Of Books and Auction Sales part 2
Prices and Value
Is the best value in collectable books to be found in book shops or at auctions?
The answer must necessarily depend upon how well you know your chosen area and how determined you are to buy as soon as possible. When books are offered in box or shelf lots, the dealer has the advantage because his interests will be wider than those of any collector—large lots at mart auctions are rarely if ever sorted by category, meaning that the books represent many fields. In this context the collector must be distinguished from the accumulator, though it is not uncommon for accumulators to call themselves collectors. The collector is given his chance through the increasing tendency of the auction houses to offer books singly, a trend most noticeable at present at Small & Whitfieldʼs and at Megaw & Hoggʼs: for a desirable single item the collector always has the opportunity of beating the trade. Not everyone, however, is comfortable about buying at auction, and there is something about finding a desired book in a shop which is entirely sui generis. There is also the advantage that, in a shop, you may change your mind while you browse—how often have we not all picked up the first ʻmust buyʼ only to put it back when something even more ʻmust buyableʼ comes to hand?—whereas at an auction you cannot change your mind. A bought lot is yours and at your risk from the fall of the hammer: there are no second chances.
Another problem at auctions is that nothing has a fixed price, so that you cannot foretell how much particular items will make: it is therefore difficult to budget. Again, this must favour the trade. One is often left in the position of having to think sharply on oneʼs feet after having clinched a few lots at or above oneʼs pre-set maxima: how far to go for the next lot or lots? Compare this jungle atmosphere with the civilized, the gentle joys of browsing. However, if you are of the temperament which the sports commentators term ʻcompetitiveʼ, and you derive pleasure from beating others, then auctions are for you, for every time an item is sold by auction someone ʻwinsʼ and someone else ʻlosesʼ.
Of course, the ʻwinnerʼ may not necessarily be the person who makes the purchase, for, of all the fallacies which surround collecting, one of the more pernicious is to the effect that if you buy at auction you cannot be paying too much. Indeed, for every ʻbargainʼ buy at a lively mart auction (there are days when most lots are bargains) there will be a buy made at or above shop price. Again, the first principle of buying at auction must be restated: know your area and keep to it.
It takes all types to make an auction, from the over-cautious bidder who all too often is left lamenting that he did not ʻgo one more jumpʼ to the swaggering bravo who bids with the almost mad enthusiasm of Errol Flynn playing a pirate king. The sale room is to a large extent a theatre wherein we all play our parts, including the freewheeling swordsman who likes to cut his way to the treasure whatever the cost. This sort of thing cannot last, unless perhaps if the hero has an independent income of great proportions—in which case, why would he do his own buying at auction if it were not for the theatrical impact of his triumphs? It is not unknown for audiences (I mean audiences, which may include buyers) at auctions to burst into applause at the end of a spectacular bidding duel.
To buy advantageously at auction needs much preparation: books have to be examined as to condition, edition and completeness. At our own (Pioneer Books) auctions this is done by us to the best of our ability, and the results are in the catalogue. We have had some errors, but happily not too often: the fact is that no auctioneer can give absolute surety, but especially is this so at mart auctions. Here you bid for what the auctioneer displays and you buy, in the end, according to your judgement. No auctioneer would last long if the house did not act in good faith—deliberate false representation is unthinkable—but there is no way in which any mart auctioneer could collate and fully describe the books he offers—that is up to the would-be purchaser. The auctioneer is bound to do his best for the vendor and for the purchaser, which is a unique position to be in, for he must get the best price he can for the vendor while the purchaserʼs aim is to buy as cheaply as possible. Nevertheless, the house will answer your questions to the best of its ability, for it is the competition between two or more would-be buyers that makes an auction, not some amazing sleight of hand on the auctioneerʼs part.
I have found the staffs of all five houses discussed here to be both friendly and helpful: if they ever seem less than that to you, pause to consider the pressure on them not only on sale days but during the preparation of sales. There is no auction unless buyers attend, and I cannot imagine a house which would do anything to upset visitors. They know that the casual visitor of today is the vendor or the buyer of tomorrow: it is just a matter of letting them hook themselves. For those of us who are already addicted, life would be much more dull without the mart sales by auction.