An Auction Up Close
With low reserves was change in the air?
By Bruce McKinney
On December 3rd, at 10:30 am or a bit after at Bloomsbury's New York second floor gallery on 48th Street, Stephen Massey opens the bidding on the first of 81 lots in the de Orbe Novo Collection of material relating to the new world. The responsibility for calling the sale is to be divided between Mr. Massey and Peter Costanzo. Stephen will call the first 51 lots and Peter the final 30.
As consignor I am four floors up, in Bloomsbury's back offices, sitting at a computer watching on Live Auctioneers; the single camera channeling the sale - focused on the auctioneer. There is no sense of who or how many are in the auction room. On my way up to the 6th floor I pressed the second floor stop. The doors opened and I saw that bidders were forced to stand well away from auction area, a good sign suggesting the main room is full. I step out, think better of it, step back in and proceed to the 6th floor. Like a true believer in the burned out region of upstate New York in the 1840s, as they climbed trees, I climb stairs, we both to get closer to God, always a good place to be when your material goes to auction and your reserves are low.
At a sale everyone is invited except the consignor whose presence may be a wet blanket. Once upstairs, the Bloomsbury staff, turns on a terminal set to carry the action to the most affected, the consignor. I'm told the portents are encouraging, the room full, the buzz positive. As I haven't been in this position before I can only take it in. I have nothing to compare. In any event, the process will be surgical and brief. Stephen Massey steps to the podium, announces the sale and reads several announcements. It's 10:40 am.
I long ago decided on low reserves and chose "let the market decide" as the sale theme. I'm comfortable with numbers: probabilities the way I see the world. Over the past year, as principal strategist for AE, I've seen a clear pattern in the decline in auction realizations in the works on paper field. Dollar denominated sales fell hard last fall - roughly 40% year over year while non-dollar sales held up through the spring. Into summer the American sales stabilized while Europan sales collapsed. In August dollar denominated sales began to rebound but most consignors held back looking for further confirmation. At that moment I committed this sale for the late fall.
As Stephen Massey warms up the crowd I have a few microseconds to reconsider the key decision - to set low reserves. Auctions these days tend to fall into two categories according to their reserves: high or low. I prefer to bid at auctions with low reserves and tend to shun those with high reserves unless a particular reserve is mistakenly low. Years ago I decided I would not use high reserves if ever I sent material into the rooms. It cost me nothing to believe that then. Today that idea is a zero coupon bond with a mystery payout now coming due. I'll get to pay a price if I'm wrong.
An Auction Up Close
Life and death at 100 yards
I have also broken with tradition by including source, year and price paid for each item. I know that this is important for the field but not yet certain how bidders will respond. Bloomsbury has over the four and half months we have been preparing this sale, moved week by week from "you're not serious" to "you're serious" to "it's your decision" to "we think it will be okay." I understand their concerns. This is an important sale but, as an auction house, they need new consignments all the time. Should the field raise an uproar, they will walk with me to death row but won't be holding my hand when the electric shock is delivered.
Stephen opens lot one. It's Breydenbach's 1490 "Peregrinatio in terram sanctam." It's not a new world item but was purchased as a view of the world in the final moments of the "world before Columbus." It's a hand colored copy I purchased from Richard Lan in 2000 for $145,000. It brings $108,000 in 90 seconds. Bloomsbury had estimated it at $70,0000 to $100,000.
Lot 2 is Hartmann Schedel's "Das Buch der Croniken und Geschichten" printed in 1493. The new world has been discovered but the news not reached Nuremberg. Nothing of course has changed today. News travels faster but acceptance still takes time. I bought this copy at Sotheby's London in 2000 for $176,720. Today, with an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000, it brings $180,000.
Lot 3 is Giuliano Dati's "Il Secondo Cantare del' India. Mr. Dati had the good sense to write about the new world before anyone but Columbus and his very brief pronouncements have come down to us as harbingers of the new world. I bought it from Stephane Clavreuil in Paris in 1998 for $110,000. It quickly changes hands at $102,000.
Lot 4 is Baptista Mantuanus's "De patientia aurei libri tres." I bought it from Bill Reese in 2000 for $7,000. Today it is estimated $5,000-$7,000 and brings $7,200.
I'm encouraged. I know that prices generally peaked around 2006, treaded water into early 2008 before evaporating in the fourth quarter. I have believed the market bottomed in 2009 and is, by category, recovering at different rates. This material falls into the strongest category because it is European-Americana and attracts old world interest from bidders whose currencies are much stronger than the dollar. Their dollar chips these days cost only 80 cents +/-.
Lot 5 is BERGOMENSIS FORESTI's 1497 "Nouissime historia omniu[m] repercussiones, nouiter [editae]... que Supplementum." Estimated at $5,000-$7,000 it brings $9,000. I bought it in 1995 at a New York Historical Society sale at Sotheby's for $2,587.
Lot 6 is another new world reference. This one, printed in 1497, is Johann Stamler's "Dyalogus ... de diversarum gencium sectis et mundi religionibus." I bought it at Swann in 2000 for $1,300. Today it is estimated at $1,500 to $2,500 and brings $4,560.
An Auction Up Close
An auction is a team effort
The sale is now 9 minutes in and I'm thinking several options are off the table. Going into the sale I saw the possibilities this way.
1. $500,000 net from a sale of $600,000 that sees only a small number of items sell. Most of the material would return to San Francisco, This would suggest a failure for the market, Bloomsbury and AE. I doubted such an outcome but rated it 1/100.
2. $1,400,000 was the everything sells at the reserve possibility. Both Richard Austin and Tom Lamb of Bloomsbury have told me "it won't happen." Going into the sale they are increasingly optimistic. 1/10
3. $2,000,000 to 2,400,000 80% of the lots sell for prices that confirm a bottom in the rare book market is in place. This would be a close to break-even on the 10 year investment in these books. Given that the market has weakened substantially this will be encouraging for the field overall. We all get to eat - at MacDonald's. 7/10
4. $2,500,000+ While a possibility I never really give it much thought. Nate DeMarais of Michael Sharpe in Pasadena called in early November to say the sale was a lock for $3.4 million. I told him "from your lips to God's ears." A few weeks later I ran into Michael Vinson at the Boston Book Fair and he said the sale was going to do very well, "$3.0 million anyway." They are about to be proven correct but, as the sale gets under way the $2.5 million option is a 1/5 possibility, $3.5 million 1/100.
Lot 7 is an obscure work by Ludovico di Varthema, "Novum itinerarium Arthiopiae...", first account of a pilgrimmage to Mecca. The book was published after 25 May, 1511. It's No. 36 in Church but its connection to the new world obscure. I bought it at Sotheby's London in 2000 for $54,000. Today it brings the same price.
In 1997 and 1998 I purchased a group of items from H. P. Kraus. They will prove to be several of the stars today. Lot 8 is Johannes Stobnicza's "Introductio in Ptholomei Cosmographia[m]cu[m]." This was item 18 in Kraus' Catalogue 185. I paid $13,200 for the privilege of ownership and it sells today for $$66,000.
Lot 9 is another H. P. Kraus item. It's Johann Shoener's "Luculentissima quaeda[m] terrae totius descriptio: cu[m] multis utilissimis ..." This 1515 Nuremberg imprint brings $78,000 against an estimate of $20,000 to $30,000. I paid $33,750 in 1998.
Lot 10 is a 1535 Waldeemueller map - Terra Nova Ocenunus Occidentalis [(titled on verso). I brought it at Sotheby's in 1998 for $5,750. Today it is estimated $5,000 to $7,000 and brings $12,000.
Ten lots into the sale all lots have sold raising $620,760.
Lot 11 is Solinus' "In C. Julii Solini Polyistora enarrationes." I purchased this 1520 imprint from H. P. Kraus for $21,120 in 1998. Today it is estimated $30,000 to $50,000 and brings $60,000.
An Auction Up Close
Lot 12 is another Varthema; this the 1520 edition. I bought it from Bill Reese in 1998 for $37,345. Today, against an estimate of $15,000 to $20,000, it brings $57,600.
Lot 13 is the first obtainable edition of the Cortes Letter published in Basel in 1521. I bought it from Asher Rare Books in 2002 for $12,975. Today it is estimated $20,000 to $30,000 and brings $36,000.
Lot 14 is Bernhard Von Breydenbach's "Le Grant Voyage de Hierusalem printed in Paris in 1521. I acquired this copy from Maggs Brothers in 2000 for $8,420. Today, against estimates of $10,000 to $15,000, it brings $6,000.
I have told Bloomsbury to accept all reasonable bids. It's not an auction if the market can't set the prices. Lot 15 confirms they are following the plan.
Lot 15 is another item I purchased at the 1995 Sotheby's sale of New York Historical Society material. It is Cortes' 1524 "La preclara Narratione di Ferdinando Cortese della Nuoua Hispagna." I paid $3,737 and today, against estimates of $5,000 to $8,000, it brings $4,560. This copy was presented to the society by James Lenox. It is in an ugly green box that no doubt detracts from its appeal. It was also incomplete, in particular lacking the map. In any event it was a privilege to own this copy, to, for 15 years share a connection to James Lenox, the 19th century bibliophile and philanthropist whose collection was incorporated into the New York Public Library in 1895. I hope this book goes into the collection of someone who appreciates its significance. It matters.
In 1994 I went to London to bid at the Botfield Sale conducted by Christie's. I bought Peter Martyr's "De orbe novo" printed in 1530. I paid $28,230. Today it is lot 16, and against estimates of $30,000 to $50,000, brings $66,000. It's very rare and enjoys an impeccable provenance. It's title provides the name for this collection.
Lot 17 is Robertus Monachus' "Bellum Christianorum principum, praecipue Callorum, contra Saracenos, ... ", printed in Basel in 1533. Bill Reese represented me at a German auction [which one is unclear]. It was $1,307 in 1993 and brings $5,760 today.
Lot 18 is Benedetto Bordone's "Isolario ...Nel qual si ragiona di tutte l'Isole del mondo... Con la gionta del Monte del ... " printed in Venice in 1534. I bought this copy at New York Historical Society sale in 1995 for $5,462. Today it brings $13,200.
Lot 19 is Peter Martyr's "Summario de la General Historia de L'Indie Occidentali Cavato da libri scritti" printed in Venice in 1554. I bought it from Bill Reese in 2000 for $35,000. Today, against estimates of $20,000 to $30,000 it brings $18,000. Prices for rare books generally rose steadily in the 1990s culminating with the Siebert Sales in 1999 which appeared to set the market on the path to another decade of rising prices. The market did rise through 2000 but was unable to rise further except for the occasional exceptional item. The theme of this auction is "let the market decide" and this outcome evidence that market has pulled back.
An Auction Up Close
Lot 20 is another item purchased in 2000. It's Francisco de Xerez's "Libro primo de la conquista del Peru & provincia del Cuzco de le Indie occidentali...", printed in Rome in 1535 and estimated today to bring $9,000 to $12,000. It sells for $7,800. I paid $9,700 in a Sotheby's sale in London in 2000.
The sale is now one quarter in. Lots 11 to 20 bring $274,920, the first 20 $895,680. The sale is now projecting $3.5 million. I give my wife a kiss and tell her I think we'll do some serious shopping for her after the sale wraps up. AE has always been a complex project, the exploration of the unknown, the sorting out of information and egos, AE often unwelcome. We have nevertheless pushed ahead, seeing past resistance, to the field's ultimate need for such services. In this Jenny has been my complete partner. This sale is going to work well and in our shared glance we exchange a look confirming we both understand what is happening here today. If it's 1840 we can come down from the trees.
The sequence of items is in date order. Lots 21 to 30 encompass 1538 to 1557 and bring $325,200. Two items typify the group. Lot 25 is an important [but not exceptionally important] book. It's the first edition , in German of Hernando Cortes' second and third letters. It's a superb copy befitting its source, Librairie Thomas-Scheler of Paris. What makes it far rarer is the indicia on its cover. This is the copy of the great bibliographer Ternaux-Compans. This is an extraordinary association copy. I paid $10,000 in 1995 and it brings $10,200 today. For some very lucky and serious collector this is an absolute gem.
Lot 26 is another item I purchased from Librairie Thomas-Scheler. It is a complete set of the La Casas indian tracts. There are 8 parts in two volumes. I acquired the set for $42,500 in 1996. Today it brings $132,000. It is an important set, a desirable item, bedrock to any collection of the New World.
Lots 31 to 40 bring $332,640, the first 40 lots $1,476,960.
Lots 51 to 60, spanning the period 1596 to 1607, bring $147,240, the total $1,624,200 to this point. The most important item in the sale is coming up.
Lots 61 and 62 are Siebert items, both purchased at the first Siebert sale in May, 1999. That day interest ran high. The Siebert collection was a gem of obsession for early and original material. To buy these two editions of Lescarbot [1609 and 1618] I had to offer more than other determined bidders bid. That day I paid $137,000. Today they bring $144,000. Their impeccable provenance carried the day. In 1999 the two were estimated $15,000 to $20,000 each, today $50,000 to $80,000.
And then lot 67 comes up. Peter Costanzo is now calling the sale. It's Samuel Champlain's "Les Voyages de Sieur de Champlain," dated 1613, containing an exceptional copy of the book with an unobtainable copy of a map of the new world. By later reports there are seven bidders in the room and on the phones offering $300,000. The bidding races to $500,000 and then by increments of $50,000 to $600,000. At $650,000 an English dealer takes it. With commission the lot brings $758,000.
When the hammer comes down on the final lot at about 12:15 77 of the 81 lots have sold. An offer is immediately received for the 4 unsold lots and a counter offer given. Another buyer then makes an offer which is rendered moot when the counter is accepted. That offer is then allocated between the four lots according to their estimates and the sale recorded as 100% sold.
Proceeds from the sale total $3,489,440, double the low estimate, three times the reserve. These 81 items cost $2.4 million. Net of commission the sale brings in $2.85 million, a 20% return on material purchased, on average, a decade ago and sold today, during an economic slump. It suggests serious collecting remains viable, an encouraging prospect for those who find meaning in life through their passion for collectible material.
Left to decide the market found the material, presentation, timing and estimates appealing. For the 81 lots there were about 75 registered and 32 successful bidders. For the premium portion of the rare book market it is confirmation, as the numbers suggested last summer, that the bottom is in and buyers ready to acquire. On December 3rd they did, delivering a clear signal to a nervous market, that the passion for great material survives.
The auction over, its time for lunch and an excursion to buy Jenny several outfits. If the sale hadn't done well she would have politely declined. That we're heading in that direction confirms our satisfaction with the outcome and Bloomsbury's superb execution.