In terms of total dollars, global auction sales of rare books in the 2nd and 3rd quarters of 2016 were slightly down from the same period in 2015; this year’s $87 million figure, for the period, represents a 6% decrease compared to last year.
But a closer look at the top three markets – the United States, France and the United Kingdom – reveals a notable fall in this year’s sales in the U.S. The slowdown in America’s biggest auction market is partially due to the strong dollar. American buyers are still incredibly important to rare book auction sales worldwide, regardless of the location, and continue to lead global demand. It seems that smart buyers took advantage of the stronger dollar to place their bids in other currencies, namely the British pound.
Spring’s highlight was a two-day Sotheby’s Paris auction in late April of the remarkable Bibliotheque R. & B.L. Dada-Surrealisme, on the year of the 100th year anniversary of the birth of Dada, which brought 5,775,802 Euro. Among the many impressive works up for auction, the showstopper was an album of rayographs, Les Champs délicieux, by Man Ray that soared to €243,000 (estimate: €120,000-150,000), the highest price paid for an item during the two-day sale.
The summer season brought two successes in the British market, boosted by the devaluation of the British currency following the Brexit vote. The two auctions held at Christie’s London King Street location generated over 12 million British pounds combined. The first of a two part auction held on July 13, the Giancarlo Beltrame Library sold a number of scientific rare books which were meticulously kept in perfect condition. Mr. Beltrame (1925-2011) was an exceptional personality, a world-class entrepreneur, a collector or scientific instruments and rare books.
The second, the summer auction on “Valuable Books and Manuscripts,” generated a million more British pounds than the year before. It included a Johann Sebastian Bach autographed music manuscript, titled ‘Prelude [– Fuga – Allegro] pour la Luth. ò Cembal. Par J.S. Bach’, for the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro for lute or keyboard in E flat major, BWV 998, n.d. [c.1735-1740]. There are about ten of Bach’s complete autograph manuscripts that are thought to have survived in private hands. The manuscript is one of only three for instrumental compositions. It sold for GBP 2,518,500, at the high end of its estimated value.
On-line sales of collectible category books are still behind auctions in terms of total sales by value. Unlike the results from the major auction houses, European sales online are currently trending downward. The number of top value items sold through Abebooks this year, included 17% less from European sales compared to last year. In fact, 4 out of the top 5 sales conducted during the same quarter last year were through European dealers, while that number is down to one so far this year. It seems that US buyers have not taken advantage of the strong dollar through on-line purchases.
Sales at international book fairs are demonstrating the predictable nature of the marketplace: a scarce book, in perfect condition, offered at a discount price, does get sold. The discounted pricing is clearly marked on the currency conversion rate signs posted by dealers, such as Adrian Harrington and Peter Harrington from the UK. Our discussions with the dealers during such events as these are confirming a similar trend as the one exhibited at auction: more sales to American buyers. It should be interesting to find out if the trend continues during this week’s 40th Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair.
While deep discounts at the book fairs attract impulse buyers, now, more than ever the auction market has become extremely focused. Well-preserved rare books in excellent condition with impeccable provenance will continue to sell at premium, as the Giancarlo Beltrame Library at Christy’s, (which topped the presale high estimate by 46 percent) demonstrated.