Books at Auction


auction-1If you don’t shop for your bookshop stock at auctions, you may be missing some real bargains, as well as some damned fine entertainment. Granted, sitting through an auction waiting for the books can be time-consuming, as many auctioneers offer books at the very end of the sale. But the people-watching is hard to beat, and you just never know what will turn up.

There are several different categories of auctions. Most booksellers are familiar with the rare-book auction houses, with their elaborate cataloging. These specialists inhabit a universe all their own, and I doubt I will ever understand them. One such individual, in the Washington area, would always try to sell me his auction business when I phoned to inquire about the next sale. Another told me point-blank, in the presence of other booksellers, that I did not spend enough money to merit his attention, and that I’d never own a book worthy of being consigned to his sale. Needless to say, I don’t go to those sales any more.

But you’ll find books sold at any weekly “antiques” auction, as well as those sales where the contents of a house are being sold on-site, before the house itself is auctioned. My primary specialization-performing arts-got its first real boost at just such a sale. The sale was well-attended but, as I’d feared, the books were to be sold dead-last. For six hours, we stood on a slanting driveway as the crowd bid on dilapidated living room furniture, old kitchen utensils, and the like. To relieve the boredom, I bid on a couple of things, and ended up buying a trombone. Finally, the auctioneer walked us into the basement, where the books had been stashed. My eye fell upon a carton of hardbound opera scores, which I quickly calculated would be a reasonable buy for me if I had to pay as much as $200. By the time the bidding started, my only competition was a timid-looking woman who’d also been waiting. My heart caught in my throat as the very box of books I craved was the first lot offered. I thrust my bidder’s card into the air and stared straight into the face of the other bidder, preparing for a real fight. To my surprise, she melted at a mere $18. To my further surprise, she was so intimidated that she actually left the sale at that moment. A competing bid brought me up to two dollars on the next box, and that was the end of the competition. Not another bid was made on the rest of the books. The auctioneer pled with the crowd, and finally entreated me to bid one dollar, in return for which I could have the remainder of the basement-full of books, playbills and magazines. I politely refused, at which point he begged me to bid a dollar, saying he’d be happy if I took only those books I actually wanted. Thus, for a total outlay of $21, we went home with our van loaded with opera, classical music and ballet books. The auctioneer was relieved, as he had committed to emptying the basement. Without my one-dollar purchase, he’d have spent $50 or $60 paying his helpers to haul the remaining books to the dump. At a more recent auction, I saw three large bookcases full of cookbooks fetch no more than $30, including the bookcases! And several weeks ago, I saw a couple of our colleagues score several Mencken first editions, in very good dustjackets, for a fraction of what they were expecting to spend.

Things don’t always go so cheaply. A couple of years ago, I attended a sale held at the home of an aging couple who were moving to a retirement community. A dozen books of Gustav Dore illustrations, in pretty nondescript editions, went for prices nearly eight times what I’d sold them for at retail. Later, I learned at least part of the story. The elderly homeowner’s wife had insisted that he unload most of his books, including the Dore. While she was busy in some other part of the house, the old gent sneaked outside and bought back his own books, at rather scandalous prices. Of course, the price would have been less had there not been a competing bidder, and heaven only knows what was on HIS mind!

Here are a few tips about buying at antiques auctions.

  • If the books are set at the beginning of the sale, or offered at a pre-determined time, this means the auctioneer is expecting higher prices. Books sold at random throughout the sale, or near the end, generally sell for less.
  • Many auctioneers will allow buyers to create their own lots, choosing from among tables full of books. This is a great way to buy only what you want, and save hauling unsaleable books. But because most auctions comprise property from a number of consignors, and the auction house needs to sell each consignor’s stuff separately, your freedom to create lots may be limited.
  • Most auctions allow you to leave a bid and go about your business, paying and collecting your merchandise later if you’ve won. Be certain that you understand the auctioneer’s left-bid policy-some establish a minimum dollar amount for left bids, and many will start the bidding at 60 to 70 percent of your maximum left bid. Don’t leave bids on lots that are not secured under lock and key. Too often, the contents of box lots get shifted, deliberately or otherwise, as dozens of people sift through the books.
  • Be careful about discussing your bidding intentions with potential competitors. Most localities have laws that forbid “bid-rigging,” the definition of which includes agreeing not to bid against a competitor on certain items, to ensure that someone gets the best possible price. (The auctioneer’s legal obligation is to the consignor, and his job is to squeeze every possible penny out of each item offered.)

Selling your own over-stock at auction is a crap-shoot. At least once I’ve come away at a total loss, the cost of the boxes in which I hauled the books having exceeded the price realized at the sale. Selling at auction is a gamble, which I like to consider one step above the Dumpster. If you’re one of that minority among booksellers who has taxable income, you can probably do as well by donating the books to a local charity and taking the fair-market-value as a tax deduction.

You will need to shop around for an auctioneer to handle your books. Although you see numerous books offered at auction, many houses have a policy of handling books only as part of a larger estate. You can make your offering more palatable to the auction house by doing a couple of things:

  • Negotiate the best deal possible on sales commissions and fees. Hauling, storage and setup all add to the auctioneer’s cost, and these costs are passed along to the consignor.
  • Offer to unpack and arrange the books at the auction. Offer to haul away any lots that do not receive bids. This saves time and money for the “house,” and will endear you to all those hard-working people who set up the sales and clean up afterward.
  • Don’t use the auction as your dumping ground. Discard textbooks, useless encyclopedias and the like before you pack up for the auction.
  • Don’t expect “reserve” pricing. Except in the case of rare and unusual books, best offered at book specialty auctions, this will make your offering unpalatable.
  • Do try to get your merchandise placed early in the sale. The best positioning, time-wise, is an hour to two hours after the start of the sale. The lots sold at the very beginning of the sale are “warm-up” merchandise, sold while the auctioneer awaits late arrivals (many of whom are the most regular spenders).
  • Don’t fret over how browsers handle the books. Once consigned to the sale, they are out of your hands.
  • Support your favorite auction house by bidding on other stuff offered. As you watch neat old stuff get sold cheaply, you’ll discover other interests beyond books. (My personal favorite non-book purchase is a heavy woolen rug, formerly used in an Order of the Eastern Star temple, which I bought for $15.)

As the auctioneers often say, “bid early and often.

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Check out the Independent Online Booksellers Association Website