Collecting: A Changing Perspective
Markets go up and down
By Bruce McKinney
Two thousand and nine was a difficult year. What began as a succession of acute financial problems experienced around the world has become a chronic condition that dims, by degree, our views and expectations for the next few years. For people who live and die with books it was been particularly unsettling to see committed collectors and institutions struggle with budgets. The will is strong, the capability diminished. This is not the first time this has happened but it has been long enough that we grew complacent that it could happen again. This time round the recovery will be different as increasing transparency alters not only value but preferences.
Buyers now routinely search for material on line. They haunt listing sites, auctions and eBay, often now in preference to visiting shops and shows. Not so many years ago collectors routinely visited dealers and keenly anticipated shows for the unusual opportunities they presented. Today dealer material is increasingly on line and while the material at shows remains compelling it's no longer only available at shows. Special copies and others like them are online and increasingly easy to find. This is the difference that a decade has made. In those ten years the selling, acquiring and collecting of printed material has undergone a seismic shift. A field that once thrived on obscurity becomes increasingly transparent.
All this information, not surprisingly, changes not only what and where material is offered but also what is bought and paid. Rarity is increasingly defined by appearances on the web rather than by unilateral dealer declarations sometimes quoting out-of-date sources. Rarity it turns out is a moving target easily assessed online using listing sites to determine present availability and the AED [The Americana Exchange Database] the past appearances. All this information changes more than what acquirers pay. It also changes what they buy.
Today collecting is becoming a variation on exceptionalism. Some purse the exceptionally important and rare in superb condition, others narrowly defined subjects with an intensity that has become possible only as the internet made the material visible. In between, these two forms of collecting, there continues to be the traditional range of intensity, commitment and knowledge for book collecting. But what was once a collecting range most focused at its center has become a field where the deeply committed reside at the extremes. So when dealers remark that there are fewer collectors they are referring to the declining presence of buyers in the middle because these are the collectors that dealers traditionally served: those that collect generally, often under the guidance of dealers. Collectors today however tend to collect at the edges: pursuing exceptional material or deep collections on narrow, often obscure subjects. In both cases they are independent and tending to be self-sufficient.
Collecting: A Changing Perspective
The new collector: prospecting
If the pursuit of exceptional material requires money, patience and judgment, the pursuit of intensive narrow collections rely on filtering software, patience and experience. Narrow collections can be expensive but most are not. What is similar with these approaches is the satisfaction they bring. They are light-years apart in style but both will be celebrated when sold or donated to institutions in the years to come.
For dealers this transition in collecting style is complicated by the fixed nature of inventory which tends to be more general than a successful collector's focus. As a result, even if a collector prefers to deal with a few dealers, if they search randomly they encounter more sources and more options. As a consequence the new collector, simply using the resources available, tends to replace traditional dealer-client relationships with an ever-changing group of sources that provide material to collections they generally have no idea about. In this new world the collector builds the collection. In the world that slips away the dealer built the collection for the collector.
So is the dealer done for? I think not, particularly at the top of the market. Many collectors and institutions prefer the assurance of the money back guarantee that dealers often provide; the higher cost offsetting the reduced risks of defective and made-up copies. As well, to bid at auction, a collector, In my opinion, needs representation and if a consistent client of a dealer, can expect such service.
For most collectors however, their exceptionalism will manifest itself in the building of self-directed collections. They will, by degree, focus on a field, follow availability, note the frequency of appearance, develop opinions about condition, remember the sources and track the analogous material that vies for inclusion within their ever-refining scope of collection. In a few years this jiggering with the equation that begins as chopsticks becomes a Brahms concerto.
Either way, or employing the more traditional middle ground of collecting techniques, 2010 looks to be doubly difficult for many dealers and a rich opportunity for collectors.