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Rare Books, Ruxley Lodge and The Ring
I've just finished reading Anatomy of an Auction; Rare Books at Ruxley Lodge 1919 by Arthur and Janet Freeman. Published by The Book Collector it details the operations of 'The Ring' at a country house sale in 1919. The effectiveness of the ring at this sale can perhaps be gauged from the price paid for a Shakespeare first folio, a book that would, at the time, fetch perhaps £2000 in a London saleroom was sold at Ruxley Lodge to Quaritch for just £100.
The Ruxley Lodge sale was a dispersal sale of the contents of an English country house belonging to the Foley family. The house and its contents were being sold by the 7th Baron, who it appears had little interest in and little knowledge of the books that had been collected by successive generations of his family. He secured the services of the auctioneers Castiglione & Scott to handle the sale, a firm well used to dealing with land and property but with little experience of the book trade and the books were badly catalogued by the auctioneers, making the work of the ring even easier; there were so many hidden prizes.
'The Ring' is formed by an agreement between a group of buyers to act in concert at an auction. In this way the members of a ring agree not to bid against one another and so, in the absence of opposition in the saleroom, prices remain artificially low. The second part of the ring's operation is what is known as the settlement. This is essentially a second, private auction in which members of the ring bid against each other for the items secured at the public sale. The difference between the original price of a given item and the price it makes in the settlement is then split between the members of the ring as a 'dividend'. At Ruxley lodge the book-dealers ring was eighty strong and of the 641 lots of books offered for sale over 3 days the ring would come away with 453 of them, that total including all the lots that contained any books of note.
What followed was not one settlement but a series of four. The first contained all eighty members of the ring and a venue had to be hired in which to hold it. Subsequent settlements were amongst London dealers, with the fourth and final settlement being between just eight dealers whose names represent the most reputable firms in the antiquarian book trade of the early 20th century including, Quaritch, Maggs, Pickering, Edwards, Sabin, Tregaskis and Dobell. This series of settlements is in effect rings within rings, with those knowing that they'll be part of later settlements not bidding against those they know will also be at later settlements. How much those not involved in later settlements knew of their existence is unclear. But for a small dealer simple involvement in the ring at Ruxley represented a significant bonus. The dividend from the first settlement was £124, a figure which compares favourably with the £94 per annum paid by Dobell to his principle assistant. While not the heaviest buyer or the biggest dealer involved Dobell is significant because it is his marked catalogue that allowed the authors of this book to uncover the workings of the ring at this sale.
Dobell's marked catalogue records both prices realised in the public auction, buyers and later settlement prices. Using these figures the authors show that prices paid in the saleroom represented less than 20% of the value the ring would ascribe to these book in the subsequent settlements. Knowing the outcomes of the various settlements it was also possible for the authors to trace these books through the catalogues of the booksellers who participated in the ring and in many case to discover their eventual owners. The greatest irony appears to be that many of the prices eventually paid in the settlements appear to have been too high and on some lots the dealers involved made little, if any profit. Other lots took many years before they recovered their costs and one book, a 1655 quarto of Othello is still appearing in a Quaritch catalogue in 1951. Many of the best books traced by the authors in this way appear to have been sold to American collectors and so to have found their way into institutional libraries; Harvard, Yale, The Folger Library etc, something that I always feel saddened by. Such books are lost both to the trade and to collectors of the future, narrowing their prospects and increasing their costs.
It should be remembered that in 1919 operating a ring was not illegal and the operation of such agreements had a history almost as long as sale by public auction. However so low were the prices at Ruxley that it resulted in articles and letters in several newspapers including The Times. While the law wouldn't change until 1927 it does seem that this sale represents the point at which movement toward such a change began. When it came the new law (The Auctions Bidding Agreements Act 1927) didn't completely do away with the ring, but its obvious operation on the scale seen at Ruxley Lodge became virtually impossible. Trade buyers may still operate agreements to act in a cooperative manner but must notify the auctioneer in writing of their intention to do so. Private and institutional buyers are not covered by the law in the same way as the trade. Some of the opposition to the new law came from those who simply believed it to unenforceable which it seems largely to have been with the authors identifying just a couple of prosecutions under it over the past 63 years.
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