May 22, 2012 by Ephemera Society
Not many days is there a compelling reason to linger over what the carrier has deposited in the mailbox out front, but when there’s a Swann Galleries Auction catalogue mixed in with the driveway sealer brochures, the walk back to the house is a leisurely one.
Swann Galleries specializes only in works on paper, with the exception of stamps and currency. And because ephemera exists in several of their categories, you know there probably will be something to yearn for. Perhaps it will be a 16th-century map guessing at the outlines of North or South America. There’s just as likely to be a Wyatt Earp autograph, a slave diary, a Ludwig Hohlwein or Paul Colin poster, or perhaps a descent chart carried to the moon’s surface on Apollo XI and signed by Buzz Aldrin.
With as many as 45 auctions a year, Swann has discovered a valuable niche. That specialization means that the bidding public — collectors, dealers, institutions — “know they are dealing with someone who has as much of a passion for paper as they do,” Nicholas D. Lowry, Swann’s president, says. (With his family’s roots in eastern Europe, and a four-year residency in Prague, Lowry’s passion is Czechoslovakian posters.)
“It also means that as a smaller, focused auction house, we have a lot more riding on our relationship with the public. When they call us, they expect to talk with specialists, people who are collectors or connoisseurs themselves.”
About half of Swann’s sellers and buyers are private individuals. The remaining 30 percent are dealers, with 20 percent classified as “others.” And the market is growing, he says.
“The market is astoundingly broad,” Lowry says. “Many of our sellers are ordinary people with something small to sell who have heard about us from others,” Lowry says. “They’ll call and say they found something in the attic, or their grandmother died and left a stack of papers. If we don’t specialize in what they have, we’ll give them a list of people who might be able to help them.”
As Lowry says, Swann’s is in business today because “people in the past kept something they shouldn’t have.” He cited the long-time librarian in a Mississippi museum who had sent away for travel posters for years storing them under the carpets in the museum when they arrived. That was back when posters were for short-term use and not considered serious art. The posters were discovered a few years ago when the museum was being cleaned and formed the basis for Swann’s first auction devoted exclusively to travel posters.
Rare book dealer Ben Swann founded the auction house in 1941. Lowry’s father and Swann’s Chairman George Lowry took over the business in 1969, keeping the Swann name, and expanding into a broader range of works on paper. The business has grown to 33 employees, all of them working from the two-story gallery at 104 East 25th street in New York City. Look around and you may see a customer with one of Swann’s experts lovingly leafing through a rare book, or examining a manuscript copy of Emma Lazarus’s The New Colossus. That’s one of the perks of working at Swann’s, says Senior Cataloguer Gary Garland, a 20-year Swann veteran who specializes in rare books and ephemera.
“The joy of working with ephemera is the variety,” Garland, an Ephemera Society member, says. “I’m the one who gets to look at it for the first time. There are always some fascinating pieces to ponder. That’s why you’ve seen me at Swann for 20 years.”
Ephemera markets are changing as well as growing. At Swann’s first auction that included live bidding on eBay about five percent of the items sold went to on-line buyers. The percentage was small, but it was cause for excitement because most of the buyers were new customers. Of the 80 people who registered to bid online from around the world, Swann knew only seven. The result? Many of Swann’s future auctions will feature on-line bidding, Lowry says.
The company also is taking advantage of its Web site by posting auction previews, catalogs, and prices realized. That’s also one of the reasons why it is supporting the Society.
Garland, who has donated his time as an appraiser and auctioneer at the Society’s annual conferences, says Society support makes good business sense.
“I’ll often hear that people have found out about us on the Ephemera Web site because we have a link there,” Garland says. “And sometimes some lovely consignments have come out of that contact. The Society Web site makes people aware of the fact that we exist.”
As Lowry puts it, spending money to reach the right people is a “no brainer.”
“The Society serves collectors and dealers,” Lowry says, “two audiences that are integral to our business. It’s a matter of getting our name in the right places. When someone who collects, say, train tickets comes across something extraordinary, we want them to think about us, first.
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