AE Monthly

Articles - July - 2011 Issue

A Book Still Worth Reading:  Anatomy of an Auction

Foley

Three hundred years of book collecting

By many accounts the auctioneers enjoyed a strong reputation and did not blunder altogether.  They disposed of the estate’s paintings, furniture and real estate effectively while failing badly with the books.  The printed holdings they were charged to sell were the culmination of three hundred years of collecting by the Foley family that had intermittently exercised extraordinary judgment in their acquisitions.  A financially pressed nineteen-year-old heir ordered the estate dispersed in 1919 and failed badly in his choice of auctioneers.  He is not blameless.

The auction house then failed to appreciate what they was entrusted to sell and then failed again to guard against the English rare book trade that was known upon occasion to organize itself as a ring, to steal libraries at auction book by book by inviting potential bidders into a conspiracy to limit the public auction bidding.  Their lure was the opportunity to share in gains on the public prices achieved in the post-auction ring auctions conducted immediately following the public sale.  Participants would receive both a share of those gains and also have the opportunity to bid on all items now removed from public view.  In this sale the ring purchased 447 of 641 items and by all accounts the bulk of the valuable material.

The books were highly unusual, most very old, many unique.  Resources were at hand to establish values and the auctioneers would have known about them.  Book Auction Prices, an English publication, had published annual volumes since 1903.  Castiglione & Scott’s failure to consult or worse yet, possibly to willfully ignore them, would amount to dereliction.  Auction houses then as now were responsible for understanding what they were selling and explaining it clearly.  They failed to do this.  Subsequent to the sale it would be uncovered that the publishers of these records, Henry Stevens, Sons & Stiles, themselves dealers, were ring members.  In their next annual edition of Book Auction Records [1920] they omitted any reference to the sale.

AE Monthly


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