Book Prices Soared 15% at Auction in 2007
One of the auction charts available from AE.
By Michael Stillman
Book prices at auction rose sharply in 2007 following a couple years of very slow growth. The median price rose almost 15% last year, from $423 to $486. This follows a rise of less than 1% the year before. Volatility in exchange rates, as well a rebound in European markets that had been soft the prior two years, played a major role in the sharp increase. The average increase of 6% per year over the past three years may give a better picture of trends in the book market than does one sharply higher year following two flat ones.
These prices are based on U.S. currency, but the collapsing dollar wreaked havoc on an orderly marketplace. While prices rose 15% in terms of dollars, they rose 13% in British pounds and only 3% in Euros. Such was the collapse of the American dollar.
Book prices at auctions held in America for American buyers (using U.S. dollars) rose by a more modest 9%. However, for European buyers computing their purchases in Euros, prices in America actually declined by 3%. In European auctions, prices for Europeans rebounded sharply, increasing 16% after several soft years. However, for American buyers using declining dollars, prices in Europe shot up by almost 30%, making that marketplace prohibitive for Americans. The phenomenon in books was similar to that for Americans purchasing fuel for their cars and homes – a substantial increase in underlying prices coupled with a collapsing dollar resulted in huge increases in costs.
Prices in the British market were the least volatile. The increase was a modest 1% for those buying in the local currency, while the British pound had only a relatively modest gain versus the U.S. dollar in 2007 after experiencing a sharp gain the year before.
The average price at auction took an even steeper incline than the median, rising 36% from $2,557 to $3,476 in 2007. However, average prices are easily skewed by a few very large sales and therefore are not as indicative of market conditions. Last year's $21 million sale of a copy of the Magna Carta was sufficient by itself to add $140 to the average sale price of all items.
While prices shot up, other sales numbers remained largely unchanged. In 2007, 75% of the lots offered were sold, 25% unsold, unchanged from 2006. Once again, 49% of items sold went for more than the high estimate, while 27% went for less than the low estimate, one percent less than last year. However, when unsold items are factored in, it shows that 45% of the items offered either sold for less than the low estimate or not at all, versus 37% of all items offered selling over the maximum. These figures too were unchanged from 2006.
Book Prices Soared 15% at Auction in 2007
The top prices were again paid at Sotheby's in New York, though this year the number was substantially higher. The median price was $15,000, up from $9,600, the average $41,296, up from $28,201. Sixteen houses saw median prices over $1,000, including five branches of Sotheby's, four of Christie's, and three of Bonham's. Others with at least a branch reaching this level were Bloomsbury, Swann, Doyle and Artcurial. The locations of these top sixteen were six in New York, four in London, three in Paris, and one each in Amsterdam, Milan, and San Francisco. Forty-five houses saw average prices over $1,000. Only a handful of generally low-volume houses had medians under $100, but there is still a healthy number of higher volume auction houses moving books in the $100-$300 range. Six percent of the items sold for over $10,000, 33% for over $1,000. At the other end, 10% sold for under $100.
This brings us to a point to note about these numbers. Auction prices reflect what is happening in the upper ranges of the market. Inexpensive or simply used books don't show up at auction. Pricing trends at auction houses may not be reflective of what is happening on the listing sites, where we believe the average to be around $20, a price few auctions would touch. The proliferation of online listings may well be holding back prices on listing sites, though we do not have the statistics to confirm or refute this.
The highest number of lots offered at a single location again went to Bloomsbury in London with 15,962. Runner-up was Bubb Kuyper of Haarlem, the Netherlands, with 11,455. The highest sell-through rate was at New England Book Auctions with over 99% of their lots sold. Dorotheum of Vienna had the highest number of sales above their high estimate – 93%.
As usual, the second and fourth quarters of the year were the most active for selling books. The second quarter (April-June) saw 34% of all listings, while 38% were listed in the fourth quarter (October-December). Only 12% were offered during the third quarter, most of these in September. The busiest month was November, with 18% of all listings for the year, the slowest August with but 2%. Prices were also above average in the busy fall, below average in the slow summertime. No wonder owners prefer to sell in the fall.
Almost 500 auctions at 89 separate houses, offering 205,000 lots were tracked in 2007. The Americana Exchange compiles seven charts of detailed results from book auctions, both for the market as a whole and for individual auction houses. This information cannot be found elsewhere and is invaluable for understanding the current market and how to bid at different auction houses. The data is available to all research and premium subscribers and may be found at www.americanaexchange.com/NewAE/auction/stats/2007/2007auctionresults.asp ( sign in to view). To sign up for membership click here