Covid19, the economic downturn and resurgence, offer few if any precedents for economists and the book trade to feel comfortable about the future. Certainly the recovery is noticeable, even shocking if uneven. Dealers have a new spring in their steps while auctions have been relying on their teams to work from home while bidders, for most part, have become accustomed to bidding online or by phone. And the outcomes? Bookdealers don’t report sales, but their upbeat attitude is infectious and there’s real interest in the schedule of book fairs. They are looking forward. As to the auctions, their role in the field has expanded as consignments have been filling their schedules with a steady flow of successful events. Not so long ago, the standard for success for auctions was to sell 75% of the lots offered. Over the past year auctions have been selling 82% and the prices have been appealing both for the sellers and buyers. From all this, it appears the field has recovered even as the field has been transformed.
Not so long ago the distinction between dealers and auction houses was very black and white. Dealers list material at set prices and wait for the market to provide a buyer or feedback suggesting their offer is too high. Auctions, by comparison, live on the real time model, organizing sales, writing descriptions and setting estimates and reserves while creating a deadline for bidders to put their paddles up. Dealer prices are generally higher than auction realizations and that’s always been logical. Dealers have their material on hand and can ship immediately while, if you set your heart on something coming up in the rooms, you have to win it against competition. Both models work and there is some evidence that these models will merge.
How so? The major bookselling associations have long looked upon auctions both as suppliers and competitors but collectors are showing an increasing interest for auction determined prices. The ABAA, the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, is currently considering changes in their bylaws to permit members to sell at auction under their own name. As was explained to me by one ABAA member, that change would keep all present selling options and add the ability to sell at auction subject to association regulations. In line with that possibility, the ABAA is currently considering to offer a timed auction option that, because of how they function, can only occur on a single platform. Please think big, not small. Today most auction houses post their sales on multiple platforms because they know they get higher realizations when more folks are bidding. The goal is to achieve the best outcome for ABAA members and the bidding public.
In any event, this will involve merging standard auction rules with the ABAA’s exceptional guarantee and they are very different. Alternatively, guarantees may be included according to how the price is calculated. If purchased on the retail model the guarantee would be in line with current policy, whereas when sold under the auction model the guarantee would be briefer and limited. Think of this as the difference between buying a first class or economy seat.
Auctions will strengthen the dealer model and should be neutral to positive to the show traffic that is the life blood of dealer organizations. But if handled correctly, traffic should increase at shows if the prospective bidder/buyer can look over upcoming lots from many houses when visiting shows. Traffic could surge.
Beyond this, to those in the ABAA leadership who are considering the auction option, it’s necessary to remember that Covid19 has inflicted a higher price on older folks, and some, who previously never bid at auction, have been joining the on-line bidding. Support them by acknowledging your members will be running occasional auctions and that your tens of thousands of customers may feel encouraged to increase their trade. The reality is they are already looking. Such buyers and bidders, while open to new options, no doubt, will continue to be checking their snail-mail for the printed catalogues your dealers have long issued that institutions and collectors have appreciated. They are wanted and needed.
Auctions are not the enemy, they are simply an option.
With spirits high and masks tucked into our pockets, here’s wishing you Have a great holiday season!