Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2019 Issue

2018 - It Was a Very Good Year (for Books and Paper at Auction)

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An Aristophil sale generated the highest median prices for its seller.

Prices rose sharply at auction in 2018 for collectible books and paper. The median price was up 6% over 2017, reversing a trend of flat to down since 2014. Prices in 2018 were the fifth highest on record. Another 2% increase will be sufficient to take prices above three of those higher years - 2014, 2006, and 2005. However, it will take another 16% to bring them above the skyrocketing prices of 2007, the year before the recession of 2008. Ten years later and there is still ground to make up. That is a reflection of just how serious the recession was. The only longer gap came after the Great Depression. It took prices 20 years to recover to their previous high point in 1927.

 

We do not know how prices fared in private sales as those results are not publicly available. However, these auction numbers should provide some optimism for other booksellers, though some types of books and paper fare better than others. The most collectible material, another way of saying the most expensive material, continues to lead the way. Last month's review of the Top 500 most expensive items at auction revealed that the 500th most expensive item was 22% higher than the previous year, an indication of even greater increases at the top end of the market (click here to see the Top 500 of 2018).

 

Average price was also up, by 4.6% from $1,859 to $1,945. However, this figure is not as accurate a reflection of the overall market as median price, since average price can be distorted by a small number of very expensive items.

 

The number of lots offered and sold at auction also increased substantially in 2018. While increasing reliance on auctions has to some degree reflected a softness in the market the past few years, that was evidently not much of a problem in 2018. For last year, 479,122 lots were offered, while 358,924 were sold. The sell-through rate was 74.9%, up slightly from 74.7% the previous year. Those are strong sell-through numbers, as for most of the post-recession years, the sales percentage ranged from the upper 60s to low 70s. Sell-through percentage was able to inch up despite a 14.6% increase in the number of lots offered. Number of lots sold increased by 15%.

 

Looking at dollar volume of sales, 2018's numbers are even more impressive. They totaled $698,000,000 in 2018, up from $580,000,000 in 2017. That is an increase of 20.3% in dollars spent. The added volume of lots offered in no way discouraged collectors willingness to bid up the prices.

 

The price increases were also reflected in the price ranges. For 2018, 22% of lots sold for under $100 vs. 24% in 2017, 78% below $1,000 vs. 79% in 2017. At the other end, 22% sold for over $1,000 vs. 21% in 2017, while once again 6% were above $5,000, 3% above $10,000.

 

Despite the higher prices, the auction houses still tended to overestimate somewhat in terms of anticipated prices. While 54% achieved prices above the high estimate vs. 27% below the low estimate, that figure is misleading. It's necessary to add those lots that did not sell at all to those that sold below the low estimate to get an accurate picture. This shows that 45% of the lots sold below the low estimate vs. 40% that sold above the high estimate. Last year, the split was an even 44%-44%. The remainder either sold between the high and low estimate or were not estimated.

 

The fourth quarter of the year is generally the most prolific in terms of lots offered, with the second quarter the runner-up. That was again the case this year, with 30% of all lots offered in the fourth quarter, 29% in the second quarter. As usual, August was the slowest month, though May outpaced November this past year for the highest number, a reversal of the normal order. 12.3% of all lots were offered in May, 11.4% in November, while only 5.1% were offered in August, the height of summer vacations.

 

Honors for the highest median prices is usually divvied up between the various branches of Sotheby's and Christie's. This year would have been the same were it not for one exception. Drouot Estimations, not normally known for sales in the paper field, hosted part 5 of the Aristophil sale in June. The Aristophil sale is the outcome of the largest scandal ever seen in the field, an enormous pyramid scheme that bilked investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars. Aristophil was a French enterprise, run by Gérard Lhéritier, aka "the Madoff of Manuscripts." It was like a mutual fund, with 18,000 investors, most small, often putting up life savings, for a promise of a guaranteed 8% per year for five years. He used their money to amass the most amazing collection of autographs and manuscripts imaginable. He purchased several hundred million dollars worth. The problem was, his investors paid over a billion for their shares in them. Lhéritier justified the inflated prices because, by overpaying, investors were pushing up the (perceived) value of their manuscripts. Whenever an investor got cold feet and demanded his money back, Lhéritier paid it with funds received from new investors. Eventually, new funds were insufficient to meet demand, and like all Ponzi schemes, it fell apart. Now the collection is being sold, anticipated for around 15% of what Lhéritier's investors paid, which is still a lot of money, over an estimated 300 sales containing 130,000 manuscripts, in the coming decade. Drouot Estimations offered 96 of these items, of which 30 sold, for a median price of $18,850.

 

Runner-up was Christie's New York at $15,000, followed by Christie's London - South Kensington at $13,219. The other top priced auctions were Sotheby's, Bonhams, the Arader Galleries, and Ketterer Kunst. At the other end of the spectrum, 12 houses had median prices under $100, the lowest being $14 at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society sale, followed by the Alaska Auction at $15. There is still room for collectors of any size budget to enter the field.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>Collection of a Connoisseur:<br>History in Manuscript, Part 2<br>27 April 2021</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Ronald Reagan. Series of 37 letters to Senator George Murphy, and related material, 1968-90. £50,000 to £70,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Chaim Weizmann. Autograph letter signed, to General Sir Gilbert Clayton, 6 September 1918. £20,000 to £30,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Sir Winston Churchill. Autograph letter signed, to Pamela, Lady Lytton, 1942. £20,000 to $30,000.
    <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>Collection of a Connoisseur:<br>History in Manuscript, Part 2<br>27 April 2021</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Oscar Wilde. Five autograph letters signed, to Alsager Vian, 1887. £15,000 to £20,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Napoleon I. Letter signed to Admiral Ganteaume, ordering the invasion of England, 22 August 1805. £10,000 to £15,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Horatio, Viscount Nelson, and Emma Hamilton. Two autograph letter signed, to Catherine and George Matcham, 1805. £6,000 to £8,000.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Frances Palmer, <i>Battle of Buena Vista,</i> chromolithograph, New York, 1847. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, the earliest publication concerned solely with chocolate, first edition, Madrid, 1631. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Romans Bernard, <i>An Exact View of the Late Battle at Charlestown, June 17th, 1775,</i> engraving, 1776. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> <i>A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston,</i> English edition, London, 1770. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> William Soule, <i>Lodge of the Plains Indians,</i> albumen print, 1872. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Manuscript document to enforce New York’s “Agreement of Non-Importation” during the heyday of the Sons of Liberty, New York, 1769. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Clarence Mackenzie, <i>Drummer Boy of the 13th Regiment of Brooklyn,</i> salt print with applied color, 1861. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Moses Lopez, <i>A Lunar Calendar,</i> first Jewish calendar published in America, Newport, RI, 1806. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b><br>The Book of Mormon, first edition, Palmyra, 1830. $30,000 to $40,000.
  • <center><b>Gonnelli Auction House<br>Books and Graphics<br>19th, 20th and 21st April 2021</b>
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 19-21<br>Books from XVI to XX Century</b>
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 20<br>Atlases and Maps</b
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 21<br> Veneto and Venice, a Selection of Books from the XVI to XX century</b>
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 20<br></b>Rossini Gioachino, Baguette de chef d'orchestre appartenuta a Gioachino Rossini, dono del Comune di Passy. 1500 €
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 21<br></b>Manetti Saverio, Storia naturale degli uccelli trattata con metodo. Cinque volumi. 1767. 18.000 €
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 21<br></b>Poe Edgar Allan, Double assassinat dans la rue morgue. Illustrations de Cura. 1946.
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 19-21<br>Books from XVI to XX Century</b>
  • <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 54. Fanciful engraving of earth's interior with magma core and errupting volcanoes (1682). $1500 to $1800.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 165. Rare state of Jefferys' influential map of New England in contemporary color (1755). $8000 to $9500.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 177. Mouzon's foundation map of the Carolinas (1775). $10000 to $13000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 183. Very rare first state of De Fer's map of the Lower Mississippi Valley (1715). $20000 to $25000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 253. Scarce Scottish edition based on Ellicott's plan of Washington, D.C. (1796). $2400 to $3000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 313. Stunning view of Philadelphia by John Bachmann (1850). $3250 to $4250.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 338. Rare Civil War map based on Bucholtz map of Virginia (1862). $9500 to $12000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 667. First map to accurately show Luzon in Philippines (1590). $6000 to $7500.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 682. Rare map of Shanghai International Settlement published just after WWI (1918). $7000 to $9000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 738. Coronelli's superb map of the Pacific showing the Island of California (1697) Est. $2400 - $3000
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 743. A cornerstone piece in the mapping of Australia and New Zealand (1726) Est. $6000 - $7500
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 781. An uncommon signature during Jefferson's Governorship of Virginia (1779) Est. $9500 - $11000

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