Auctions: The Perfect Storm

- by Bruce E. McKinney

Third

Auction searches offer a fascinating picture of the world of books.


By Bruce McKinney

A few years ago the book "The Perfect Storm" by Sebastian Junger described the confluence of events leading, in his work of fiction, to a storm of gargantuan strength. This fall, in the field of printed works, auctions are experiencing a version of it. Lot volume has been huge and buyers are coming out in record numbers to absorb material as it pours into the marketplace. For the first time online bidding is materially affecting realizations. Consignments to auction are also increasing. Both eBay and AE are making it easier to find auction material that has until recently required money, time and luck. Now it takes only brains. With enhanced internet tools and aggregation of dozens of auctions and thousands of lots it's becoming simply a matter of skill. Dealers will tell you they pore over auction catalogues but practically speaking it's an inefficient use of time and one few collectors who hold day jobs have enough hours to pursue. On AE today there are 19,685 lots heading into the rooms over the next month, thirty thousand more to sell by year-end. How does the interested observer locate interesting material? By using an approach that fits both the collector's perspective and the internet's capabilities: personally selected term searches in a fraction of a second.

Most collectors, if reading an auction catalogue, look for specific subjects if not specific material. They peruse each page and illustration. On the net you start by identifying areas of interest and search related terms, any terms. Zoology? There are six lots in 4 auctions and 34 others upcoming that aren't offering any zoology tonight. Each match contains the full lot description and links to the auction house. In learning this by running a free search you save $1,000 on catalogues this month, at least one hundred hours of reading and learn sooner, soon enough to bid if you wish. On average on AE sales are posted two weeks before tip-off. If zoology is your only area of interest you are done for the day. Check back toward the end of the week. Fresh lots are always going up.

Most people who buy at auction look broadly because they need to do so. It's a compromise born of experience. A typical catalogue contains 400 lots. There are at least 400,000 collectible titles and editions. Chances that an auction has what you want are small so you broaden your perspective and the auction house broadens their descriptions. You collect material about rope and they offer a letter about a high-wire act. In the world of printed catalogues that's a match. Without stretching your definitions almost nothing ever fits within your parameters. Now let's search upcoming auctions using Search and Research and the term: rope. Recently there were 8 lots containing the term. Swann offers Houdini material with a reference to "magical rope" and a second lot titled Sorcar with "rope trick." Bloomsbury, in England, tenders a different book mentioning "rope tricks." Bonhams suggests "Men of Rope being the History of Tubbs County." Cowans offers two lots: one containing the term "whirling rope" and the second an actual portion of the rope that hanged John Brown [of John Brown's body]. If you are a collector of rope your dreams are finally realized. The world for the first time makes sense.