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Corrections, Feedback, and other Items of Interest

Editor’s Note: Our report on the “Books in Hard Times” conference (published in the October compendium) had a lot of ground to cover. Because these issues are so important for collectors and dealers, we asked Priscilla Juvelis if we could publish her speech. Luckily, she agreed, and the Grolier Club also gave us permission to use the text.

Neither Here nor There, or, What About Book Arts?

I want to talk about one aspect of the rare book market—that of contemporary book arts—in which I have some experience, and a great deal of enthusiasm. It affords a look into a market that doesn’t fit the guidelines laid down for most areas of antiquarian bookselling. So when I refer to the book market, the reference will be to my own experiences (I won’t even try to speak for anyone else) in the field of contemporary book arts. Unlike most of my colleagues in the ABAA, when I publish a catalog in this area, I can and do take multiple orders for most books, unless they are one-off artist’s books. In complete contrast to my colleagues, the secondary market is not something that plays a huge part in my business. While my colleagues don’t usually deal with living authors and artists, I do. Contemporary book arts don’t often appear at auction until twenty-plus years after publication; and Internet book listings don’t play a great part in pricing. That is, while other dealers may list the same titles that I do, the prices are uniform. This leads the customer to question why he or she should purchase from one bookseller instead of another, or even approach the artist directly (IF that is an option, and it’s a big IF), when the books are the same and the price is the same. I’m not sure what the answer to that question is, but if I introduce a customer to an artist or press, I hope that purchases of that artist or press will go through me.

I’ve found that today’s recession market means one has to work twice as hard to sell half as many books. There aren’t many other options, short of closing up shop and re-entering when the economy is stronger—hardly a viable option.

Anyway, I know how to do this, since I’ve done it before. In 1989-91, when the last big recession had the world economy in its grip, the rare book market took a hit, as did the rest of the art world. However, the toll taken in the area of contemporary art seemed to be the largest. In the same year several mega-collectors dropped out of the contemporary art market as the economy tanked, and the result was devastating. The world of the traditional livre de peintre suffered also, but not nearly to the same extent. For example, Matisse’s Jazz, which brought around $30,000 at auction in the early 1980s, quickly rose to around $100,000 by 1988, but then didn’t rise again until the late 1990s; the most recent entry for Jazz in American Book Prices Current records a copy in wrappers sold for $250,000 in 2000. More spectacularly, a copy in a designer binding made $429,411 in 2007. It seems that contemporary book arts market of 1991, hard-hit by recession, saw little or no reduction in existing prices. However, books were harder to sell, and fewer new projects appeared, while those that did were more modestly conceived.

In contrast, the contemporary art market has seen a reduction in prices of forty percent in the past year. That figure comes from a September 10 London Financial Times editorial by Jonathan Guthrie. Mr. Guthrie further suggests that any collector considering “entering the fray” as he calls it, should first read The $12 Million Stuffed Shark by economist Dan Thompson. This is Mr. Guthrie’s description of that book: “Professor Thompson sees the contemporary art industry [Guthrie’s choice of the word “industry” is so interesting] as a machine for building brands that help collectors feel good about paying large sums for a pickled elasmobranch.” He then adds, “Were it not excessively expensive, it would not be desirable to collectors.”

Books—especially contemporary book arts—are so far from this stratospheric price range that the lessons learned in one area of collecting simply do not apply to the other, although they are both areas of contemporary art. So, contemporary book arts don’t follow the contemporary art market. Nor, as I have pointed out, are they subject to the same constraints as the antiquarian book market.

Prices of contemporary book arts vary from under $100 to many thousands of dollars depending on the artist and the size of the issue as well as the intricacies of the project. In addition, the price is set by the artist/publisher, and so is a new-book price. That being said, I am often asked by artists, when they offer me a new book, what I think the price should be. These days, I tend to recommend the more modestly-conceived book over the huge effort, except for those few artists who are established and in demand. In those cases, the previously-established prices for those artists, much like auction records for antiquarian books, set the price.

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