Death Defying Success
Augustus Kollner, East view of Philadelphia. 1856
By Bruce McKinney
On November 19th in New York Bloombury sold the Jay T. Snider collection of Philadelphiana. The house, bidding to enter the rarified space of super-premium auction selling occupied by Christie's and Sotheby's and to generate bidding enthusiam for material both superb and parochial, produced a 6 lb. glossy full color catalogue that will make an effortless transition from sale document to coffee table icon. The presentation is that good. The timing was tough.
The widely-spoken quote is "when the ocean rises all boats rise." So when oceans recede then what? Most dealers and auction house representatives are away when you want to ask that question and another "how do you feel about 'what goes up must come down.'" You can't blame them of course. But Bill Reese, the largest buyer by dollar volume in the sale [William Reese Company], Joe Felcone [The Joseph Felcone Company] and Jeremy Markowitz of Bloomsbury who organized the sale were willing to speak on the record about it. Both Bill and Joe bid for institutions, collectors and stock. Jeremy negotiated the deal with Mr. Snider, organized and prepared the catalogue, acted as intermediary to potential buyers and of course lived, died and lived again as the sale progressed. The concensus of all parties is "optimism deferred." From a literate group I'd expect nothing less complex.
The superb but narrow material in this sale was very early and important Philadelphiana and divided into five categories: manuscripts, printed books, maps, prints and plate books. W. C. Fields, when referring to death said, "I'd rather be here than in Philadephia" and at least for this recent sale that was also true for some auction bidders. Mr Markowitz described the sale as well attended and mentioned that 72 invoices were issued to winning bidders. Many, if not most, successful bidders were represented by one of the five dealers - Bill Reese, Joe Felcone, Clarence Wolf, Donald Heald and Kenneth Newman who attended and bid actively. In this sale they bought most of the material - some for institutions, some for collectors and some for stock. Collectors often walk away on bad days. The dealers who make the market show up.
It helped that Bloomsbury offered extended terms. One dealer privately complained that Bloomsbury's terms were insufficient as the material, while very good, may take a long time to sell. Bloomsbury was generous but ultimately unapologetic.
The sale was one of several high profile auction events in November that foundered but ultimately did no worse, even arguably better, than comparable first tier collectible sales in the modern painting and automobile fields. Paper collectibles, with few exceptions, even at the highest levels now command lower prices. In fact, you can buy the biggest books for the sales taxes paid on the biggest paintings.
The sale contained 375 lots and was estimated at $2.3 - 3.3 million. It brought $1.9 million at hammer and $2.3 million all in. Twenty-three percent of the lots were bought-in [unsold] including seven of the twelve lots with estimates of $50,000 and more. Given that the unsold lots remain for the consignor to some day sell the only real victim was cashflow.
Death Defying Success
Aspirants and agents following the action
The sale was heavily reserved with most lots set at 80% of low estimate. The majority sold at or just above the reserve suggesting that bidders were often bidding against a reluctant seller rather than against other bidders. This suggests the bidding was thin, a contributing factor for the increasingly insistent auction house requirement that consignors accept lower estimates. If prices go lower, and they probably will, they'll be confirmed in the auction rooms and it will probably be collectors' books that are sold. Few dealers want to be the guinea pig. Price reductions in the upscale book trade are uncommon and most dealers prefer to wait years for prices to rebound. Collectors have other priorities and less patience.
The sale, while focused on Philadelphia, was arguably a group of more specialized sales united by one collector with a single idea. Images did very well. Images are easier to live with, easier to understand and widely appreciated as 'art work.' Images were the strongest component. Maps were inconsistent. One of the world's most important map dealers, Graham Arader, did not bid and his absence was noticeable. Plate books did reasonably well and printed booked less well. The manuscript material was estimated in excess of the tastes and preferences of the professionals who watched while many of the lots in this category were offered and bought in. In this category the consignor had strong opinions about value but those opinions were not shared by those who bid.
Ten of the lots in this sale were acquired at the Frank Siebert sales in 1999 and nine of them sold in this sale. The one unsold lot, number 26, An Historical and Geographical Account of the Province and Country of Pensilvania... by Gabriel Thomas in 1999 brought $40,250 against a high estimate of $26,000. In this sale it was estimated at $50,000 to $60,000 but failed to find a buyer. It was reserved at $40,000. The other nine items sold. They brought, all in, $73,197 in 1999 and $124,200 in 2008, a 6% rate of return. The aggregate hammer estimates were $121,000 to $177,000 and the actual hammer $103,500. The Siebert sale was an early harbinger of rapidly rising prices between 1999 and 2002 and this sale a reminder that prices have since returned to earth orbit.
After the sale Bill Reese pointed out and Graham Arader separately concured, "this sale would have achieved another million dollars a year earlier." "Buyers who stepped up acquired exceptional material at an exceptional discount" according to Mr. Reese. The question is "when will the market return to normal?"
Mr. Reese also pointed out that in this kind of market exceptional cataloguing efforts may be out of place. After all, most lots were bought by experienced professionals who rely on personal examination and experience. For them, a 6-pound catalogue is 5 pounds too many. Auction houses are of course always trying to induce/seduce collectors to bid. Their goal is retail but in this sale it was the primary dealers who stepped in to make the sale a qualified success.
Death Defying Success
A Blanc. Works, East Schuylkill Falls. c. 1860
Snider Lots that also Appeared in the Siebert Sale
It was for Bloomsbury and Mr. Markowitz a gutty performance. They had no control over the economic uncertainty but everything they could control they did and they did it well.
Here are links to:
 Bloomsbury Sale NY020 – this sale: click here.
 A detailed comparison of Siebert material purchased in 1999 and resold in this sale
|AE Auction Listing Link||Title ||1999 Siebert Sale
|| 2008 Snider Lots|
| || ||Lot No.||Low Est.||High
Est.||Realized Price||Low Est||High Est||Hammered price||Realized Price|
18||THOMAS, Gabriel. An Historical and Geographical Account of the Province and Country of Pensilvania; and of
West-New-Jersey in America. London: Printed for and sold by A. Baldwin, 1698. ||122||$24,000||$26,000||$40,250||$50,000||$60,000|| unsold|| |
46|| BRADFORD, Andrew (printer). The Particulars of an Indian Treaty at Conestogoe, between His Excellency Sir
William Keith, Bart. Governor of Pennsylvania, And the Deputies of the Five Nations [caption title]. Philadelphia: Andrew Bradford, . ||329||$10,000||$15,000||$8,050||$15,000||$20,00||$12,000||$14,400|
65|| FRANKLIN, Benjamin (printer). An Account of the Treaty Held at the City of Albany in the Province of New-York,
By His Excellency the Governor of that Province, and the Honourable the Commissioners for the Provinces of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Penns...|| 521 ||$7,000 ||$10,000 ||
$10,925 || $20,000 || $30,000 ||$16,000 ||$19,200|
66||BRAINERD, David. Mirabilia Dei inter Indicos, or the Rise and Progress of a Remarkable Work of Grace amongst a
number of the Indians in the Provinces of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, justly represented in a Journal.||148 ||$4,000 || $6,000 ||$4,887||$7,000||$10,000||$6,000||$7,200|
91||FRANKLIN, Benjamin (printer). Minutes of Conferences Held with the Indians, at Harris’s Ferry, and at Lancaster,
in March, April and May, 1757. Philadelphia: B. Franklin and D. Hall, 1757 ||528||$6,000||$8,000||$11,500||$20,000||$30,000||$16,000||$19,200|
92|| FRANKLIN, Benjamin (printer). Minutes of Conferences held with Indians at Easton, in the Months of July, and
August, 1757. || 530 ||$6,000 ||$8,000 || $13,800 || $20,000 ||$30,000||$16,000||$19,200|
93|| FRANKLIN, Benjamin (printer). Minutes of Conferences, Held at Easton, In October, 1758, With the Chief Sachems
and Warriors of the Mohawks, Oneidoes, Onondagoes, Cayugas, Senecas, Tuscaroras, Tuteloes, Skaniadaradigronos || 532
||$6,000 ||$8,000 ||$10,350 ||$20,000 ||$30,000 ||$16,000||$19,200|
95|| POST, Christian Frederick. The Second Journal of Christian Frederick Post, On a Message from the Governor of
Pensilvania to the Indians on the Ohio. ||534 ||$5,000 || $7,000 || $7,475 ||$10,000||$15,000||$12,000||$14,400|
103|| SMITH, Matthew; and James GIBSON. A Declaration and Remonstrance of the distressed and bleeding Frontier
Inhabitants of the Province of Pennsylvania, Presented by them to the Honourable the Governor and Assembly of the Province, ||175 || $2,000 ||$3,000 || $4,025
|| $6,000||$8,000 || $5,500 ||$6,600|
105|| PHILOPATRIUS [pseudonym of David James DOVE.] The Quaker unmask'd; or, Plain truth: Humbly address'd to the
Consideration of all the Freemen of Pennsylvania. ||172 || $1,000 || $2,000 || $2,185 ||$3,000||$4,000||$4,000||$4,800|
| || || ||$47,000||$67,000 ||$73,197||$121,000|| $177,000||$103,500
 An article I wrote about this sale in the November issue of AEM: click here.