Sitting down with Friends at Mohonk
Mohonk - a remarkable place to discuss the future of the past
This past month I invited a group of fifteen friends and acquaintances for a discussion and dinner at Mohonk Mountain House in New York’s Ulster County. The subject was, with respect to books and history, where are we and where are we going and I asked everyone to offer 5 minutes of perspective and opinion. Included were collectors and dealers, appraisers, librarians, and a historical interpreter. It was enlightening.
We turned out to have two perspectives on collectible material. For collectors, collecting institutions and dealers the object is the objective while for reference libraries, interested individuals, students and historians it’s the information. There is of course crossover but the two groups are rather distinct.
Interest in content appears, by a factor of three or four to one, to be the dominant perspective of the world at large. Ann M. Gordon, the Ulster Country historian reflected on questions she receives from students and explained how she directs them to sources to unearth the facts themselves. Their inquiries are often for schoolwork. In some sense she’s a reference librarian to those inquiring by phone and on the net. The numbers involved are substantial.
At the Huguenot Historical Society and the Elting Memorial Library who receive inquiries [neither attended this group] that require research will incur an expense to be paid by the person making the request. For them research has become a business and a way to deflect the casual and possibly time-consuming inquiry. So too Ulster County records in Kingston can be searched for a fee.
If interest in information is the dominant factor by volume, interest in actual examples is what drives dealers, collecting libraries and collectors to pursue and spend serious money. As a population they are small, a quarter at most of the market at large, mostly men and almost always past forty. Their interests are in importance, condition, value and price and they seek to own the originals that the market at large simply wants to study. For dealers it’s a business, for institutions a mission, for collectors an avocation often with obsessive underpinnings.
Sitting down with Friends at Mohonk
Awosting: Certainty amid uncertainty
As to the unindicted co-conspirator, the Internet listing sites that are transforming collecting, Peter Luke, the Albany dealer offered, the volume isn’t always a bad thing. The not-so-long-ago unobtainable can now occasionally be found. “It makes the search more exciting.”
Among the dealers there seemed agreement that prices move both ways although I neither sought nor found any consensus on how this works. I have seen dealers reducing some prices but for most things they may come down only by discussion. That leaves it to the buyer to ask for price justification and I know, from discussions with book buyers that the majority is uncomfortable to negotiate. That isn’t a good thing in a period of declining prices because the would-be buyer may simply move on without a purchase or discussion.
I also asked all for their sense of the future. Those on the information side seem relaxed, if harried, by the billowing demands for help with “where do I look.” On the collector and collectible side it’s more complex. Fair value is a moving target, the rare, unusual and important moving up and the more common and the unappreciated, coming down. For years an underlying assumption was that even if one overpaid, in time the price would rise and make the purchase ‘right.’ Today everyone on the ‘object side’ knows the world has changed. Prices, for some material, are definitely coming down, a reality more daunting for dealers than collectors because collectors have two hundred items and dealers ten thousand and more. For collectors the short-term answer is increasingly: buy at auction. For dealers the challenge is to somehow reflect the declining fundamentals in the broader market so to remain competitive with auctions. Today auction realizations, with some notable exceptions, are barely running half of what listed prices suggest.
That answer is for another day. After all, the discussion and dinner was only three hours.