Auctioneering: Whence and Whither?

10/1/1994  Roy Davids  Original

The year 1994 is notable in the chapters of book and manuscript auctioneering in at least two respects: it is the 250th anniversary of the founding of the oldest book department, and it marks the publication of the 100th volume of American Book Prices Current now owned by Kathy and Dan Leab. In the year that I have left the auction world, after nearly a quarter of a century in that once-cloistered community, and re-entered the dealing fraternity, they have asked me (doubtless sensing that I will have gained some objectivity from the move) to comment on the auction process over the last 100 years or so, and to try to identify some of the changes that have taken place, and the reasons for them.

Writing at the beginning of the century, W. Frederick Nokes began the sixth edition of The Auctioneers’ Manual (nd, but ?1900) thus:

The Auctioneer of to-day with his hammer, like the alchemist of the mediaeval ages with his wand, passes beneath its influence metals of all kinds, and by the stimulating phrase "going for the last time" transforms them into pure gold, to the joy and ecstasy of their former possessors.... An auctioneer of to-day must not only possess the knowledge conveyed by the curriculum of the college, but must ever be on the alert to gather fresh erudition from the fields of science, the green meadows of literature, the leafy vistas of art, the tortuous paths of law; whilst he must keep an eye, not less watchful than that of the eagle, upon every passing scene.

Evidently, little has really changed -- the grandiloquence apart.

Half-way through the century, John Carter ( Taste and Technique in Book Collecting , 1948, second edition corrected, 1949), and Michael Sadleir (Book Collecting, Four Broadcast Talks, 1950) made commentaries on the auction scene. It will perhaps be more instructive to take their perceptions as bases for my comparisons with today than to attempt a metaphysical disputation with Nokes about the preter-natural or magical powers possessed by auctioneers in their acts of transmutation. (Though, to be fair to him, he did not claim them; but others, usually themselves auctioneers, have hinted darkly about their magus status, or behaved as if they were invested with it.)

In the most general terms, auctions, including those of books and manuscripts, have become more international since the middle of the century. This is partly a result of the worldwide revolution in communications. Telephone bidding, for instance, unknown in the ‘forties and ‘fifties, is a regular feature today, even in book sales—a benefit to sellers, perhaps, but a bane to the bidder in the room, and to book auctioneers, whose speed of selling, necessarily faster than in most other areas, is severely frustrated by the "disembodied geriatrics," as they invariably appear to be, although a recent bold demand for an absentee bidder’s identity revealed this not always to be so. Moreover, though some "victims of the system" find it hard to believe, clients can have internationally operated credit accounts with the major auctioneers; and paying by credit card has been introduced in the last few months. Buyers are now supposedly less daunted by travel or faraway transactions, but it is still extraordinary how the English and Americans (of the latter of whom only 7% are reputed to have passports) can frequently ignore one another’s book and manuscript sales, even by telephone or fax, except those with the highest profile.

This may, in some degree, be due to the rising cost of the catalogues, but clearly we shall have to wait for virtual reality before seeing the object itself ceases to be the major stimulus to notion, if then.

British (and now E.U.) export regulations, which scarcely existed in the 1950s, can, by their very existence and the delays they cause, be a deterrent in even the most determined foreign buyer. Perhaps no more potent example of their power will ever surpass the case of the letters of Robert second Earl of Essex, to Queen Elizabeth I for which the auctioneer (me) could not find a buyer even though calling for £3,500 instead of the £350,000 intended. Export regulations and what some refer to as the ‘institutional ring" (whereby one or more institutions defer to another by not opposing it in the rooms), can, both in sales at auction and by private treaty, have the effect of creating a limited market, that could, if misused, go against the spirit of protecting the owners’ interests which infused the Waverley Criteria, on which the export regulations were based.

The major auctioneers—Sotheby’s, owned for the last twelve years by, and increasingly since, an American company, and Christie’s, still an English one—each operate book departments on both sides of the Atlantic. No doubt because of the nature of their material, the book departments are sometimes thought less international than others like Impressionists (with evidence of "friendly fire" in one or two of them). However, Sotheby’s has concentrated sales of Western Manuscripts in London for about fifteen years, and more recently, sales of Americana in York Avenue, and of Music in Bloomfield Place; Christie’s seems to switch material across the "Pond" as appropriate. When John Carter roamed America for Sotheby’s, London was undoubtedly the centre of the book world; now, if anything, there might be the slightest tendency the other way; but this may well prove to be merely illusory.

The most controversial change in Britain and America (the continentals have long grown used to it, and at higher levels in some locations) has been the introduction, to cries of collusion by the trade, of a buyer’s premium, firstly in 1975 at 10% (one house for a while at 8%), and subsequently, in 1993, raised to 15% up to £30,000 ($50,000), which, of course, affects more than 90% of lots offered in book sales. [Currently, however, British booksellers have been spared the nightmare of V.A.T., but not manuscript dealers, unless—the most arcane nicety of official ratiocination—they are offering a manuscript in the form of a book]. Some see the imposition of the premium as a legitimate business decision by the auctioneers, which may or may not be more or less damaging to their own interests; others, more cynical, were said even to have suspected (erroneously) that the recent increase was introduced not only to raise extort cash, but also to make it ever more likely that private buyers would bid through the auction houses, rather than spend yet another 10% employing a dealer to bid on their behalf. When one rehearses the litany of current costs both for the buyer and seller at auction, with VAT at every turn, an extra 10% is not without significance. But for private buyers not to use dealers as their agents would be to ignore the rhetorical imperative that Michael Sadleir threw down as a challenge in 1950: "if any book-collector knows of a better bargain than the service a good bookseller can do him at auction, all-in for ten percent. I would like to hear of it."

John Carter went further by stating that in Britain private "collectors were not encouraged to bid in person and seldom did so, preferring to entrust their ventures to their agent." As a symbol of the changed attitude of the auctioneers, especially in England, their relationship with the private client takes us to the heart of perhaps the greatest change that has occurred in auctioneering this century, especially in England. This is variously seen, depending on the observer’s point of view, as the modification /or invasion /or complete reversal of the roles and functions of booksellers and auctioneers. Carter defined the position up to 1948: "In the last century and the early years of the present (as to a strictly limited extent still in England today) a book-auction as really a wholesaling operation: the retailing being done by the booksellers, who solicited and handled their customers’ bids but also bought largely for stock ... it is a game for professionals, not amateurs ... most English auctioneers ... believe in a predominantly professional clientele.…" Even at the time he was writing, however, Carter differentiated the situation in England from that in America. "New York’s practice", he wrote, "is different because its policy is different. The one major auction house in the city has deliberately set itself to attract direct collector-custom and it conducts its operations accordingly."

Today, among the most common complaints of the trade are that the auction houses get all the best books, that dealers can’t afford them (how many dealers now regularly buy books or manuscripts at auction over £10,000 for stock?), and that auction houses have taken over their role with many of the private buyers. What Carter saw as the practice of New York in the 1940s has not only been much extended there, but has also been transferred, directly and/or by osmosis, to the English auction scene as well. It must be said, however, that the English auctioneers were much less unwilling recipients of this influence by the 1980s than previously they would have been.

The reasons for this re-positioning seem to be threefold. Firstly, the (not in itself necessarily unworthy) drive for profits by the auction houses, although, in the view of some purists, it takes them into markets that have, at best, an often tangential association with "Art". Secondly, the failure of the trade to develop new buyers fast enough to generate those profits ["only needed to feed the greed of the auctioneers," some traders say, as an aside], thus forcing the auctioneers to seek out the new buyers themselves directly. And, thirdly, the growing shortage of good material.

The consequence has been that -- using their greater resources for attracting publicity and driven by their need to achieve on the "bottom line," if no longer just market share—the auctioneers do seem to have stolen a march on the trade. When a growing shortage of good material was added to the needs of the auctioneers, it became evident that more had to be made of the fewer good items available. The result was that the major auction houses (one following the other) revamped their catalogues (with manuscripts ancient and modern ahead of the herd) and other marketing tools, and, perhaps until fairly recently, became more and more specialised both in their personnel and in the categorising of their sales. Thus, George Eliot’s suggestion that the auctioneer in Mill on the Floss "was rather highly educated to be an auctioneer" will no longer evoke quite the response she intended. Nor any longer can it be asserted, as Carter did in 1948, that book auctioneers’ "sales are conducted, their catalogues prepared and their advertising devised [for] a predominately professional clientele ... [that they] accept private bids, but they seldom solicit them ... [that] their catalogues are commonly stripped to the bare essentials (and sometimes further) on the assumption that they are provided for professionals, not the uninstructed, and furthermore that the function of an auction catalogue is accurate description and not ballyhoo." Even though I am no longer folded in the bosom of an auction house, I cannot, since it was much of my doing, let the suggestion pass that their book and manuscript catalogues go in for much "ballyhoo". At their best, they strive to inform without instruction, to entice without exaggeration, to describe faults accurately without being damning, and to praise where praise is possible. However, a number of buyers have, with some justice, complained that them is occasionally some economy with the actualité in catalogue terminology, about colouring, for instance; a criticism of which one major house, at least, has taken careful note. Some have even been heard to contend that auction houses are, in more than one sense, writing their catalogues (ever more scholarly in some areas) for the benefit of their rivals; others that they are only prepared with future vendors in mind. While there is of course a truth in the last remark, the high professional standards of the majority of cataloguers would not allow that to predominate, nor, it is to be hoped, will they allow too much erosion of John Carter’s claim in 1948 that the "auctioneer is, of course, interested in the general health of book-collecting, both in the very short view and in the long view: for he has to get the best prices he can at today’s session, and he would be glad to be reassured that them will be both a fine library to offer and a satisfactory attendance at its sale in ten years time."

It cannot be ignored, however, that pressures (including costs) are there to cause occasional lapses from this ideal, but it is encouraging to note, in this respect, the growing number of catalogues from the smaller houses catering, less lavishly perhaps, for the beginner and the lower end of the market. On the other hand, the extended interest of the auctioneer in the buyer, who generally now contributes more to auction profits than the seller, makes some observers curious as to how far John Carter might have modified his comment, had he been writing today, that the auctioneer’s "interest is inevitably an impartial one, since his first duty is to the consignors." Agents and middle men have always had to deal fairly within the law with what others view as potential conflicts of interest by creating what are now called "Chinese walls." And, of course, it has always been true, to some extent, that part of the auctioneer’s first duty to the consignor is to ensure that there is a ready market for his goods by cultivating and fostering the potential buyer, with extended credit for instance (but no longer against the item about to be purchased). The take-over last year of Spink’s by Christie’s raised the issue again in a different way, and Christie’s emphasised at the time that it was mindful of the concerns raised, and would guarantee to employ a goodly number of Chinese bricklayers, so to speak, particularly, no doubt, as the acquisition of Spinks was linked to its ambitions in the Orient.

Another of John Carter’s propositions—that between "sales there is little to maintain his [the auctioneer’s] relationship with the collector, which is therefore fitful as well as oblique, where the booksellers’ is close, continuous and direct. An important sale strikes sparks from the collecting world and the rostrum is vividly, though momentarily, high-lighted. But it is the constant and fostering care of the bookseller which maintains the collector at or near the sparking temperature"—is still largely (if, regrettably, somewhat less) true today. It is more true in the sense that the major auctioneers hold fewer, though more valuable, sales than they did even in the early 1980s, but less true in the sense that auctioneers are more at the dealers’ heels than they used to be, or even ahead of their toes. Both the major houses have spread their tentacles throughout the world, establishing offices or agents in virtually every country, in a way with which no dealer could ever hope to compete on his own. Using aristocrats as much as experts, the auction houses have snapped the elastic of both supply and demand. Today’s buyer is, after all, tomorrow’s seller.

Both of them influential with buyers and sellers, two relatively humble, but nonetheless significant revolutions have silently contributed to the pattern of change in recent years: they are the reserves and the estimates. In the major houses, at least, almost all lots now have reserves, and perhaps where once a reserve was a weapon against the "Ring" (of which more later), it has become an apparently stabilising factor by reducing the number of disastrously (/wonderfully) low prices. This is, of course, at the risk of increasing the number of items unsold, particularly in difficult times. Peter Watson of The Observer recently calculated that up to a third of items entered for sale at auction failed to find buyers. Fortunately, this is not regularly true in the book world, because of the broad base of dealers and collectors in our market, and because book and manuscript prices have not been subject to the wild fluctuations experienced in such areas as Impressionist paintings. On the other hand, however, now that auctioneers are required to acknowledge from the rostrum that an item is unsold, either overtly, in New York, or tacitly, in London, reserves that are too high can have a damaging effect on the atmosphere of a sale, especially when a number of lots in succession are ‘bought-in’. This can be most unjust on the adjacent, if similar, property of different owners. While reserves remain coveted secrets between the sellers and their agents, the auctioneers' estimates have "come out" since the early ‘seventies. Then, and before (history is misty), they were the shyly guarded preserve of the porters who might reveal the odd one or few to those who dared to ask, perhaps for a shilling or two. Otherwise, if the relevant expert was away (or in the pub—there seemed to be time for that in those days), it is rumored that secretaries would calculate likely prices, not always inaccurately, by counting the number of lines in a catalogue description, and multiplying by ten. Gradually, experimentation led to estimates being (infuriatingly) printed at the back of catalogues, then (fumblingly) on loose inserted sheets, and finally below each lot in the catalogue. Pelf in the end gagged the outraged cries of the scholarly. But just as publications like ABPC doubtless play their part in transmuting auction prices into criteria or benchmarks, no doubt, similarly, an easily observed estimate does condition the thinking about price (if not value) of even the most wizened professionals, and certainly that of the tyros—so it must be right and it has contributed to raising prices.

A more major stealthy change, already hinted at that has afflicted the whole back trade since Carter wrote Taste and Technique is the fast-accelerating scarcity of good material, both in printed books and manuscripts. Down to even the mid-to-late 1970s there was such a profusion of good material that it was possible, particularly since in those days costs were not the common concern of a department head, to hold general sales virtually every week, with plenty of single-owner sales as well, not least among them those from the seemingly inexhaustible Phillipps hoard. The concept of "business-getting" by the auction houses was virtually unknown then, although there were, of course competitive negotiations for major consignments. The problem was much more one of dealing with what poured in through the door.

The combination of the recession in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the slowing down of deliveries to the "office" (old auctionese for the counter or doorstep), forced a closer consciousness of costs and demanded a different approach. A policy of fewer, more valuable, sales and of greater specialisation (making more of fewer good books) linked with the pursuit of the private buyer, suggested itself as a way of rebuilding the market and getting it into the fast lane; that is, Scholarship married to Commerce. Specialised sales, put together from the properties of numerous owners, had begun at Sotheby’s in the 1960s and had been developed in the 1970s, particularly in manuscripts, which became "autarkic" (Carter’s word in another context) during the latter period. But the distinguished team of cataloguers put together by Anthony Hobson D.Litt., F.B.A. notwithstanding, the specialised sales of the 1960s and early 1970s did not have the same effect as those in the 1980s, because they were not combined in that earlier period with the hyperactive pursuit of private buyers, and all the ramifications this has had on the nature of cataloguing and presentation.

The success of the policy changes in the 1980s—and the parallel revival in the number and quality of single-owner sales through deaths and diligence—was one of the principal reasons why the auction houses were among the last to observe how starved of good material the book world was as a whole becoming. This shortage is generally attributed to a combination of the recession, the seemingly irreversible accessions by institutions and the exhaustion of sources of supply. Unless the current scarcity does prove to be in large part only a function of the now receding recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s, it seems unlikely that auction houses will be able to continue with regular specialised multiple-owner sales, except in certain limited, perhaps some new, fields, and probably with fewer catalogues each year in them. [However, I have always believed that success in any specialised area has a great deal to do with the person running it, especially if he, or she, has both the qualities of the "marketmaker" as well as those of the expert.] Also, the two most obvious new sources of supply—in my view, institutional libraries and libraries from Europe, particularly Eastern Europe—are more likely to be sold as single-owner sales (the book sale equivalents of "house-sales," which are among the most successful auction enterprises) than to feed the current specialised categories. Already, specialised sales are being bolstered up with less and less compatible material, so it seems probable that general sales, though still of high value, will once more establish themselves as the norm. But it may take some time, for this to happen, or be seen to have happened.

"Genius alone can sell books at a public auction in London", proclaimed the Morgenblatt für Gebildete Leser in 1843. As an auctioneer with a rusting asset, I should probably gracefully accept this compliment on behalf of myself and my fellows, both those who have and those who have not yet laid down their gavels, especially as the same publication accorded "the auctioneer’s hammer as much respect as the writer’s pen". The truth is, however, that auctioneering abilities and styles are as various as the personalities of the players, all moulded by the mores of the moment, and it would be invidious to pick on/out any individual,. Suffice it to say that, in twenty-five years (for many of you longer) the whole gamut has been there to be seen: from the friendly to the contemptuous; the charismatic to the dull; the hectoring to the unhearable; and the tortoise to the hare. But, if not genius, the room expects and should get confidence, command and authority, even flashes of wit, and of fairness, from the auctioneer—he is after all more powerful than the gods (read the Conditions of Sale). One hope is that book sales will continue mostly to be taken by book "persons," and ones who realise that technique needs constantly to be honed.

The auctioneer is not likely to be the first person to have direct knowledge of any activity by the "Ring," but he should get a sense that something is "going on," if one were in operation. My impression, of sales in the main centres at least, is that such activities are very much reduced to the level of ad hoc agreements between colleagues not to bid against one another or to those whereby they will make a purchase together, rather than illegal cartels followed by a "knock-out" or "settlement" afterwards. At their most proper any combinations between dealers are notified in writing to the auctioneer before the sale begins. Where one senses agreements of a more sinister kind, if at all, is in areas where some sections of the trade are still buying largely for stock. Otherwise, the imposition of the premium, the rejection of the "Ring" by the ABA, the wider use of reserves by auctioneers, and the increase in the incidence of dealers buying on commission for specific clients, have together greatly curtailed the old association, if I may be allowed the pun, of "The Ring and the Book."

To give a platform to my successor in 2048-2050 and the 150th volume of ABPC, I will predict that one feature of the next few years (it has already began) will be greater competition in books and manuscripts, perhaps even on a truly international basis, between both the major and the smaller auction houses, as each either tries to hold on to or increase its share of what by the late 1980s was an annual pot in excess of $200m worldwide. One witness to this trend will be the willingness of auctioneers to produce separate catalogues for one-owner sales, whether or not really cost effective.

Perhaps another outcome of such heightened rivalry could be a real increase in the amount of material turned up by the auctioneers and their worldwide networks, thus compensating, to some extent, for the evaporation of traditional sources. So, we shall be listening intently for the incantatory chant first raised in 1905 by W. Hazlitt Carew (The Book Worm), of "Sotheby’s is the depôt, Sotheby’s the password: ever has been, is, and shall be".

The "tortuous paths of the law," mentioned by Nokes in the turn-of-the-century Auctioneer’s Manual (quoted in the second paragraph above) will doubtless lead to complications in the future. Already the high-profile status of auctions has attracted a degree of scrutiny by the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic, with a few mostly minor adjustments to the process. But some fear that the auctioneers themselves, bristling with lawyers, could be in danger of converting every contract into a negotiation about commission, as in America, which might eventually lead to a further price spiral, presumably again at the expense of the buyers. Another feature, partly a product of a generally shrinking work-force in the West and of escalating costs (among them the funding of pensions for the unexpiring retired population) is likely to be the greater employment by auction houses of consultants—perhaps all using the same ones—rather than full-time employees. There might be a slight tendency, however, that the remaining full-time employees (bank people doubtless excepted) could by then have, to adapt what Leavis said of the Sitwells, more to do with the history of publicity, than of auctioneering.

Calling up what has been described as the most cutting remark in modem literary criticism is to forewarn auctioneers against the siren-like seductions of the entertainment world. So far, little of this has much affected the world of books and manuscripts (despite what some will doubtless have seen as my own efforts and Christopher de Hamel’s Henry the Lion biscuits, for instance). Thus, what John Carter said in the following quotation about book auctions in the ‘forties remains essentially true, though, as I have indicated, the role of the auction looms larger. "Sales are a vital component in the machinery of book-collecting, and the great auction houses lend a colour, and excitement and a romance to the business of dispersal and acquisition, which is as welcome in the trade as it is stimulating to the collector. If Dibdin could speak of that ‘delightful thrill, never to be duplicated’, and if Horace Walpole left the House of Commons during a debate to attend a book sale, it was Dr. Rosenbach, the bookseller, who observed that the auction room ‘calls forth courage, promptness, and the spirit of adventure’, maintaining that ‘of all branches of the sport, that of attending book auctions is the greatest, the most stirring’."

While thus acknowledging the auctioneers’ increased role in the book and manuscript world over the last fifty years, it might not be unhelpful to all parties to suggest that the trade could have some expectations from the client-led cultures now fashionable with large corporations. After all, the trade constitutes an important body of clients for the auction houses, both numerically, and specifically as buyers, agents and sellers. It will not go unnoticed that the trade’s interests are more easily identifiable, and therefore more easy to serve, than those of the less clearly defined private buyers. So, as an aspect of their drive to be the first choice for buyers and sellers of works of art worldwide, the auction houses might themselves benefit from doing more to foster, and flatter, their professional colleagues in the trade, as was argued in Sotheby’s Marketing Plan two or three years ago. In the past, suggestions have included a trade-liaison representative in each auction house, rooms for the trade with refreshments and tannoyed systems to the salerooms, separate counters, registration and payment points for trade clients, as well as deals on catalogues and illustrations (perhaps linked to buying activity), separate viewing arrangements and the like. These would go a long way to break down the sense of alienation that some of the trade apparently feel (the more denied, the less recognised), and which benefits neither the auctioneers nor the public. Trade terms might then be seen as the very real concessions that they are, to be really appreciated rather than somewhat taken for granted, or even treated sometimes as a sop.

And then, after these more mundane concerns, to leap yet further into the dark, there is the computer and CD-ROM (ABPC available thus in 1995), the electronic book, the information highway, interactive bidding, and virtual reality. "On the brink of such horrors I take my leave of you." (Percy Muir, Book-Collecting as a Hobby [1944]).

But first since I have been given the privilege of reflecting on one hundred years of change, I might be allowed to indulge in a few wistful asides (I have tried to anticipate a number for others) about the passing of some of the book world’s "institutions": the green baize table (mea culpa); the use of buyers’ names, not paddle numbers; the "box of contents"; such designations that de Ricci called "auctioneer’s unpretentious language" as "A Magnificent Collection of Manuscripts formed by a Gentleman of Consummate Taste and Judgement" or "The Property of a Collector Relinquishing the Pursuit"; green and pink and cream covers; more "sleepers"; fewer reserves; the English collector; Hodgson’s (though reincarnated at Bloomsbury Books); buying-in names (Where is "Ginwallah" now?); buyers’ names on price lists (only fitful now); the amateur; Rosenbach, Pollard, Carter, Munby, Mayor, Dobell, Kraus, Dring, Thomas, (Hofmann and Freeman?), Pottesman, Jock Campbell. We could all ad infinitum. One unofficial award I still cherish was when in 1980 Autographs and Manuscripts first began to precede Printed Books, in ABPC.

Roy Davids

October 1994