Auction Prices for Books and Paper Dipped by 1% in 2017

- by Michael Stillman

Prices at auction for lots in the books and paper field took a modest dip in 2017. The median price slipped from $270 to $267, or 1.1%. It nearly wiped out last year's almost as modest 1.5% increase. On the other hand, the average price dropped more sharply, from $2,011 to $1,859, but this is not a very meaningful figure. It takes only one or two books at several millions to greatly skew the average price, and 2017 was a year without any blockbuster sales.

The number of lots sold at auction increased by 5.8% last year. There were 312,154 lots we tracked sold in 2017, vs. 295,143 in 2016. That is an increase of about 17,000 lots sold. Around 12,000 more lots were offered, indicating an increase in the sell-through rate as well. The sales rate for 2017 was 74.7%, vs. 72.7% the previous year. A 2% increase in the sell-through rate is substantial, and perhaps the small decrease in the median price reflects a willingness to take a little less to make a sale.

The percentage of books sold by price range was identical to 2016. Once again, 24% of the lots were priced below $100, 79% below $1,000. At the other end, 21% were above $1,000, 6% above $5,000, and 3% above $10,000.

The ratio of lots sold over the high estimate to lots sold below the low estimate was almost unchanged. A total of 58% of the lots sold went for more than the high estimate, while only 24% sold for under the low estimate. However, if you add lots unsold to the ones sold below the low estimate, the numbers are virtually identical. There were 179,958 lots that sold either below the low estimate or not at all, and 179,920 that sold above the high estimate. That is 44% of all lots offered for each, leaving 12% that were priced correctly!

The fourth quarter of the year has traditionally been the busiest time of year, though in 2016, the second quarter matched the fourth in terms of lots offered. In 2017, the auction houses reverted to form, with 34.3% of all lots offered in the fourth quarter vs. 28.9% in the second quarter. That was just as well as the sell-through rate was 74.9% for the fourth quarter vs. only 70.8% for the second quarter. As is usually the case, November was the busiest month. There were 56,656 lots offered, or 13.6% of the lots offered for the year. Sell-through was a robust 77%. August was again the slowest month, with just 17,676 lots offered, or only 4.2% of the total. However, the sell-through rate for August was the highest of the year at 80%. That is a surprise considering most people are expected to be on vacation.

Again following form, the highest median prices were achieved at the various branches of Sotheby's and Christie's. Highest overall, at an even $10,000, was the New York branch of Sotheby's. However, if prices at that level are a bit rich for the average buyer, there were 11 auction houses that offered more than 1,000 lots where the median was under $100. For the lowest of the low, check out the sales at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society. They won't break your budget, with a median of $12. In other words, half of their sold items went for less than $12. 98% sold for under $100. As for volume of lots sold, the runaway leader is Heritage Auctions' Dallas location. They sold 92,718 lots. The distant runner up was Kiefer Buch of Germany with 10,459.

Last month, we reported on the top 500 most expensive lots sold at auction in 2017. That report can be found by clicking here.