A Sale on the Morrow
Lot 180 - Kotzebue
By Bruce McKinney
The human brain is in constant flux, caught between emotion and reason. On the day last spring I consigned my collection of the American Experience to auction at Bonhams for sale tomorrow, December 2nd, in New York, 'reason' was in charge. As the day, hour and minute approach it turns out that consignor emotions will be heard. They are now informing me that they weren't consulted and are now in an uproar. Oh well. Every consignor to auction faces a moment when the market will judge the material, house, timing, offer, estimates and reserves and if pleased leap to its feet paddles raised or if not amused, curl the catalogue tightly to swat flies and competitors. In the blink of an eye a verdict is rendered. Who knew? Book collecting as a contact sport.
You might not know this from what an auction house tells you. Consignors bring their own issues, often a mess of anxieties that require soothing and consolation and this is just to get to the point of consignment. Converting hopes and ambitions into printed descriptions will later become tricky but on signing day that's all in the future. In time the cataloguers become the ones who tell you "it's a skillful copy and unfortunately not real." Of course they don't tell you it's a tacky copy because they are used to delivering bad news and know, possibly from experience, that 'tacky copy' doesn't go down well. In any event, as Bonhams has prepared my sale, the news has been good. The only uncertainty, now resolved, concerned estimates and reserves.
From the outset I raised the possibility that the sale would be unreserved and heading into the final proofing, and setting of estimates, confirmed it. Christina Geiger who has been point-woman [or is it point-person] for Bonhams on the sale asked for a night to consult and came back to say "we think it will be fine." We've been on the same page from the outset. The estimates are just that - estimates. Valuation will be established by bidding.
A Sale on the Morrow
Lot 130 - Mary Kinnan, 1795
For auction houses selling important books entire unreserved sales are rare and many auction houses never have even one. Such sales raise risks for both consignor and auction house and in the run-up to the sale brave intentions often give way to somber anxieties. But not this time. I see the world of collectible books like the unfolding petals of an iris opening to the sun. We have lived through the winter of book collecting and I believe spring is at hand. I say this based, not on hope but on the developing evidence presented by auction houses around the world as they offer material and knock down lots at the rate of almost a thousand a day. There is plenty of information to go by and I write about it every week for those who subscribe to our Weekly Auction Updates [subscribe here]. I see it first hand and believe.
For auction houses unreserved sales are complicated. They are caught between wanting to conduct great sales and avoiding great failures. This leads to the schizophrenic combination of aggressive efforts to obtain important sales and later creeping conservatism that is often present in after-commitment discussions via sighs and hesitations that remind the consignor there are no guarantees, only best efforts. I knew this going in and in any event Bonhams never got cold feet.
Now, eight months after reaching an agreement, the rubber is about to meet the road on an interesting, even important unreserved sale.
As Bonhams has done every month since summer they have prepared a video, this the fifth in a series about 'the making of a sale' based on their work creating the American Experience. This one details the recently concluded San Francisco preview where materials were on display and experts available to discuss specific items. The series, while of particular interest to collectors of printed Americana, will be useful to anyone who wishes to understand Bonhams' approach specifically and other auction houses' approaches generally. Every new auction is of course different - always a fresh four or five hundred piece puzzle to be organized, assembled and explained but the logic and rules for the creation of an auction are enduring.
A Sale on the Morrow
Lot 105 - Archive of Manuscripts
Often such projects are complicated although to view these videos and then the American Experience catalogue it might seem easy. As an interested party and experienced observer, I know it takes a lot of hard work to present an air of effortlessness.
Video link to the current and four preceding videos.
Bonhams is providing links both to observe and bid. To bid you need to identify yourself and complete a registration. Allow some time.
To observe the sale or sign up to bid use this link.
To sign up to bid by absentee or phone call 212-644-9001.
For questions about specific items use 917-558-6282 and 310-623-2084.
Extended terms are offered. Call 415-503-3223 for answers to your questions.
An auction is ultimately a verdict and the auction house your counsel. As there are many auctions the clamor of offers creates an endless din that requires tuning the pitch precisely. Bonhams has effectively brought this sale to life and the outcome on Thursday will provide a fair assessment of the current market.
We are living through a period of significant change. Deep information is increasingly accessible. The rise of iPads and electronic readers and online access to books has pundits and parents wondering if the printed word will lose its ascendant place in our society. The answer I believe is yes and no. Electronically words will become ether but the objects, - first printings, association copies, fine bindings and original boards will matter more. Ultimately it is all about the math. Great material is finite and population always increasing.
Following the sale we will publish an analysis.