Auction Trends in 2020
Auction Trends in 2020
by Eliane & Jon Dotson
Another year has nearly passed, and we think everyone will be happy to say goodbye to 2020 and hello to 2021. This year brought challenges to all of us in different ways, and we hope that despite all of the adversity you have found some silver linings. We have appreciated being able to spend more time with our kids during lockdown, to explore the peacefulness and bounty of nature, and to reconnect with loved ones through Zoom. Transitions are never easy, but we have tried to make the best of these circumstances and are thankful to remain healthy, happy, and connected. We wish the same for you and your families.
As we reflect on 2020, we also review our past auctions to better understand the market and our customers. Each year we share these insights into the collectible map market with our customers, and we hope these insights will help you better understand your collection and make purposeful decisions in the future. Sharing this information also enables our consignors to send us material that better matches our bidders’ interests. Overall we believe that opening up the hood of the car and showing you the engine, grease and all, is beneficial for all of us.
Fortunately, Old World Auctions showed positive momentum in 2020. Being an online business suited us well to a world in lockdown, as our customers were already used to bidding in our auctions from the safety of their homes. We received a lot of positive feedback from our customers who appreciate the thoroughness of our online catalog, digital images, and condition reports, particularly during a year in which viewing items in person wasn’t feasible. Accuracy is always our goal, which is why we are able to offer a 100% money-back guarantee on our catalog descriptions. In 2020 we had 3 items (of over 3,300 sold) that were returned to us. We certainly aren’t infallible, but we always try to do the right thing when the occasional discrepancy arises.
Overall we had a 22% increase in total bidders in 2020, resulting in 36% more bids. A large part of this was due to first-time bidders, which were up 96% over 2019. OWA succeeded in reaching new customers in 2020 through word of mouth, internet searches, and social media, yielding a 57% increase in new registrations.
Not only did Old World Auctions expand its customer base this year, but we also expanded our material and the number of items sold. We listed 3,948 lots in 2020, which represented a 10% increase in items compared with 2019, and we sold 80% of all lots, compared with 75% of lots in 2019. The mix of our catalog between last year and this year remained fairly constant, with a couple of key exceptions. We increased the number of Africa-related maps and historical documents in 2020, and decreased the number of Europe-related maps, which had been the lowest performing region in 2019.
Having the correct mix of material in each auction determines how many items sell. The percentage of items that sell is called “sell-through” and is a key metric for any auction. We looked at the sell-through rates for individual geographies and categories of material and found that the best-selling items were primarily within the western hemisphere. The categories that had the lowest sell-through rates were Asia, Africa, and several non-map categories.

These results were largely consistent with 2019 with a few deviations. Maps of the continent of Asia were one of the top performers in 2019, but a 40% increase in the number of maps of Asia we offered in 2020 likely contributed to its poor performance. African maps fared the same fate in 2020 with an increase in supply resulting in lower sell-through rates, however maps of the continent only declined from 90% to 81%, which was still above the OWA average. Even though we offered the same number of maps of the Holy Land and the Caribbean in both 2019 and 2020, the sell-through of Holy Land maps decreased from 78% in 2019 to 59% in 2020, while those of the Caribbean increased from 75% to 90%.
Trends by Century
When you look at the material in our auctions based on the century when each item was published, some interesting insights appear. Pictorial maps continue to be a hot seller. We added nearly 100 more 20th century maps to our auctions in 2020, and still improved our sell-through of these maps from 91% to 94%. Nineteenth century maps, which are primarily North American in our auctions, also have been steadily improving over the last few years. Seventeenth century maps continue to be a more challenging group for OWA and have had the lowest sell-through of any century over the last three years. This is due to the fact that 17th century maps in our auctions are primarily represented by Europe, Asia and Africa.

Top Selling Items
We reviewed our top performing lots, and for a second year in a row, maps with a U.S. focus comprise the bulk of the list. Seven of the top ten are regional maps of the United States, and four of these relate to California. The remaining three maps include Cuba, southeastern South America, and Japan. As could be expected, half of these lots were published in the 20th century, and 9 of the 10 were published after 1870 -- a trend we also experienced last year.
  1. Auction 179 - Lot 238.  Topographical Map of the Breckenridge Gold Belt Summit County Colorado, by F.C. Cramer, 1890. Sold for $1400 -- 737% above the high estimate
  2. Auction 179 - Lot 428.  Carta Geographica que Comprende los Rios de la Plata, Parana, Uruguay, by George Cary, 1827. Sold for $2000 -- 571% above the high estimate
  3. Auction 179 - Lot 213.  Dempsey’s Automobile Book California, by Consolidated Motor Car Co., 1909. Sold for $1300 -- 565% above the high estimate
  4. Auction 179 - Lot 227.  [Lot of 4] Map of the City of Los Angeles, by Homer Hamlin, 1914. Sold for $1400 -- 560% above the high estimate
  5. Auction 177 - Lot 178.  The Panoramic Automobile Road Map and Tourist Guide Book of Southern California, by Willard Cundiff, 1914. Sold for $1900 -- 507% above the high estimate
  6. Auction 179 - Lot 221.  Topographical Map of Central California Together with Part of Nevada, by J.D. Whitney, 1873. Sold for $2300 -- 460% above the high estimate
  7. Auction 180 - Lot 135.  Indians of the U.S.A., by Louise E. Jefferson, 1944. Sold for $1600 -- 457% above the high estimate
  8. Auction 176 - Lot 258.  Map of Houston Texas, by W.S. Parks, 1938. Sold for $950 -- 432% above the high estimate
  9. Auction 177 - Lot 642.  [Japanese Map] Kiotokukumimesaiaz, by Anonymous, 1890. Sold for $1500 -- 429% above the high estimate
  10. Auction 179 - Lot 384.  A Plan of the Siege of the Havana, by Gentleman's Magazine, 1762. Sold for $700 -- 412% above the high estimate
Our Customers

We are often asked where the material in our auctions comes from, so we took a look at that too. All of the material comes from consignors, who hailed from 4 continents in 2020 -- North America, Europe, Australia, and South America. These consignments come from collectors (30%), estates and retired dealers (30%) and active map dealers and resellers (40%). And our bidders are even more diverse, representing 45 countries and every continent except for Antarctica! Although the majority of our customers reside within the United States, our most common international countries represented include Canada, Great Britain, Australia, the Netherlands, and New Zealand. We are thankful that our online platform is able to reach map enthusiasts around the world.
From all of us at Old World Auctions, we thank you for your support in 2020 and wish you a Happy New Year!