Business as Unusual: the Frank Streeter Sale
Frank Streeter at his father's sale
By Bruce McKinney
Commencing Monday evening, April 16th, and continuing Tuesday, the 17th, Christies, in New York,
orchestrated an immensely successful sale of the Frank S. Streeter Library including important
navigation, Pacific voyages, cartography and science. The sale yielded $16,421,820 and dozens of
broken hearts. Neither the auction house nor the consignors were among the unhappy. The
aggregate low estimate gave hope to all though it turned out three times that number would be the
average result: almost $30,000 a lot. As happens from time to time, exceptional material and
timing combine with thorough description to produce a perfect storm of bidding. Such was how it
was over this auction's three memorable sessions. We were in New York for the run-up and sale and
both here (hi) or here (low), and at the end of this article, provide links to a 10 minute film about it.
Comparison of material purchased at the Thomas Streeter sales in the late 1960s and resold here,
as well as material purchased at the Penrose sale in 1971 and resold here are separately provided
at the end of this 1,658 word article.
By our estimate more than a hundred individuals raised their paddles in the room, bid by phone,
left order bids to be executed by the house and bid on-line. At the first session we counted 102
hopefuls, well-wishers and curious in the auction room [not including Christie's extensive staff]
and in the second session Tuesday morning an ebb and flow crowd of about 85. Even as late as lot
492 in the third and final session 46 remained. Even those who either didn't bid or win seemed
happy: a reminder of why book prices are written in pencil.
The occasion was memorable for many reasons. Frank Streeter is the son of Thomas Streeter, one of
the most famous American book collectors of the 20th century. The father's collection, 4,421 lots
in seven parts was sold by Parke-Bernet in 1966-1969 and brought the then exceptional total of
$3,104,982, an amount about equal to the buyer's premium at his son's sale of 552 lots:
$2,702,970. Times have changed.
In the late 1960's auction houses primarily sold to dealers and dealers often stepped aside to let
their brethren buy advantageously. In his time Thomas Streeter countered this strategy with his
own, providing generous stipends to libraries to contend with dealers for material. In doing so
he followed the strategy of George Brinley who, in the 19th century, sent his collection of 9,450
lots to auction at Geo. A. Leavitt & Co. in New York while providing funds for bidding to a wide
group of institutions.
No such inducements to bid were needed this time. Auction houses now carefully describe, provide
help and advice and occasional extended terms. As a result, for great material, auction houses
now regularly attract bidders from around the world.
Business as Unusual: the Frank Streeter Sale
Lot 325. An important book in any sale
The sale was organized impersonally, in alphabetical order, $2,000 books lined up with those
estimated $60,000 to $80,000. At the outset, no spoken description or remembrance of Mr.
Streeter, the collector, was given although, as is custom, a write-up was included in the two
volume hard bound catalogue. It was more like "Ladies and gentlemen, let's cut to the chase."
Cut they did, instantly taking lot 1, Acosta's The Naturall and Morall Histories of the East
and West Indies, a book that is not so rare, to almost four times its high estimate of $4,000.
For those wondering if the first lot was a true indicator or a hormone imbalance lot 3, Addison's
Arthimeticall Navigation , against a high estimate of $40,000, sold for $78,000. Lot
4, Alphonsus X's Tabulae astronomicae then sealed the deal as, against a high estimate of
$15,000, it too sold for $78,000. Around the room, nervous glances, like dandelions in late
spring, appeared in every camp and corner. What's going on here: as it turned out; a lot. The
people in the room weren't here to watch. They were here to buy and in a remarkable performance
dealers, from both sides of the Atlantic and the Pacific, simply stepped up. In many cases the
prices must have run double expectations but this did not deter the knowledgeable from doing what
they do: buy the books their customers want or will in time want. It's easy to be a dealer when
you own material right. In this sale, dealers bet that the whale was breaching, that the market
was turning higher in the wake of strong price confirmation. No doubt some sleep was lost Monday
night. On Tuesday the auction continued its upward pace and the bids continued to flow.
The bidding was widespread though the dominant forces were in the room. Bill Reese, the
perennial heavyweight, bought 85 lots for almost $3.2 million. Graham Arader bought heavily as
did the firm of Bernard J. Shapero of London. David Block, representing Bill Berkley, bought quite
a few exceptionally valuable items. In some cases the room was quiet and "thing one" and "thing
two" battled it out on the phones. In other cases, as if to give the room a warning the
auctioneer would say "I'm going to sell it to the internet bidder," and in one case it was for
$75,000. Admonitions from the podium notwithstanding, by the end of the sale the online bidders
had earned some respect. And overall it was apparent Christies had successfully integrated all
bidding constituencies into a cohesive whole; the room, the phones, the order bids and online
bidders," all woven into a single outstanding sale. It was an exceptional performance.
As if to remind all present that information is essential, the room stood back as two online
bidders pushed lot 142, Delano's Life on the Plains Among the Diggings,... to $2,880. The
under bidder can now choose from seven copies listed on Abe priced in total at $3,100. A similar
issue involved lot 366, the two volume first English Diary of a Journey from the Mississippi...
by Mollhausen brought $18,000 against an estimate of $2,000 to $3,000 while three comparable,
perhaps better copies, listed on Abe were available for $3,000, $3,200 and $3,252. About this
Bill Reese said "When I represent bidders you are paying me to tell you when to stop and why."
Enthusiasm does not trump knowledge, the reason many buyers seek advice from dealers as well as
use AE collector research tools.
Business as Unusual: the Frank Streeter Sale
Two other aspects of the sale are worth noting: the presence of so many grey-haired mavens
juxtaposed with the invisible online bidders. Just as Frank Streeter was a very traditional
collector, the dealers in the room are just as traditional. They may not always like change, the
passing of time, the market's inexorable push into a future that is leaving many of them less
certain about how things will be than how they have been. This did not however, over the three
sessions of this sale, deter many. Give them their due: a brave and in many cases canny
performance. A handful of dealers dominated, often buying for one or more collectors. This was
how it was at the Siebert sales and the pattern continues.
As did everyone else in the room, they heard "on the internet I am bid....", certainly the sound
of the future, the faceless invader sending bids into the room with the click of a mouse. In this
sale the room stood strong but in time, it's inevitable; bidders on the net will start to walk
away with the biggest prizes. It's only a matter of time. For dealers, this will be a major
loss, because they rely on contact: to see who bids, what they bid on and how they bid. Without
this contact information finding the next generation of emerging collectors will be tougher. As
if to confirm this, dealers around the room were tracking every paddle number and buyer they
recognized or could deduce. Among dealers this information is currency: the knowledge of who
buys as important as having the great book to sell.
Many lots stood out. The Lewis and Clark, lot 325, brought $288,000; Bourne's A
Regiment for the Sea: Conteyning most profitable Rules,..., lot 61, $102,000; lot 101,
Champlain's  Les Voyages del a Nouvelle France... $264,000 against its high estimate
of $120,000; Chloris'  Voyage Pittoresque Autour du Monde $156,000, Copernicus' 
De revolutionibus orbium coelestium $180,000 Des Barres'  The Atlantic Neptune
$779,200, Dudley's [lot 167] Arcano del Mare $824,000. In fact 37 lots brought at
Beyond setting many individual records this sale presented the opportunity to compare the
reappearance of specific copies at auction. Forty years ago the son, Frank, purchased more than
40 items at his father's, The Thomas W. Streeter sales: these books the first acquisitions of
what would become a long collecting career. Frank also purchased four items at the Boies Penrose
sale in 1971 and these outcomes too can be compared.
For both comparisons complete spreadsheets are attached. Forty one items purchased in the Thomas
W. Streeter sale for $58,140 brought $1,305,640 in the sales just completed, an increase of 22
times over about 38 years. In one case the book passed through other hands before the son
obtained it. In any event the comparison is unaffected. [Streeter comparison] Four items Frank
purchased in the Boies Penrose sale for $10,680 brought $186,000, an increase of 17 times [Penrose
comparison]. The results from both sales seem quite similar when the difference in time, three
years on average, is figured in.
Here is a link to the entire auction, the descriptions and the outcomes.
I went to New York to film the auction and it turned out I caught on tape the changing of the
guard, not that participants will necessarily agree though in time it will be proven true. For
those who would like to see a film presentation of the auction including some comments on Frank
Streeter click here (hi) or click here (low). It was a great sale.