Auction Trends in 2016

2016: The Year in Review   by Eliane Dotson

It is December, and as 2016 comes to a close, we like to look back and reflect on the year.  We choose to share our insights on the past year with you for two reasons.  The first is that Jon and I strive to build a relationship of openness and trust with our customers.  We hope that giving you a "peek under the hood" helps to build the foundation for this relationship.  The second reason is to give you insights into the antique map market - at least our small microcosm of the map market.  Whether you are a collector, a dealer, or an institution, we believe these insights can help guide you in the coming year.
In the auction world we focus on two key metrics.  The first is sell-through, which is defined as the number of items that sell as a percentage of the total number of items in the auction.  At Old World Auctions, we sell on average 75% of the lots in each auction, although the sell-through can vary from 65% to 85%.  After the Great Recession in the late 2000's in the United States, our average annual sell-through dropped from 77% in 2010 to 68% in 2013, fortunately recovering in 2014 and stabilizing through 2016, which again averaged 75%.  This is favorable to the industry average of antique maps, books, and ephemera, which is reported as 71% for the year by Rare Book Hub.
The other key metric is realized prices.  Of course prices vary from auction to auction and from map to map, so it is difficult to generalize whether prices are up or down.  In the map world we are dealing with thousands of unique items, and in any given auction prices will be up for some maps or categories, and down for others.  One way we attempt to "normalize" prices in such a diverse market is to compare the realized price with our auction estimate or reserve.  The reserve price is important in particular for our consignors, as it represents the price at which a consignor is willing to sell an item.  Therefore, by selling an item at the reserve price, we meet our consignor's expectations, and by selling above the reserve we exceed their expectations.  Of course as most of you know, during the post-auction sale, some of our consignors lower the reserves on remaining unsold items in an effort to sell more of their consignment (and achieve higher sell-through).  Reviewing which items, and how many items overall sell above the reserve price during the auction, as well as below the reserve price during the post-auction sale can give us a sense of whether prices are increasing or decreasing.  Since 2013, the percent of items that sell above the reserve price during the auction has steadily increased by 16% over the 3-year period.  On the flip-side, the percent of items that have sold below the reserve price during the post-auction sale has increased 11% over the same time period.  So it appears that good material continues to be in high demand, but there are still plenty of deals out there as well.  Here are a few examples of items that sold well above the reserve in the last year:
  1. Auction 159 - Lot 373.  Plan of Carthagena Harbour and City, by Capt. Joseph Smith Speer, 1771.  Sold for $3750 -- 525% above the high estimate
  2. Auction 156 - Lot 292.  West Point New York, by U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, 1883.  Sold for $2000 -- 471% above the high estimate
  3. Auction 157 - Lot 227.  Wisconsin and Iowa, by Jeremiah Greenleaf, 1842.  Sold for $2100 -- 425% above the high estimate
  4. Auction 156 - Lot 388.  A Plan and Prospect of the Harbour, Town, & Castles of Carthagena, by Philip Durell, 1743.  Sold for $3500 -- 268% above the high estimate
  5. Auction 158 - Lot 447.  Doniphan's Expedition; Containing an Account of the Conquest of New Mexico; General Kearney's Overland Expedition to California..., by J.A. & U.P. James, 1848.  Sold for $1400 -- 250% above the high estimate
  6. Auction 159 - Lot 233.  [Lot of 2] Positions of the Upper and Lower Gold Mines on the South Fork of the American River, California [and] Upper Mines. Nos 1 & 8, by U.S. Gov., 1848.  Sold for $1200 -- 220% above the high estimate
  7. Auction 160 - Lot 292.  Map Showing the General Location of the Natural Oyster Grounds of Maryland…, by U.S. Gov., 1893.  Sold for $650 -- 183% above the high estimate
  8. Auction 157 - Lot 236.  Map of Lewis and Clark's, Track Across the Western Portion of North America, from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean…, by W.G. Evans, 1842.  Sold for $600 -- 173% above the high estimate
  9. Auction 157 - Lot 44.  Western Hemisphere [and] Eastern Hemisphere - Map of Discovery, by National Geographic Magazine, 1928.  Sold for $425 -- 150% above the high estimate
  10. Auction 160 - Lot 807.  Our U.S.A. - A Gay Geography, by Ruth Taylor White, 1938.  Sold for $2100 -- 147% above the high estimate
Our Customers

Both sell-through and realized prices reflect a specific set of material, offered at a specific point in time to a specific group of people.  Old World Auctions' customer base continues to be US-centric, with 67% of our bidders residing in the US.  This is an increase over the last few years, which is likely due to the strengthening of the US dollar compared with other currencies.  The United Kingdom and Canada each account for another 5% of our customers, followed by Australia with 3% and the Netherlands with 2%.  Overall, our bidders in 2016 represented 54 countries, including Cyprus, Saudi Arabia, Cayman Islands, Iceland, Ukraine, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates.
Although a whopping 77% of our consignors also reside in the US, a significant percentage of the material in our auctions is sent to us from Europe, with the United Kingdom and the Netherlands being large contributors.  Our consignors also hail from a number of other European countries, Canada, Mexico, Thailand, and Australia.
Trends by Geography

Naturally it follows that the material in our auctions also reflects a strong US customer base.  North American material represents 35% of the total items offered in any given auction, compared with 23% for Europe, 12% for Asia, and 4% each for Africa, South America, the oceans, and world maps.  The top 10 performing geographies (or categories) in 2016 were:
Of the top ten categories with the highest sell-through, several are on the rise, while a few are on the decline over the last 5 years.  Maps of the continental United States, United States & Mexico, individual US states and cities, and celestial charts have continued to improve over the last few years.  Two of these -- maps of the continental US and those that depict both the US and Mexico --consistently achieve higher prices than other geographical categories.  In contrast, maps of Australia & New Zealand have experienced declining prices over the last 2 years.  Books also perform particularly well at OWA, including atlases, books on exploration, and reference books, both in terms of sell-through and realized prices.  Although still not a top-tier category, regional maps of Central and South America have been on the rise in the last few years, driven by some fascinating and rare 18th century maps of Panama and Cartagena, Columbia.
The lowest performing regions include the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, Holy Land, the Pacific Ocean (with the exception of Australia/New Zealand), and the continent of Africa.  Within these, maps of the Gulf of Mexico and of Holy Land have been on a steady downward trend over the last 5 years, both in terms of sell-through and pricing.  In contrast, maps of the Caribbean, Pacific Ocean and continent of Africa have seen more volatility over the last few years, performing better in some years than in others.
Other Key Trends

As we reported last year, maps from the earliest and latest time periods are the most popular with our bidders, based on both sell-through and the percentage that sell at or above reserve.  Considering the popularity of US-related maps and reference books with our customers, it is no surprise that 19th and 20th century material sells so well.  At the other end of the spectrum, incunabula and manuscript also perform well, however since these are much smaller categories for OWA, this is largely driven by the limited supply we offer.
As one would expect, condition continues to be important both for the saleability of a map and the realized price, with 84% of maps in A+ condition selling, compared to 77% of maps in A condition and only 72% of maps in B+ condition.  As a result, OWA limits the number of maps that we list in B or C+ condition, with B condition maps representing on average 12% of our inventory.  In all of 2016, we only listed 12 lots in C+ condition, and none in lesser condition.

Looking Forward

Looking ahead at 2017, we see some positive signs.  With the market showing more signs of stability, consignments are up for the first half of the year.  This means that OWA can be more selective regarding the material we offer in our auctions, resulting in higher quality, more interesting pieces for 2017.  In addition, we will be presenting four regular auctions and one special auction in 2017 - more information to come on the special auction! 

[Please excuse us if this is all a bit too much.  You can tell that we love numbers as much as we love maps!]

Jon and I would like to thank all of you for supporting Old World Auctions.  We truly do love our jobs and feel fortunate that we get to spend our time researching maps, building relationships with our customers, and making maps accessible to collectors all over the globe.  We wish you and yours a Happy New Year and many blessings in 2017!