Namely the continuing paucity of printed sale catalogues even though the ‘Great Pandemic’, which sent the nation into lockdown in March 2020, is clearly in retreat.
Initially, if I may remind readers, almost all auction houses ceased operating but, after the restrictions were partially relaxed on June 15, many reopened and began to resume selling, albeit using an ‘online’ format and without any active participation from a live audience.
Printed catalogues were mostly suspended from the outset although, for a purely online operation, this was perfectly understandable and, for most potential buyers, I suggest, completely acceptable.
A few auctioneers have ‘kept the faith’ with printed catalogues but the majority have not. That said, innumerable sales across the UK in the past year have come and gone, most of which seem to have been unqualified successes despite being staged without the traditional aid of printed catalogues.
As a pragmatist, of course I can see the significant cost savings to be made by abandoning printed catalogues, even though I myself have a deep attachment to them after my 50 years as a cataloguer.
I have no doubt that many will think me simply a Luddite, just wanting to resist change, and that ‘online’ catalogues are the future whatever my personal views; they may well be right, but may I draw attention to the other, less obvious role of the printed catalogue as a vital and invaluable record of what has been sold, when and for how much, in the public marketplace.
In theory, of course, all this information can be stored in the computerised files of the auctioneers, but will it be freely available to all interested parties in the years to come? Even more importantly, will all this data be scrupulously transferred as IT systems are inevitably upgraded and superseded with time?
Writers, particularly biographers, are already lamenting the woeful lack of conventional letters, hand-written or typed, to and from their chosen subjects, as fewer and fewer individuals or organisations any longer ‘put pen to paper’.
This begs the question ‘is the printed auction catalogue also in its death throes?’ and I for one sincerely hope it is not.
Michael Naxton, ASFAV
Curator Emeritus, Ashcroft Medal Collection