ABC’s of Book Collecting: Auctions November 7, 2009 – Tags:


Sales of books by auction go back to the middle ages, although their enhancement by printed catalogues dates from the second half of the 17th century. Traditionally, auctioneers undertake to conduct the sale, charging consigners a percentage of the prices realised for their pains.
In the 1980s British and American houses began to follow European practice by levying a premium (a percentage of the prices realised) from the purchaser, as well as the consigner. Auctions conducted on the internet, notably on eBay, have their own conventions and risks.

The subject may conveniently be divided into four sections; (1) Catalogues, (2) Bidding, (3) Prices, (4) Terminology.

(1) The description of books, MSS., fine bindings, etc., in sale catalogues varies widely in fullness, precision and authority. It was once the case that the dressiest catalogues, unquestionably, were those of the Continental houses, with Paris perhaps the most lavish. But in recent times Sotheby’s and Christie ’s have vied with each other in elaborating, especially for sales of importance or specialised interest, their conscientiously precise, but previously rather tight-lipped, descriptive formula; this is happily preserved in the elegant but nononsense catalogues of Bonham’s and Bloomsbury Book Auctions in London, or Swann’s in New York. By contrast, the catalogues of most (but not now all) provincial auctioneers, who are normally selling books as part of a mixed property, are often notably uninformative, especially as to the contents of lots in bundles; and although legal warranty for the accuracy of descriptions of the lots offered is carefully restricted throughout the auction business as a whole, it is naturally a livelier issue in sales for which the catalogue makes no pretence to expertness. Yet the collector who contemplates bidding at an auction without professional advice would do well first to ponder, not only the estimate of its likely cost, now a regular feature of the catalogue description, but also the conditions of sale printed in every auction catalogue, which vary from firm to firm, and sometimes from sale to sale by the same firm; and then to remember that the return of any lot not actually incomplete or seriously misdescribed will be a matter of grace, not of right.

The better auction houses, course, take care to describe their offerings accurately, since ‘returns’ are just as much of a nuisance to them as to the buyer (but see below, not subject to return). Despite occasional lapses, their cataloguers do their best to keep abreast of bibliographical research. And the annotation of important lots is often of a thorough and scholarly character. In the description of fine early bindings, for example, Sotheby’s catalogues, thanks to the experienced connoisseurship of the Hobsons, père et fils, have achieved an authority shared by very few booksellers; and the same might be said of the firm’s cataloguing of manuscript material over the last forty years. Indeed, catalogues of famous libraries sold at auction have taken their place as indispensable reference books on the shelves, not only of booksellers and collectors, but also of scholars and librarians.

(2) Yet bidding at auction – any auction – is subject to many hazards besides the one well known in old wives’ tales: that of innocent bystanders who nod without thinking and have a white elephant knocked down to them. This risk, if no other, can be avoided by entrusting one’s bid to the auctioneer, who will execute it in confidence, but also, of course, without assuming any additional warranty or exercising any such special discretion as is implicit in the employment of an agent. There is the psychological risk: that one may be carried away by competitive fever. There is the economic fallacy: that any book bought at auction must be a bargain – a fallacy based on the supposition that all prices at auction sales are as it were wholesale, and that by buying in the rooms one cuts out the middleman (i.e. the bookseller).

There is the risk of failure to realise that, while a bookseller guarantees his offerings, the rule in the auction room is caveat emptor. For once the hammer has fallen, the lot is yours; and if you find, when you get your books home, that one has been re-cased, another is not the first issue, while a third is not as fine a copy as you had imagined from a too brief examination before the sale, you will remember too late that the onus of satisfying yourself on these points has throughout been understood to be yours and not the auctioneer’s. Veteran collectors can, and sometimes do, bid for themselves without burning their fingers. They have examined their lots with care, they know what each book is worth (and also what they may have to pay, which is often not at all the same thing), and they are ready to pit their knowledge and sale-room tactics against those of the booksellers. Perhaps they simply enjoy an exhilarating session in the rooms. But they are still in a small minority; for most experienced collectors have concluded that they are more likely to get the lots they want, and get them at reasonable prices, if they entrust their bids to a chosen bookseller. Many collectors and institutional librarians employ a regular agent for their auction business in each city. If not, in selecting their agent for a particular sale or a particular lot they will probably have regard not only to their agent’s knowledge and judgment, but also (especially in the more specialised fields) to the advantage of eliminating a likely competitor thereby.

The normal commission charged by booksellers for executing bids at auction is ten per cent, which may seem expensive for a well-known and bibliographically uncomplicated book of high but stable market value – one, that is, which does not involve much expert examination or much expert estimation of price. But over a series of transactions ‘on commission’ the bookseller will probably engage a great deal more professional skill and spend a great deal more time in his customer’s interest than is adequately repaid by his ten per cent. This of course is payable only on successful bids; yet for the lots on which he is outbid he will have provided equally full service – in advice as to the probable price, in collation and appraisal of the material, in attendance (often with wearisome waiting between lots) at the sale and in the highly skilled business of the actual bidding. The novice collector does well to recognise that in a bookshop there is a strong bond of common interest across the counter, but that in the sale-room everyone’s hand (except the auctioneer’s) is against him. If he is a man of spirit, he may relish the encounter, hoping to beat the professionals at their own game and prepared to take a few knocks in the process. Yet if he is also a man of sense, he will only do so after careful reconnaissance, and then with his eyes wide open.

(3) Prices in the auction room, as listed in the annual records, can be misleading unless they are carefully interpreted. For a reasonably common book – one, that is, of which a copy or two turns up at auction every year – the records provide a general idea of the level or trend of prices; and when, as often, these seem to fluctuate wildly, it must be remembered that one copy may have been in brilliant condition and the next one a cripple – a crucial difference which the abbreviated
style of these records cannot be expected to make clear. For rarer books the occasional entries will, of course, provide some idea of the ruling price; but the more infrequent they are, the greater the need to consider the usually invisible factors – condition (as always), but also, was this an important sale, when prices tend to be high? Or did the copy come up at the fag end of a miscellaneous one, when even booksellers tend to he weary and uninterested? Were there perhaps two keen collectors after the same lot, and therefore two exceptionally high commissions given? Or was this, by contrast, the purchase of a prudent bookseller buying for stock? Was there some point about the book, unmentioned in the sale catalogue (the source of the entry), which would account by its presence for a high price or by its absence for a low one?

It is also, of course, necessary to take into account the economic climate at the date when the price was reached. Many a book which brought a booming price in the Roxburghe sale in 1812, during the inflation of the Napoleonic wars, fell off in the twenties, and heber’s sale in the mid-thirties reflected an even severer depression. To take some more recent examples, prices were very high in certain categories (e.g. 18th century literature, the Romantics, modern first editions) during the 1920s. Prices across the board were low during the early and middle 1930s. Prices in many departments have risen steadily (e.g. science and medicine, colour-plate bird and flower books, modern literary manuscripts and correspondence) during the past fifty years, although they have stabilised somewhat recently. Moreover, an American considering a price record in sterling does well to remember that the sterling-dollar rate has fluctuated, often abruptly.

In short, the auction records have to be used with caution even for their main purpose, which is to give prices. As for the bibliographical information provided, at least by the English annual, it should be treated with even greater caution; for it is abbreviated (not always intelligibly) from notes in the auctioneers’ catalogues, which are themselves drawn from all sorts of sources – and have occasionally been known to include the happy excursions into bibliographical theory and the optimistic estimates of rarity which some collectors pencil on the flyleaves of their favourite books. Even the most responsible auctioneers, it will be recalled, are very careful to limit their assumption of warranty; and their cataloguers, however expert, are almost always working against time. For a further qualification applicable to English saleroom prices before 1927 (and even since) see rings. For details of the annual records see american book-prices current, book auction records and book prices current.

(4) In conclusion, a few miscellaneous notes on the terminology of the saleroom, which has its own jargon. The ownership of substantial or important properties sold at auction is usually advertised. But the majority of sales in the principal London and New York rooms are made up of various properties, and a good many of these are apt to be anonymous. This cloaking of ownership, which conceals a book’s immediate provenance, is sometimes due to the modesty of the consigner (e.g. ‘The Property of a Nobleman Resident Abroad’, ‘The Property of a Lady’ or – the last word in this direction – ‘The Property of a Deceased Estate’), or the disinclination of a well known collector to be identified with the books he is discarding. More often it is simply that the property is neither large enough nor important enough (or the consigner newsworthy enough) to rate a separate heading.

A proportion of these anonymous properties, however, may come from booksellers’ stocks, generally identified as other properties: one may have bought a library containing a mass of books outside his field; another has had certain books in stock for a long time and is tired of offering them unsuccessfully; or another judges that some particular book will fetch a better price at auction than he could get for it in his shop. This may wish to reach a wider public than his own catalogue list; that may have his eye on a collector who prefers buying at auction to buying from a bookseller. Then it must be realised that with few exceptions there will be a reserve on a lot, below which it may not be sold. The reserve figure has to be agreed between vendor and auctioneer, as has its relation to the estimate. In both, the auctioneer requires a degree of flexibility, exercised on the rostrum if he judges that a promising bidder is at or beyond his mark. (It is illegal in England to put a reserve on a lot and then bid it up oneself or employ an agent to do so.) Lots which fail to reach the reserve are knocked down as such, and are said to be bought in; and the owner will pay the auctioneer’s commission, usually on a reduced scale. The last unsuccessful bidder on a lot at auction is known as the under-bidder or the runner-up.

Previous ABC’s of Book Collecting posts

Carter, John & Nicolas Barker
ABC’s of Book Collecting. 8th Edition
New Castle, Delaware : Oak Knoll Press, 2004

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Thanks to Oak Knoll Press for permission to reprint

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