A Letter from America XXIV: The Exchange Rate and the Rare Book Market (May)

From the Rare Book Review

You’ll never buy a book on this continent again.

At least that’s what it feels like in the United States, now that the shoe is on the other foot when it comes to exchange rates. Twenty months ago, with the pound at one thirty-something and the euro at ninety cents, I was able to buy up a storm at the London Book Fair and related events. As I write this the pound is $1.85 and the euro $1.27, forty percent higher than their trough, with no end in sight, and I doubt if I could have bought any of the items from 2002 at this exchange. There are reasons both obvious and arcane for the shift, but the bottom line for American book buyers is the same; our cash ain’t nothin’ but trash.

Think of buying at auction, and the story only gets worse. Up to $100,000, we now add a 20% buyer’s premium at one house and 19.5% at the other. A bid of one pound, in reality, costs $2.25. Sotheby’s, which used to render estimates in euros, pounds, and dollars, now realistically just does it in euros and pounds. It already took fortitude to stand the auction house gaff, but now the prospect is daunting indeed for Americans. (By the way, has anybody else noticed that, after Sotheby’s and Christie’s paid over a half billion dollars in fines for colluding on raising the buyer’s premium, they have now raised that rate again in almost exact lockstep – bar half a percent – to its present astronomical level? All of us who collected on the class action settlement in 2003 will now just pay it back in the form of higher rates – provided we continue to bid at auction, that is.)

On one level this is all just part of the exchange rate spin cycle. The early 1980s and its strong dollar made England and Europe a happy hunting ground for American dealers and collectors (I stupidly turned down a chance to buy the old Francis Edwards reference library in 1985, when the pound was $1.15). Many collectors managed to hang on when tide turned in the latter 1980’s. An American was the biggest buyer at the DeBelder sale in 1987, when the rate was $1.76. But somehow it feels different this time. Between my writing this and publication there will have been the most significant string of classic famous single-owner sales we have had in a long time: the first Macclesfield sale, the Keynes collection, the Vander Poel literature, Lady Eccles’ English drama, and Maurice Neville’s 20th-century literature. It will be interesting to see how the buyers from both sides of the Atlantic do at the present rates of exchange. Great books will sell very strongly in these sales, because the market is so hungry for major material and because these are truly great libraries. What roll will currency play?

The weakness of the dollar cuts both ways. If it provides European dealers with an opportunity to buy more cheaply than their American counterparts, it also undercuts the major marketplace. More English and French dealers than would readily admit it sell more to the United States than they do at home. There aren’t many books left in England, after all. They are just moved there from the States to be sold back to Americans by people with English accents. Americans with stronger livers prefer to do the same thing in Paris. Of course, it is more than likely that some of the nicest of these books will head straight for the Middle East anyway, leaving all others in the wake.

Being a patriot, I feel bad about all this. Don’t we have a right to the cultural heritage of the West? And what about my cheap European vacation?

Ah well. Perhaps it is time for some more Bookselling Catechism of Cliché. If books are put up at auction, what are they?

Important.

Yes, but assume they are good books?

Highly important.

Certainly, but I mean really good books.

Why didn’t you say so in the first place? Magnificent.

Quite right. And how did the late, great, collectors pursue their books?

Ardently.

What altitude did they hope to attain?

Highlights.

What opposite altitude measured their fascination with their topics?

Deep.

And what is the nature of the gilt on their bindings?

Rich.

And the nature of the collectors themselves?

Rich.

And the rewards that await us potential buyers?

Rich.

And what do we find the auction house estimates?

Rich.

– William S. Reese