Rare Book Sale MonitorRecently, book collectors, book dealers, auctioneers and book trade organizers, connected in three virtual spaces for the annual Rare Book Week, which usually take place in the month of November, in Boston. The new virtual platform settings had the obvious benefits of enhanced reach, scalability and cost-effectiveness, for the organizers, and the potential of boosting their return on investment. Less obvious were the effects on both the buyers and the sellers. On the surface, sellers should have benefited from a more global reach, while buyers could have found it easier to search and compare prices. However, an obvious drawback for the buyer in a virtual event is the lack of hands-on assessment of the condition of a potential purchase.

Our Rare Books Sale Monitor, (stay tuned for the Virtual RBSM coming soon), tracked the activity of all three of these events and collected the insightful data presented below. Please note that the figures do not include the 25% buyer premium assessed at the Skinner auction or any dealer discounts offered during transactions.


Number of dealers participating: 183 exhibiting a maximum of 60 items each.
Most expensive item listed: “An Unmatchable Collection” by Dumas, Alexandre. $525,000 .
Most items priced at: $750 .
Most copies of single title available for sale: (4) “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Lee Harper.
Most expensive item sold, $45,000 paid for: “Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States by the National Woman Suffrage Association” by Anthony Susan B. Lucretia Mott Elizabeth Cady Stanton et al.
Least expensive item sold, $25 paid for: “Having A Baby Can Be A Scream” by Rivers, Joan.
Most of the items sold at: $250.
Most copies of single title sold : (2) “Le Livre des mortes” Prinner, Anton (illustrator).

Number of dealers participating: 232 exhibiting a maximum of 21 item each.
Most expensive item listed: Dickens Charles. A Christmas Carol. A presentation copy to a German wine merchant. $108,000.
Most items priced at: $250.
Most copies of single title available for sale : (3) “Typed Letter Signed as President” .
Most expensive item sold, $20,000 paid for: “When We Were Very Young (INSCRIBED); Winnie-the-Pooh; Now We Are Six; The House at Pooh Corner” by Milne A.A.
Least expensive item sold: “A Northern Christmas” by Kent Rockwell. $20.
Most of the items sold at: $250.
Most copies of single title sold : (3) “Typed Letter Signed as President” .

Skinner auction:
Number of items sold above the high estimate: 137.
Most expensive item listed: “Edward Steichen’s Personal Set of Camera Work Vol. 1-50.” by Stieglitz, Alfred $425,000.
Most items priced at: $400 .
Most copies of single title available for sale (2): “Dessins et Peintures d’Asie.” by Iacovleff Alexandre .
Most expensive item sold: “Edward Steichen’s Personal Set of Camera Work Vol. 1-50.” by Stieglitz, Alfred. $125,000.
Least expensive item sold, $10 paid for: Multiple. 3 items total.
Most of the items sold at: $150.
Most copies of single title sold (2): “Dessins et Peintures d’Asie.” by Iacovleff Alexandre.

After combing through data from these three sources, we found some assumptions about virtual shows need refining. In particular, the majority of dealers did not make enough sales during the show to breakeven since the top 15% of the sellers account for more than 60% of total revenue. However, dealer costs are significantly lower compared to the expenses associated with brick-and-mortar shows, since costs such as commuting, hotel accommodations, window display rentals are not applicable. In addition, exhibiting at a show may lead to sales outside the fair, which we were not recorded as book fair sales. Despite the expense, we suspect that post Covid-19, in-person trade shows, likely will bounce back because they are seen as efficient ways to meet potential buyers, recruit business and keep track of competitors.

Buyers, on the other hand, who participate in virtual events, are less localized, than those attending in-person book fairs. Estimates of permanent change in the antiquarian book industry due to a reduction in the number of people willing to fly are exaggerated. While a small fraction of the buyers fly in for a show, it is small enough to have a significant impact. In fact, attendees can be more likely to ask questions and engage with exhibitors virtually than they do in person.

Thankfully, the vaccines seem promising. In 12 months the world could be somewhat normal again. Perhaps anyone who thought they would not attend a show again says, ‘Yes, I’m going to go to a book fair. I miss the smell of a vintage book or the thrill of examining a rare book up close…” In the future, we are more likely to see organizers develop hybrid events where exhibitors display in-person while offering a concurrent on-line presence.


Aaah, it’s that wonderful time of the year when New England puts out its glorious foliage as billions of leaves change from green to a kaleidoscope of vibrant colors. The air is crisp and cool — perfect for hiking, and biking along back roads, where farm stands are piled high with crunchy apples and orange pumpkins. And yes, it is during this time when booksellers and book buyers come together for the Rare Book Week in Boston. Annually, the ABAA Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair takes place at the Hynes Convention Center, with Getman’s Shadow Show a few blocks down from there. The Skinner auction house holds its premier rare book sale on the Sunday the same week.

But, this is 2020 and there is an uninvited guest in town. Covid-19 has caused substantial adjustments to the book lovers’ agenda. The ABAA book fair will now be completely remote, while Getman’s Virtual Book & Paper Fair will also be on-line, and, instead of taking place the Saturday during the weekend of the ABAA show, it will now be postponed until December. The Skinner auction, on the other hand, also completely on-line, will lead the pack starting November 2nd and will continue until the 12th, the very day the ABAA fair opens its virtual doors.

How will these adjustments be received? I wonder? A few things will be the same and a few others will be much different than during normal times. Both the ABAA and Mr. Getman have run events on-line before with mixed results. In fact, Getman’s, organizes at least one virtual book sale every month. Skinner is not a newcomer to on-line bidding either, and without the restrictions imposed by floor bidders, will be able to offer a prolonged period for their event (10 days), giving ample time for bidders to bid the prices up. Furthermore, unlike previous years, there are only 460 lots being offered, a smaller number that a live auctioneer can sell in half a day.

Getman’s also made several changes. After conducting a survey with their dealer population base, they have decided to limit the number of dealers participating to 200, with a maximum of 21 items per dealer, which will be exhibited between December 4th and December 7th. The respondents to the survey favored going back to a single day event with fewer sellers and items for sale, setting the stage for a possible one-day virtual fair after the New Year. Splitting the fair over two weekends did not receive much support. Both the Skinner Auctioneers and Getman’s Virtual Book fairs are leaning towards limiting supply, at least for now.

The 44th Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair (2020), will continue its conventional format of 3-days, (online only), with the first day being Ticketed Preview Day with a $50 admission, whose proceeds will benefit the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Benevolent Fund. The major difference is that the Fair will open at 11am EST on November 12, and remain open until 7pm EST on Saturday, November 14, when it ends. Previously, book fairs closed each night and reopened in the mornings. In this event, 160+ participating exhibitors will have a total of between 5,000 and 6,000 items for sale during the preview. This is about 25% more items than Getman’s, which will be 4-day online event.

Our readers have expressed some concern about the nature of on-line events regarding the lack of hands-on close examination prior to their purchase. Even though Skinner’s is offering the opportunity to inspect the lots before the sale, they are geographically restricted to the few local bidders. Some dealers are also facilitating video conferencing giving potential buyers the opportunity to get a closer look at the book they are interested in purchasing. How will these new arrangements affect the trade? Be sure to check back for the complete analysis of all the activity in this “new normal” world of online book fairs.


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