Bid at the Auction; Collect the Catalog

A Sid & Marty Krofft autographed 1998 auction catalog sold for $175 in 2018.

Win or lose at auction, you can still profit after the sale if you collect the catalog. It may be the only way you can.

If you know auction houses, then you know Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Both were founded in 18th century London in 1744 and 1766, respectively. Impressive considering they both predate the founding of the United States by a generation.  But they aren’t even close to the oldest continuously operating auction house in the world. That distinction belongs to Stockholms Auktionsverk when it was founded by Baron Claes Ralamb in 1674. In fact, the second and third oldest auction houses are Swedish as well, Göteborgs Auktionsverk founded in 1681 and Uppsala Auktionskammare founded in 1731.

That’s interesting only because over the past 350 years or so, these auction houses have handled a remarkable amount of history in the form of fine art, jewelry, rare books, stamps, coinage, furniture, porcelain, and all manner of high value antiques and collectibles.

And it is the auction catalog that records this historical information. For any auction, the catalog will feature individual items by “lot number,” a basic description (be careful of promotional words intended to downplay condition), and an estimated price that the lot will probably sell for (usually within a range), or a reserve price below which bids won’t be accepted, along with photographs taken from all angles to show buyers exactly what is being offered. This is the information that gets passed along with the historic treasure itself.

This boxed set of Marilyn Monroe auction catalogs from Julien’s Auctions sold for $225 in 2016.

Winning bids for some of these historic treasures is beyond most of us, but that doesn’t mean you have to lose out on experiencing historic treasures altogether. Marilyn Monroe memorabilia was the feature during a three-day event at Julien’s Auction from November 17-19, 2016, for example, that included the form fitting, sparkly “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” dress she wore for President John F. Kennedy’s birthday party at Madison Square Garden in 1962. Maybe you can’t own the actual dress that sold for $4.8 million, but you can at least own it vicariously by buying the auction catalog series for $300 or so. 

Turns out, though, that auction catalogs serve more of a purpose than just living vicariously. The New York State Library says that “…catalogs are important tools for scholars, collectors, booksellers, curators, historians and librarians. They give us the expertise of specialists and can give an overview or a detailed look at areas of collecting… [and] can help trace the provenance of a book, a letter, or a piece of art. This information can be as important as the item itself. Often, such catalogs have some of the best information that has ever been written… [with]… an image of the item…making it the first place of publication for many famous works.” They were referencing their rare book auction catalogs, but the sentiment transcends throughout all antique and collecting categories. In short, auction catalogs are historical records unto themselves.

This Christie’s Sporting Art auction catalog sold for $19.99 in 2009.

The auction catalog is so important that major institutions like the New York State Library, the Library of Congress, and all major museums have large collections of auction catalogs going back centuries that help in research, identification and, most importantly, establish provenance for a major work of fine art, rare book or other historical items.

Having said all that, is the collecting of auction catalogs for you? If you are a dealer, curator, buyer, seller, or one with a particular collectible interest, it is best to either have a collection of your own for research or to access one in order to keep up with trends.

And it’s such a good thing that auctions are conducted in virtually all collectible categories from fine art and furniture to sports, toys, games, autographs, political memorabilia, porcelain, coin, letters, cars, movies, and even puppets.  Sure, the celebrity auction catalog for Michael Jackson memorabilia, for example, featured contracts, stage worn costumes and ephemera as listed by Guernsey’s in 2007 is $175. But other auction catalogs as diverse as writing instruments, autographs, muscle cars, Ming Dynasty ceramics, and baseball memorabilia were all available from $10 to $20 last year.

This collection of baseball auction catalogs from Sotheby’s sold for $11.99 in 2014.

While there wasn’t an association for auction catalog collection that I could find, there are specialists that buy and sell auction catalogs as an enterprise. in the UK features catalogues from the 1880s to the present day from all the major auction houses” while based in USA  boasts “the largest distributor of art, antique and collectible post auction catalogs in the world.”

One of the important things to remember about acquiring auction catalogs, though, is that once the auction is completed, a “prices realized” report is issued by the auction company. At times, this report is available exclusively for those who registered to bid, but auction companies will at times sell the report to others as well. This report augments the auction catalog’s bidding estimates and becomes very useful in understanding auction values over time. So be sure to ask these catalog warehouses if the prices realized report is included. This goes for local auction houses as well.

Unfortunately, hand held paper auction catalogs, which already are printed in limited numbers, are increasingly becoming obsolete as online bidding takes over. While it seems printing your own auction results will become the future of auction catalogs, the information is still needed even if it can’t be auctioned quite the same way afterward.

History comes in many forms and the story that the auction catalog tells helps keep the historic object alive as it passes through its life. Every time it goes once, and goes twice, and then is sold, a bit more history is made – which could be important to you.

Tom Carrier is a General Worthologist with a specialty in Americana, political memorabilia and he has been the resident WorthPoint vexillologist (flags, seals and heraldry) since 2007. Tom is also a frequent contributor of articles to WorthPoint.

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