|item #7 - "Etchings of a Whaling Cruise"|
Before I got married my girlfriend and I adopted a darling little tabby kitten named Nanny. The girlfriend departed and, for logistical reasons, I was granted custody of the kitty. Nanny and I set up housekeeping, and she soon grew up to be not a graceful mommycat, but a nasty, tough, wonderful old tom – the perfect companion for a randy young bachelor. Nanny ruled the neighborhood and often took longer road trips to lands and ladies beyond the boundaries of his kingdom. He'd return from these rambles with an eye puffed shut or an ear hanging by a thread, and sleep for a week.
That was how I felt upon my return from New York last Monday, except I didn't get to sleep for a week. My website was down, my email had blown up, two week's worth of bills were sitting on my desk, and Maritime List 229 desperately needed finishing.
|item #12 - Trade Card for Whale Oil Lubricant|
So I hitched up the mule and started plowing and, and after four days (and several hundred dollars spent on computer geniuses) things were more or less in order. Only then did I have a moment to reflect on my experiences in New York the week before. All the things I'd seen and heard needed to be considered, digested, put in perspective.
Most remarkable was a story told to me by a colleague with whom I'd done a great deal of business over the years.
He had a wealthy, impulsive, and very skittish customer who had become convinced that all dealers were, to a greater or lesser degree, stacking the deck against their customers, and that auctions were the only fair and transparent market.
It makes sense intuitively – people competing openly against one another rather than trusting any single individual. As Forbes Magazine put it:
Auctions, in theory anyway, determine price and possession in accordance with the laws of supply and demand, and adhere, again in theory, to some measure of transparency: if you want something, you just pay more for it than anyone else will, and the price—but not the purchaser—will be a matter of public record. Gallerists, by contrast, unilaterally determine a sale price, and then anoint a buyer, based on their own arcane calculations of what’s best for their artists, their clients, or themselves.
Substitute “book dealers” for “gallerists” and eliminate “artists,” and you have a succinct summary of the mindset of my colleague's skittish customer. Certainly, auction rooms have been vigorously promoting this view, and venues like Rare Book Hub, for example, publicize auction houses while suggesting that private dealers are inefficient and obsolescent, if not downright untrustworthy.
But back to my colleague and the wary customer. Inevitably, as his high opinion of auction houses solidified, the customer began buying exclusively at auction. My colleague had a great deal of interesting material to offer this fellow (some of which he'd bought from me) but was completely frustrated by the customer's steadfast refusal to deal with a “middleman.”
|item #16 - Brooks Shipyard, East Boston|
So my colleague went into partnership with a prominent auction house, which purchased an interest in the material he had intended to offer to his customer. This material will be featured in a forthcoming auction. The wary customer will get the catalog, of course, and he'll also get a friendly call from the auction house, doing him the favor of alerting him to some interesting material that will be coming up for sale. Presumably the customer will purchase the material - probably at prices considerably in advance of what my colleague would have sold it for – completely satisfied that he'd cut out the middleman (my colleague) and had made his purchases in the most open and transparent market.
It's just a story, I know. Typical of the juicy tidbits one picks up at a book fair. But here's the takeaway:
While it is easy to point to the Internet as the major game changer in our trade over the past few decades, the rise of the auction houses has been every bit as disruptive to what once passed for the norm. Auctioneers have been wildly successful in promoting themselves as the only fair and transparent venue, and now that they've gained dominance they've begun to squeeze – with buyer's premiums up to 25% and with an ownership stake in more and more of the material being offered for sale. When I started in this business in the 1970s, established dealers could routinely expect calls from estate lawyers, collectors, or institutions interested in selling material. The times they are a changin'.