Monday, July 6, 2009

Bloomsbury Sets Loose The Dogs of Deflation

The following originally appeared last week in Fine Books & Collections magazine. The Update that follows appears here for the first time, exclusive to Book Patrol.

In a recent column, I discussed deflation coming to the rare book world, with particular emphasis on the auction houses.

In my mailbox this morning comes news that Bloomsbury, the auction house that has been leading the market to realistic reserves, has now made it official with their first No Reserve Bibliophile Sale.

The sale features property from Heritage Book Shop, Colonial Williamsburg and
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and will occur this Tuesday, June 30, at 2PM in New York.

Here's their blow-out the competition deal: Minimum bid is [drumroll] $25. Twenty-five dollars.

This is major. While Bloomsbury is clearly trying to move the goods, the goods ain't bad.

"The Bibliophile Sale includes historic, modern and contemporary works in addition to an manuscript letter written by F. Scott Fitzgerald and signed to Elizabeth Craig Clarkson written the day after he was accepted at Princeton (15 September 1913) with the original mailing envelope. 'I am in a particularly despondent and dissipated mood. Outside the sun is shining but I am perfectly positive it is only doing it out of spite...So I sign myself your humble Servant Francis Scott Fitzgerald.' It was a humorous and playful letter which was to influence much of his life ($3000-$5000.)

"Also included in the 20th Century grouping is a 22 volume illustrated set of Mark Twain's Works (1923). Bound for Brentano's in contemporary red levant half morocco over red cloth boards, spines tooled and lettered in gilt ($3000-$4000.) A rare large paper copy of Rousseau's complete works in contemporary full tree calf binding is contained in 38 volumes, Paris (1788-1793) Engraved frontispieces, Nouvelle Édition, ($5000-$7000.) Other titles include: The Works, Jonathan Swift 1755. 6 volumes, $1200-$1800, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain (1885.) A first American edition, early issue. $1000-1500. Babbitt Sinclair Lewis (1922) First edition $1000-$1500 and Tractatus de corde(1669) Amsterdam Richard Lower $1500-$2500."

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Bloomsbury is opening the market to bidders who may not have ever dreamed it possible to get this close to desired material. Eyes will be fixed on the percentage of lots sold and what the sale prices were. The market is finally beginning to correct itself to new realities.

View the full catalogue to the Bloomsbury No Reserve Bibliophile Sale here.

Market-Busting 90%-95% Sell-Through at Bloomsbury No Reserve Bibliophile Sale

In its first No Reserve Bibliophile Sale Bloomsbury-NY blew the roof off the house with an astonishing 90%-95% lot sell-through rate. The rare book auction market has not seen lot sell-through figures like that in more than twenty years.

As reported here earlier, "declining lot prices and percentage of lots sold [for rare books at auction] have hit a wall and splatted against the recession. Median prices, which had risen from $410 in October of 2006 to $485 n January of 2008 have dropped back and below to $400 'with no evidence to suggest the correction is over. Not so many decades ago auctions regularly sold 90% or more of lots offered. Over the last five years auctions have struggled to complete even 80% as the percentage of lots sold fell from 78% to 70%.'

In an immediate post-sale interview, James Cummins III, head of rare books at Bloomsbury-NY, said:

"I do not [yet] have a concrete figure for the sell through rate although I believe it to be around 90-95%. The sale brought in $94,421 with premium.

"The sale was conducted differently in a few ways. We didn't have any telephone bidding, there was no printed catalogue, lots that were unsold were bundled up and reoffered in groups and we were selling at nearly 200 lots an hour.

"We had quite a lively audience of approximately thirty-forty collectors and dealers in addition to absentee and online bidders. This sale was done as an experiment to see how the market would react to quality material being offered at no reserve. It proved to be very successful with many lots selling at higher prices than they had previously been offered at. We are very happy with the results of the sale and look forward to more no reserve sales in the future."

This sale and its results are a breath of fresh air to a business that has been struggling with change since the advent of the Internet opened up and democratized the rare book marketplace with buyers seizing control from sellers who have not been happy ceding it. The market has been under pressure for some time and the current recession has only increased that pressure for sellers to come to grips with reality and make downward price adjustments.

It is hoped that the other auction houses will follow suit. And, significantly, that individual dealers, to insure the health and continued viability of the business into the future, will follow and begin to lower their posted prices to welcome back wary book collectors and openly invite interested newcomers who may feel that current prices push the "gentle madness" of the hobby into a full-blown psychosis that few can afford.

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