AE Monthly

Articles - January - 2007 Issue

The Power of Book Auction History

Munsell.a copy

Five sales of Munsell material


By Bruce McKinney

We are accustomed to books of history and books of significance that are themselves often the agents of history entering the auction rooms from time to time to move from the lessening grip of sellers to the outstretched hands of buyers. In Europe this is an ancient sport, in America a newer but nevertheless very old one. We recently added a source to the AED to follow the ebb and flow of book, manuscript and ephemera sales at auction in America from those first recorded in the 17th until well into the 20th century. The initial source is American Book Auction Catalogues 1713-1934 -- A Union List compiled by George L. McKay with an Introduction by Clarence S. Brigham. In this reference there are 10,619 entries noting two 17th century sales and a continuing drum beat of events from 1713 to the study's conclusion in 1934. It was an admirable effort at completeness and remains today substantially correct. But it also left enough auctions undiscovered to make comparison of your holdings to the full directory of listings worthwhile. Many dealers and collectors in searching these records will find auction catalogues in their possession that eluded this first effort at completeness. It's our hope that you'll share this information. We'll in turn elaborate the records and credit the source.

This database will serve three masters: the description writer who seeks information about owners and ownership; the book owner who seeks their copy's history; and historian who will find in the changing material, description structure and circumstances of the sellers and buyers the literary effluent of a rapidly changing society.

For the description writer accustomed to parsing clues these records provide an additional avenue for searching ownership history, always attractive details for the potential buyer. For those whose books are already on their shelves it's an additional source of information to answer the questions "who is" and "is this important." For the cataloguer and the book owner the searches will be mainly for specific references. For the historian it is the entire database and the ebb and flow of material over decades and centuries who may gain the most. There is a history of America in these records that is worth taking the time to understand. We did not always watch television.

Some Statistics

The first sale is recorded in 1665 and the final sales in this run in 1934. There are 10,619 individual auctions. Beginning 1713 [when auctions are first regularly reported] and continuing to 1800 there are 859 sales, an average of about 10 per year. Between 1801 and 1850 the reported annual average remains at 10 per year although efforts to charge auctioneers high licensing fees may simply have driven the sales off High Street and into the alleys.

AE Monthly


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