We Shall not Pass this way Again
Schoener. Lot 9. Source H. P. Kraus
By Bruce McKinney
It matters less what we collect than that we collect.
On December 3rd at 10:30 am the collection discussed here will be sold at Bloomsbury Auctions in New York. On December 2nd, at Bloomsbury's showrooms at 6 West 48th Street I'll be giving a talk 6:30 pm that will be mercifully brief. These are the remarks. I'll then take questions.
You are invited!
Collections are fantasies and sometimes indulgences. They are small and large, gathered energetically or intermittently, set aside sometimes for decades, pursued, if books, by chance, often because of a dealer or library relationship, begun in youth and sometimes chased into old age. In truth the vigor of collecting for many in their seventies grows stronger even as the light fades. Is it that we feel the passion ever more clearly or that other interests decline? Frank Siebert collected into his final decade, Thomas Streeter into his final years. The answer is unique to each who finds in such material a desire for personal relationship. For those who make the connection collecting is enduring even if ignored for years, even decades. Such collections are who we are and from the future who we were. They define us.
Collecting is common in its simplest form and rare at the extremes. Mothers accumulate wedding and family pictures, buttons and report cards, fathers half-filled cans of paint, roadmaps, baseball gloves and camping gear. Children on the path to self-awareness accumulate bits and rubble, baseballs, pennies, and whatever. Such collections are later clues and triggers to restore and reawaken memory. We live in the present and maintain access to our lives through such things. What we choose to remember best explains how we see or saw ourselves.
For a few collecting is the gathering of objects to bring to life events, experiences and perceptions beyond our knowing. For myself, and perhaps to myself, this explains my interest in early history of the new world. In becoming interested in old books when very young, I stumbled upon a succession of worlds, some accessible, others only hinted at. Such material that was ever locally held, a hundred years before and more had already been combed from attics, collections and town libraries and found their way into institutions, to dealers and collectors before I even first looked. What I encountered in the 1950's was the close cropped meadow after the sheep have grazed. I was not dissuaded.
We Shall not Pass this way Again
The Hiftory of Trauayle, 1577
Of course things could be found. Things then too recent, common or unimportant were everywhere, the 20th century a plague to be survived, 19th century material around in random places, 18th century material almost not at all. Only once or twice I found 17th century material and when I took one such book to school to talk about it in 6th grade someone stole it. Even those who don't collect could covet.
In my twenties I was a dealer of sorts. I could find material and collectors and make a profit, doing well by doing good. In my forties, after a twenty year run building businesses I for the first time had both time and money to collect in a serious way and so began to look at acquiring some of the things I had learned of in youth but never seen. Initially I bought from many dealers with mostly indifferent results until it was suggested I contact Bill Reese of New Haven. He was helpful and sent me a list of bibliographies many of which in time I acquired. In this way I learned something of the complex world of rare books. It was both obscure and logical.
In the early 1990's on trips to Europe I met Hugh Bett of Maggs Brothers, Anthony Payne of Bernard Quaritch and Reg and Philip Remington, men who conveyed the intensity of collecting, and sent me home to Florida to build a collection that focused on the New World. Within a year I was bidding at auction and acquiring material from Bill. Over the next ten years I bought from a small group of dealers and in some cases at auction, always, perhaps with one or two exceptions, with dealer advice. In 1995 my family moved to San Francisco where I continued to collect the new world and went on to collect other things but felt then, and still feel, such early material to be uniquely exceptional. As Hugh Bett explained at the outset you must first decide to collect such material and then be patient about acquiring it. "For the most part it's not on anyone's open shelves." As I recall he explained it this way. "You have to buy it when its about." For a few years it was and I did.
In ten years I acquired an appealing collection.
I continued to read dealer and auction catalogues into the millennium and to buy randomly and along the way began other collections: American travel, auction catalogues and the Hudson Valley. If such early travel books are among the Everests of collecting, the later North American material presented interesting almost daily jaunts through the thickets of the American experience.
We Shall not Pass this way Again
Lescarbot: Nova Francia, the Siebert copy
In 2002, auction catalogues I acquired in the 1990s became one basis of the online project I started then and continue today, the Americana Exchange. AE began with a focus on historic auctions and bibliographic history and evolved, by degrees, into the relentless convergence of the traditionally fragmented book, manuscript and ephemera market into an ever more unified one-world online. Today the knitting together of collectors, dealers, libraries and book collecting clubs with research, auctions, listing sites and AE Monthly which is now the largest media devoted to books, manuscripts and ephemera field, is a continuing reality whose footprint deepens everyday.
For the past eight years AE has organized successive levels and categories of information into a single site that seeks to express the fragmented world of collectible works on paper as a unified electronic reality that has never, in real life, existed: a single search across computer and national languages to see what have been in the past disperate worlds.
In this way the largest database of auction records today shares a home with Matchmaker, the recurring meta-search, AE Monthly, Footnotes for documenting research, catalogues and listings; and the global full text search of upcoming auction lots.
The AED, as the Americana Exchange Database is called, today includes 2,221,890 full text records and is regularly updated. These days for every AED search we parse more than 600 million words of text to deliver matches in a fraction of a second. Deep, complex book history is now always one click away.
The logic of the site from the beginning was and remains simple. What we find useful we believe others will as well. In addition, in the development of the site unexpected synergies emerged. Recurring appearances at auction have developed into an informal probability of reappearance theory. Significant changes in price and sell-through rates for auction houses have developed into a tool for predicting both decline and recovery in the market. As a result we began charting the auction market by month earlier this year and since July, issue weekly reports on auction activity. We don't have all the answers but we have most of the information on something approaching a real-time basis.
For those who lived through the decline in the postage stamp market between 1980 and 1990 and watched the deep decline in prices of collectible works on paper market at auction this past year there were enough similarities for us to compare what happened then to what was happening now and to note the principal difference: the emergence of week to week clarity in the world of books, manuscripts and ephemera at auction today. Thirty years ago the primary source of pricing information for stamps was the annual Scott's catalogs which did not significantly adjust stamp values to the declining market and thereby probably contributed to the deep recession that became the decade-long Japanese style stagflation. Prices do not always rise and we can not be afraid to register declines.
We Shall not Pass this way Again
Champlain: Les Voyages, 1613
In the second half of 2008, as the world economy and works on paper went into decline, data comprising all auction sales worldwide were being continuously updated on AE. In the spring of 2009 we began to interpret the data, to provide charts on AE in June and to issue weekly reports in July. Because the auction market is comprised of individual sales that vary widely, we developed a 12 month trailing average to mute volatility by eliminating out-of-range data points on both the up and downside. With this methodology consistent change over months is required to turn trend lines in either direction. Into December 2008, the decline, after a long period of price stability, approached 40% in the final months of the year as the most important material came through the rooms. For the year, the market came off 20% and we could not be certain if the downward trend would continue but if the numbers did not quickly rebound the trailing 12 month average would continue to decline as weak months in 2009 replaced strong months in 2008.
In the spring there was anxiety.
That rare and collectible books, manuscripts and ephemera became caught up in the economic upheaval should surprise no one. That the downturn would become intertwined with concerns about changing preferences was also logical if probably overstated. Google, in our opinion, will not destroy the rare book business but neither are values constant. Adam Smith's invisible hand simply is more visible. Markets change.
But more efficient markets will not diminish collecting, only alter its pursuit. Collecting is an aspect of our humanity, and has certainly existed since the beginning of time. It moves across generations, disappearing and reappearing. In just the past eight decades it survived the depression, sputnik and television and now confronts the latest interloper: the internet. Through all this the desire to collect persists. It persists and it changes. In fact change is the constant. Recently the rate of change has been high.
The emergence of online databases of books for sale and auction history, in providing extensive information, make it possible for buyers and sellers to make informed decisions. In periods of relative stability these databases may be less important. In periods of great flux they can play a crucial role by providing up to the minute information.
Fast forward to this summer, comments from collectors, dealers and auction houses
were suggesting continuing interest to buy, and a lack of certainty as to what to pay.
We Shall not Pass this way Again
Hakluyt: The Virginia map
By early August it became clear, from the general results at auction, that the market was holding, stabilizing if not recovering. By the end of the month, when major sales for the fall season were committed and many announced it became apparent consignors, many unconvinced, had withheld some or all of their commitments. What the market then needed was a collection of significant material with low reserves to be sold at public auction to establish the current valuation.
At that moment, looking at the shortage of premium material and statistics suggesting an emerging market recovery, I decided to send the de Orbe Novo Collection into the rooms in December.
As to where to sell I gave some consideration to selling in England but the material, though of European interest, was clearly American. I thought initially about sending $250,000 each to Sotheby's, Christie's, Bloomsbury and Swann but, when the discussion opened with Bloomsbury they quickly sent two experts, Tom Lamb and Richard Austin, to San Francisco to spend two days evaluating material. Within a few hours they offered a single owner sale in November [later changed to December].
In consigning I requested, and Bloomsbury subsequently agreed, to provide in their online version the full text electronic footnoting we have developed on AE - to directly link items offered with substantial portions of their auction history.
As the consignor I could insist that reserves be set low enough to engage multiple bidders. Consistent with this I asked E. M. Granger of 42 Line to create a bookplate specifically for the eighty-one items in the sale. It reads simply Liceat Decernere Foro which translates as "Let the market decide."
In keeping with my belief in clarity I set one further requirement: that purchase information for each book be included in the description. The source, be it dealer or auction house, the year purchased and the price paid be given. I bought this material from the best sources, often with the advice of others. I believe their involvement adds substantially to the appeal of the material.
Providing this information also invests in this sale a sense of drama. Whether a collector, rare book librarian, dealer or bystander the inner workings of the world of books at the highest level, will for a few hours, be on public display.
I believe, because of the clarity provided, that this sale will be written about, discussed and ultimately remembered as a benchmark. When any of the eighty-one items in the years to come return to the rooms, auction houses will invariably note and auction scribes pay attention to how such copies have fared through time. They'll pull out their abacus, slide rules and calculators and exhale a hummmm. What the hummmm will mean I don't know. But if you live long enough you will.
For myself I expect a future footnote in auction and dealer catalogues will from time to time raise the questions "what's this and who was that?" In that way this story will come to light again. My name isn't on the book plate although my illegible signature is. It will be only the most diligent that look and an even smaller group that acquire the facts to recreate the story generations hence. But it will happen and it will be the very people, who in life I most admired, who will sort the facts from the distance that passing times provides, and render a verdict that I will accept.