Book Prices Inched Forward in 2006
One of the many charts now available on AE provides detailed pricing information by auction house.
By Michael Stillman
The value of rare and collectible books inched up ever so slightly last year, auction records compiled by the Americana Exchange have revealed. The median price for books and related ephemera at auction rose from $420 to $423 last year. While the good news for sellers and those who own collections is that prices managed to go up, the bad news is they rose more slowly than inflation. The rise in the AEI (Americana Exchange Index) was but 0.7%. The rise in the CPI (Consumer Price Index) was 2.5%.
Similar to the CPI, the AEI slipped by 1% from 2005. Median book prices rose by 1.7%, from $413 to $420, last year, vs. 0.7% this year. Likewise, the CPI was 1% higher last year, 3.5% vs. 2.5% this year.
These results reflect pricing at the mid to higher end of the book spectrum. Inexpensive books are rarely sold at auction. Therefore these results do not necessarily carry over to the lower end of the book market. The ever-increasing number of low to mid priced books offered through online selling sites and eBay may well have placed added pressure on prices at this end of the market. Auction sales only show trends for mid to upper level books. However, it is possible that increased competition at the mid levels where books sold online and at auction intersect has had an impact on sales at auction. While there were occasional aberrant years, the dominant trend throughout the twentieth century was for the price of collectible books to grow at several times the rate of the CPI. Book prices trailing the CPI, as they have the past two years, is unusual.
The average price for books sold at auction was $2,557 for 2006, a drop of almost $200. However, this is not considered to reflect trends in pricing as accurately as median prices since averages can readily be skewed by the number of very valuable items coming up for sale in any given year. Average prices often swing wildly from year to year while median prices move at more gradual, consistent rates.
Sell through at auction also inched up from the prior year in 2006. For the past year, 75% of the book lots offered for sale were purchased, vs. 74% in 2005. Lots sold for more than the high estimate also increased. In 2006, 49% sold above the high estimate vs. 28% below the low estimate. For 2005, the ratio was 48%-29%. However, these numbers can be somewhat misleading since they are based only on lots sold, and many auction houses simply won't sell lots that fall too far below minimum estimates. When lots that did not sell are combined with those sold below the minimum estimate, we find 45% of the lots offered failed to bring the minimum estimate, while 37% brought in more than the maximum estimate.
Book Prices Inched Forward in 2006
Once again, the fall and spring seasons proved to be the most popular for auctions. The fourth quarter (October-December) is regularly the heaviest period for auctions. 38% of all lots were brought to auction in the last quarter, 34% in the spring (April-June) quarter. November was the busiest single month, with 22% of all lots sold in that month alone.
The slowest month was August, with just 2%. January was almost as slow. Interestingly, sell-through was the greatest in the first quarter, 81% vs. just 73% in the fourth quarter.
The highest prices were achieved at the Sotheby's New York branch, where the median was $9,600, the average $28,201. Most of the highest medians and averages came from the various branches of Sotheby's and Christie's, all of which had medians over $1,000. These houses, naturally, specialize in upper tier material. What may be more interesting to collectors and sellers at not so high a level is that there were seven auction houses where the median was under $100. There are auctions where those on shorter budgets may buy, and those with nice but not extraordinary material can sell.
Honors for most book lots offered by any house fell to Bloomsbury of London again this year, with just over 17,000. Also offering over 10,000 were Swann Galleries of New York and Bubb Kuyper of Haarlem, the Netherlands. Of course, Christie's, Sotheby's and Bonham's reached these numbers for all locations combined, though not for any single location. Forty-three houses offered over 1,000 books during 2006.
Now for one final statistic: total sales at auction for 2006 were $392 million. These aren't all "books." While ephemeral items such as the long lost William Blake prints which were auctioned last year form a small percentage of the quantity, they usually bring in many of the highest prices. Still, it indicates there is plenty of money yet being spent at the higher end of the book market. While as best we can tell, sales at auction in terms of quantity is only 2% or 3% of what is sold annually on Abebooks, sales in terms of dollars are almost certainly far beyond any online site.
The Americana Exchange has compiled a series of charts covering auction sales in great detail. Results are provided both by month and by individual auction house. This data is not available elsewhere, and is of great interest and importance for those seriously involved in the book trade as sellers or as collectors. It is available to all AE members, whether by paid or free membership. If you are already a member, simply log in and click "2006 Auction Results" on the side toolbar (or the link at the bottom of this page) to access these charts as well as those for previous years. If you are not a member, you can sign up for your free membership here:
Become a member. Once you receive your password, log in and click the "2006 Auction Results" link on the side toolbar or here:
2006 Auction Results.