I was bidding? Why don't people just use the paddles they are given for bidding? Why all of the subtle gestures and nods?

And who are all those people calling in bids from a telephone? Why aren't they attending the auction in person? How do they know when their item is coming to the block? Is the other book dealer in the room bidding on behalf of a client or is he really going to pay that price plus the buyer's premium to stock his own inventory?

You can clearly see that I have a lot of neuroses about live auctions. I realize that my assumptions are just that--neuroses--and I've decided that it's time for me to learn more about how auctions work so that I feel more at ease in attending them. Fortunately, the perfect opportunity for me (and for you) to learn more about auctions has come along.

On December 2, Bonhams is holding an auction in New York (simulcast in San Francisco) called: The American Experience: 1630-1890. The auction features a truly exciting collection of Americana, assembled by Bruce McKinney of Americana Exchange.

Aside from the fact that the material offered at this auction is top-notch and sure to generate interest, the seller, Bruce McKinney, has done some very innovative things to create transparency about the auction process. This is a godsend to those who are either new to book collecting or who, like me, experience angst over the dynamics of auctions.

According to McKinney, the collection was acquired at auction and from various booksellers piece by piece during the past 20 years. In a move I find refreshing, McKinney has provided for each item, "its acquisition record, if confirmed, thereby providing a then-and-now comparison that is useful, possibly even important, given the economic and technological turmoil of the past few years." The price paid, the date purchased, and the source of the acquisition are provided for each and every item offered for sale.

Secondly, there are no reserves in this auction. The reserve price is the lowest price at which a seller is willing to sell an item. Most auctions have reserves that start at half of the low estimate for an item. An estimate is a range high and low prices, an educated guess, by the auction house, as to what the item might be worth. While each item in The American Experience auction has an estimate, it does not have a reserve. McKinney writes in a brief introduction to the auction catalogue, "Estimates are provided, but these books will each have to find confirmation in the auction room. In every case it will take multiple bidders to move an item along."

Finally, purchasers of property totaling more than $2,500 from this auction may be pre-authorized by Bonhams, the auction house, for extended payment terms. This auction would seem to give an equal chance at owning some wonderful pieces to every bidder.

As McKinney says, "These books are special--that is, highly important and desirable, and have long been appreciated in the marketplace. Even so, valuation fluctuates with the economy and taste. In some sense I'm casting a few blades of grass into the wind to learn which way the wind blows. I do this in the belief that the audience for printed Americana continues to be strong and that these books, armed with a bookplate that commemorates their sale, will prosper in the years ahead. They will go to skilled and motivated collectors who understand both the books and something of my efforts to bring clarity to a field long shrouded in mystery. Some books will greatly exceed expectations; some will sell as 'bargains'; but I believe every acquirer will prosper with them and their inclusion in this sale will be noted and recounted decades hence."

Your homework for tonight is to click over to the Bonhams website and take a look at the catalogue for The American Experience: 1630-1890.

More about auctions soon.

See you in the stacks!