Auction House Perspective: Who is the new book collector?
By Bruce McKinney
This month I interviewed representatives of three auction houses about who is and where is the new book collector? They are Dr. Martin Gammon of Bonhams & Butterfields, Doug Johns of Johns' Western Gallery, and George Fox of PBA Galleries. In February I asked four dealers the same question. The differences both between what booksellers had to say and what auction representatives this month are saying illustrates the complexity of the book, manuscript and ephemera categories as well as the differences in approach taken to them in the auction field. A seemingly simple question yields complex clues if no outright answers.
The auction house sale banner furls high above a diverse community and has for hundreds of years. For generations beyond personal recall possessions have been redistributed within the community by inheritance, gift and sale, often by auction. In North America for 350 years and in Europe for much longer, such sales, often including books, have been cried out and hammered. Down through time "by auction" has emerged as a synonym for sale by necessity and what this simply means today is that at a time fixed items will be sold for prices determined by demand. By comparison, what a dealer offers is a set price with the time of sale unknown. Both approaches have their virtues and auction their necessity. Printed material at fixed prices dwarfs books at auction though the market for books at auction has been growing exponentially.
Auction is a term that has one basic meaning but many different forms. And as different as these forms are they are all several magnitudes removed from the four dealers we interviewed in February. They differ in how they describe, how they promote, what they charge, where they sell and who they sell to: all the time retaining characteristics that define them as auctions. Perhaps the largest differences are in the basis for sale and few auctions houses have only one. Without reserve means that should someone bid just a dollar, and no one else bid, a Gutenberg Bible could sell for that price. Such sales [in principal but not for a Gutenberg as far as we know] occur, most often in the country circuit where, by midnight, all will be sold or sent to the dump. This is why auctions are interesting. You never really know what is going to happen.
All this is to explain how auctions, while selling similar and often the same material as dealers, are a very different breed. In Vegas this mentality takes them to the high stakes tables so it's surprising to interview three auction men that hardly seem like gunslingers. Appearances apparently are deceiving.