Rare Book Sale Monitor update – New York edition

by jim on May 7, 2022 · Book Fairs, The Book Trade

Think back to 2021. This was supposed to be the year of new openings! A return to pre-pandemic normalcy! Instead, it became the year that failed to live up to its preseason hype. Many of the in-person events were either cancelled or forced to remain virtual. In the Rare Book world, most of the trades were conducted through on-line websites and virtual book fairs or auctions. In 2021, our Rare Book Sale Monitor (RBSM) recorded an increase in interest in the Children’s literature and Sciences. Sales of works by Dickens and Rowling pushed prices upward, while classical works lead by Euclid and Kircher showed renewed interest.

Rare Book Sale Monitor – Genre Breakdown

At the start of 2022, event organizers welcomed the end of many COVID restrictions, but the industry remained relatively cautious. ABAA held two international antiquarian book fairs, one in California and the most recent one in New York. The New York International Antiquarian Book Fair took place in-person at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City, April 21-24, 2022. Attendees were required to show proof of vaccination and wear masks. The ABAA Virtual Book Fair: New York Edition, a virtual component of the ABAA New York International Antiquarian Book Fair, took place May 4-5, 2022. The future, as predicted in our December 2020 post, Virtual in Boston: “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,” seems to be upon us. The ABAA organizers wisely selected the dates for the two events to be appropriately spread two weeks apart to avoid overlaps and generate a prolonged interest.

While there is no simple way to track and report the sales of an in-person show, dealer feedback from the in-person New York event has been positive. There was total of 156 dealers present from all over the world, and attendance was surprisingly strong. Book collectors seized the opportunity to be able to touch, feel and smell, despite the mask, their favorite collectables. The virtual event, which took place on May 4-5, 2022, offered 4,125 books for sale from 102 dealers. Compared with similar ABAA events, this particular virtual event, lagged behind in international dealer participation. The majority of international sellers, it seems, were happy to get out of the country and meet face-to-face with potential buyers and colleagues at the Park Avenue Armory.

Dealer participation mix was not the only difference from last year’s corresponding virtual event. It is fair to state that the return to an in-person book fair affected the virtual negatively on both the supply and demand sides of the trade, as the statistical comparison below indicates:

New York ABAA Fairs 2022 and 2021 Comparison

The sell-thru rate dropped from 9.10% in 2021 to 7.81%. Last year’s 9.10% rate was already the lowest compared to other ABAA events (see the Rare Book Sale Monitor update – 4th Quarter, 2021 post). Both California and Boston scored better ratios on total items sold relative to total number of items available for sale. The average price of books for sale was cut in half at this year’s virtual event, but still less was sold. It is a fair to assume, that the higher priced items were exhibited at the in-person show instead.

Auction houses have been relatively slow opening their doors to floor bidders as well. Results so far have remained relatively the same; they are lacking big sales. Much of Americana offerings failed to generate bidder interest. Notably, Walt Whitman’s “America’s second Declaration of Independence,” signed by him and valued by Sotheby’s at 150,000 to 200,000 USD, remained unsold during the New York Fine Books and Manuscripts auction held last January. The event as a whole was mediocre compared to prior similar auctions.

Rare book price inflation is expected to remain high this year and next, as economic conditions remain favorable and current supply is limited due to the surge in buying experienced in recent years. Assuming there are no more lockdowns and people begin to dine out, travel and go to events, there will be more person-to-person transactions. The future of virtual is still hard to predict. While it should remain active in many different forms, the recent slowdown may be only temporary. Health and freedom are gifts. To quote Mahatma Gandhi: “To deprive a man of his natural liberty and to deny to him the ordinary amenities of life is worse than starving the body; it is starvation of the soul, the dweller in the body.”




About the author

Data scientist, book collector – Jim Sekkes

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