The Auction Trade In 1999:
A Personal View

In gauging trends within the overall trade, the fact that much of the dealers' business in done behind close doors, makes it is difficult to detect either short- or long-terms trends. The auction houses, on the other hand, provide a readily identifiable snap-shot of the market.  After all, all the material they handle is exposed to public view in their catalogues, the sales themselves are open to the public, and the prices realised made a matter of public record, in post-sale price lists.

Map-collecting over the past twenty years or more has been about the acquisition and accumulation of maps in loose sheet form, and there are literally only a handful of exceptions to this.  One of the features of the past view years is what had once seemed an endless supply of desirable material in loose sheet form has diminished rapidly.

In the past two or three years the balance has started to shift in the opposite direction, towards the collecting of atlases. There are a number of possible explanations.  My view, for what it is worth, is that you can view collecting, of whatever subject, as a series of layers one on top of the other.  As prices in the top layer rise, a certain group of people find themselves priced out of that market.  This can be existing collectors, but the more important group is the new collectors, who have a collecting bug, who wanted to join the top layer but simply cannot afford to.  However, when they look at the layer below, they see the money they have available make them big players in this level. Whereupon they, fired with enthusiasm, set about spending their money.  The immediate effect is that layer to rise.  Existing buyers in that layer are forced to modify their expectations, and a group at the bottom find themselves priced out of the layer, and so the cycle goes on.

Another factor may be that with the recent rises in prices, and much heightened exposure, atlases and maps have become "respectable", in that the sums on money involved are reaching a level at which the rich collector can take the items seriously, as worthy of his time.  One problem experienced by numerous English dealers is that many a collector simply cannot believe that an item can be four hundred years and yet be only priced a hundred dollars.  Their inclination is often not to pay attention simply because the item is too cheap.

In the past few years, atlas prices have started to catch up with, and overtake "breaking value" as a small number of emergent collectors have started to appreciate the quality of material available.  The  sales so far this year have seen this trend accelerate at an almost exponential rate.  It is clear that a lot of new money had arrived at  the top end of the market, and is engaged in a spending spree, simply hoovering up the most desirable atlases, and here I would also include wall-maps of the World.  What sets this group apart is that there is no sense, or reliance, on previous or existing prices.  Instead the view seems to be, the item is here, so buy it.  Some of the prices paid for items at auction have had veterans of the trade speechless in shock.

It remains to be seen what impact the new atlas collectors will have on the trade, but an obvious pointer was that the leading dealers, trying to ride the new wave, focussed their principal attentions on the atlases on offer.  It takes a good deal longer to view an atlas, particularly if one is advising a client, than a series of maps.  The two leading auction houses in London offering sheets maps are respectively Sotheby's and Bonhams (Christie's, King Street tend to avoid individual maps).   Having attended both sales, it became readily apparent many items sold (or failed to sell) at very reasonable prices, as if the loose maps had not been as well viewed as one might expect.

Auction Reports
Part I: Christie's Part II: Bonhams Part III: Sotheby's