The ABA Code of Practice, reproduced in full below, was introduced in its modern form in 1997. We felt at the time that it was that it was pretty robust – certainly stronger at that time than any of the comparable codes then applied by similar bodies, not just in the world of books, but across the antiques field in general. It has served us well and our Standards Committee, introduced at the same time, has done quiet but effective work behind the scenes. Complaints have been dealt with. Honour upheld.
The Code has not remained static – the clauses on plagiarism and provenance, for example, are more recent additions – but the world moves on apace and we now work in a rather different environment. The internet was only just beginning to make an impact back in 1997. All such codes need to be revisited from time to time and following some discussion at the last ABA Council Meeting, I have been tasked with undertaking an initial review. The need for this was reinforced at the last meeting of the Executive Committee of the British Art Market Federation (BAMF), at which I was substituting for our normal representative, Angus O’Neill (Omega Bookshop). A discussion there focussed on the need to re-examine our various codes of practice in the light of modern circumstance – some of our colleagues in other organisations have already tightened their codes considerably.
Looking at the Code in detail again, after an interval of some years, I was struck by a number of things. Firstly, reflecting its distant origins and antecedents – it was very much based on earlier codes drawn up by the International League (ILAB) and our colleagues overseas – is the way in which our general obligations to the public at large and our specific obligations to our colleagues in the trade have been muddled together. My first recommendation shall be to separate these out more clearly, but this is perhaps a minor matter.
The second is that much of the Code is advisory rather than mandatory – many of the clauses contain an advisory ‘should’ rather than a mandatory ‘must’. I now feel that in almost all cases a ‘must’ would be preferable. What we need above all in this global and internet age is to distance ourselves ever more clearly from the soi-disant booksellers (you have seen them all on ABE, Amazon and eBay), who acknowledge no professional code of practice at all and have never been willing to submit themselves to the judgement of their peers by joining a reputable trade association. It is perhaps not a matter of ‘should’ any more.
Elsewhere, we might well now look at strengthening the Stolen Property clause, with requirements (at least for material of any significant value), for the exercise of formal due diligence checks, for following the joint ABA/CILIP guidelines on library thefts, the retention of records for a period of years, requiring signed warranties from vendors, taking and retaining photo ID, etc. The codes of some comparable bodies are now much stronger in this regard, as they are on such things as import and export regulations, which may also need to look at.
There may also be a case for incorporating references to recent legislation – statutory regulations on money-laundering, dealing in tainted cultural property, and so forth, have all been introduced since the Code was first published – although we have to be careful here not to give the impression we can police or even investigate activities which are plainly criminal. We do not have the statutory powers, we can do no more than co-operate with the proper authorities – these are firmly matters for the constabulary.
We might look at some fresh clauses, perhaps something on restoration and repair, possibly requiring or requesting members to record all repair work on material of significant value and to keep, where appropriate, before-and-after photographic records. These will all be matters for discussion and detailed line-by-line work in committee. Such things are always a collaborative exercise – consensus on what is wise, necessary or desirable has to be negotiated and agreed. Such regulation can only be imposed by consent. The point of raising these matters here is to give you all a chance to comment, to make suggestions, and to have your say – whether or not you are one of the surprisingly small number of booksellers (perhaps only 10% of UK booksellers) who have signed up to the Code by joining the ABA. What would collectors like to see in our Code? What would all those non-ABA booksellers like to see in the Code which might persuade them to join? What do ABA members themselves have to say? How strong would we like the Code to be? Does it need to be strengthened at all? But let us at least collectively try to assemble something which will stand us in good stead for the next twenty years. I shall be happy to collate all suggestions received and put them forward – just click on ‘Leave a Comment’ at the foot of this post.
ABA Code of Good Practice
This Code for members of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association applies to all commercial transactions in which they are engaged. It is intended to regularise such transactions and to ensure that they are conducted according to the highest professional and ethical standards. Members are also subject to the Code of Usages and Customs of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers. Although similar in intent and purpose, the two Codes are not identical: should any dispute over interpretation arise, the ABA Code shall take precedence in all instances except where the matter in dispute lies between members of different national associations affiliated to the International League.
1a. DESCRIPTION AND DISCLOSURE. Members are responsible for the identification and accurate bibliographical description of all material offered for sale. All significant defects, restorations and sophistications must be clearly indicated. Unless the parties agree otherwise, a full and prompt refund shall be available to the purchaser of any misrepresented material. Members must understand and be responsible for the proper use and interpretation of the technical terms of the trade.
1b. AUTHENTICITY. Members shall vouch for the authenticity of all materials offered for sale. Should it be determined that such material is not authentic or is questionable, then it shall be returnable for full refund, or on some other mutually agreed terms. Material shown not to be authentic, or of disputed or undetermined nature, shall not again be offered for sale unless all facts concerning it are disclosed.
1c. PLAGIARISM. Catalogue descriptions and images are a species of intellectual property: members or their representatives should not steal or plagiarise from their colleagues; any quoted material should be acknowledged, and if substantial use is made of another bookseller’s text or images, permission should be sought in advance.
2. PRICING. Members are responsible for the professional, fair and informed pricing of all material offered for sale. Members should ensure that the selling price of all material offered for sale is clearly indicated. Material not for sale, or reserved, or being processed, should be appropriately segregated.
3. OFFERS TO PURCHASE must be fair, informed and honest. The offer should be valid either for an immediate transaction or for a stated period.
4. STOLEN PROPERTY. Members shall be responsible for passing to the buyer clear title to all material sold, and shall not knowingly purchase, hold, or attempt to sell stolen material. They shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that material offered to them is the property of the seller. They shall make every effort to prevent the theft of antiquarian books and the distribution of stolen material. To this end, when making purchases from private individuals or institutions, members are advised to:-
♦ record the vendor’s name and address,
♦ record details of significant purchases,
♦ make payments by cheque wherever possible,
♦ ensure that this record be signed and dated by the vendor.
5. EXTRA RECOMMENDATION. If a bookseller unwittingly purchases, in good faith, and with due diligence having been exercised, material stolen from another bookseller, it is recommended that, all legal proprieties having been observed, the material should be returned to the bookseller from whom it was stolen, but that he should pay to the purchaser one half of the price paid to the thief. This constitutes, between two booksellers, a “gentleman’s agreement”.
6. PRESERVATION. Members are committed to the preservation and study of historical materials and should not break complete and intact copies of books or manuscripts. It is recommended that wherever possible members record in identifiable detail and publish in their descriptions all observable marks of prior ownership (including details of binding) in any way illustrative of provenance or origin, as well as maintaining a full and permanent record of all matters relating to the purchase, provenance and subsequent sale of individual items of manifest interest or value.
7. TERMS AND CONDITIONS.
The following are the standard terms approved by the Association:
Catalogues. The contents of catalogues should be priced and books should be genuinely available at that price subject to prior sale. Costs of carriage and insurance are normally extra.
Offers for Sale. It should be made clear at the time of offer whether or not this is subject to prior sale. If the offer is not subject to prior sale, an option should be assured for a specified time.
Payment. Members must pay colleagues in the trade in full for all materials purchased either (a) within thirty days of date of invoice or (b) within seven days of receipt of goods, whichever term is the later unless otherwise agreed.
Bank Charges. The supplier must be paid the full amount of his invoice; the buyer is responsible for all clearing and bank charges relating to the transaction.
Damage in Transit. Damage or loss in transit is the sender’s responsibility. Members should attend to the careful and appropriate handling, packing, shipping and insurance of material to ensure that it reaches the buyer in the same condition as when purchased.
Returns. Any article may be returned if it does not correspond with the seller’s description. Returns should be advised as soon as possible. The cost of returning material incorrectly described shall be the responsibility of the seller. The material should be in the same condition as when supplied.
On Approval. Consignments “on approval” requested by a prospective buyer must be supplied with a clear indication of the term allowed for a decision. When this term elapses the sale shall be deemed to be concluded if the goods have not been returned. If returned, postal and insurance charges both ways should be borne by the prospective buyer. Members who ask for material “on approval” or “on consignment” shall hold themselves responsible for such material from its arrival until returned or fully paid for.
Trade Discount. Members should permit any other members of an association affiliated and in good standing with the ILAB to buy any material offered for sale (i.e. priced) and should extend to such buyers the customary and reciprocal trade discount of at least 10%. Although not a formal arrangement, members are encouraged to offer comparable terms to members of other antiquarian associations.
8. VALUATIONS. Valuations must be fair, honest, impartial and expert. Members offering valuation or appraisal services shall be responsible for being conversant with and complying with whatever local or national fiscal regulations may be in force. Fees should be by prior arrangement.
9. AUCTIONS. The Association opposes all forms of malpractice at auction. No member shall engage in any activity, or be party to any covert or undisclosed agreements, whether with buyers, sellers, or auctioneers, that artificially distort the price paid in open sale. No member shall for any consideration agree with other persons not to bid at auction, or take part in a private re-auction of lots bought at public auction. Furthermore, every member shall pledge full support to the Council of the Association in its opposition to the activity of any ring within the trade in antiquarian books.
10. AUCTION COMMISSIONS. Members who accept commissions to purchase books or other materials for a client at auction will be expected to inspect the material prior to the sale and will not rely solely on information supplied by the auctioneer. Members should, of course, also exercise the utmost discretion and eliminate any risk of conflict of interest. Unless otherwise agreed before the sale, a commission fee, on the hammer price, of 10% is normally charged on successful bids only and all consequent invoices will be for immediate payment. The member is also responsible for collating and verifying the description of the material bought and returning to the auctioneer material which is defective or wrongly described where such defects and mis-descriptions are covered by the terms and conditions specified by the auctioneer. It is strongly recommended that terms between the member and the client are agreed and recorded in writing before, or on acceptance of the commission.
11. BOOKSELLER’S PREMISES. Members or their representatives should never solicit custom in another bookseller’s shop, book fair booth, or place of business without the introduction or consent of the proprietor.
12. EXPORT AND IMPORT REGULATIONS. Members are required to observe all restrictions, regulations and controls regarding the import or export of rare and valuable antiquarian books and manuscripts in whatever country or countries they transact their business.
13. INVESTMENT SCHEMES. Members must not promote antiquarian and rare books, or allied materials, as investment vehicles in themselves, or as part of investment schemes.
14. COMPLAINTS AND DISPUTES. Complaints and disputes regarding Association members are to be resolved in accordance with the precepts of this Code and under the disciplinary rules and procedures of the Association. Formal complaints against members should be made in writing to the Chairman of the Standards Committee of the Association. Customers can ascertain the procedure for such complaints through the ABA Office. Breaches of the Code may constitute grounds for reprimand, censure, the imposition of a compensation order, suspension or expulsion from the Association.
15. SUPPORT FOR THE CODE. All members are requested to place the shortened display version of this Code* in prominent view at their principal place of business. All members are required to pledge their full support to the Association in promoting and upholding the provisions of the Code. All members are likewise under a formal duty to assist the Standards Committee of the Association in any investigation that may be made. Any obstruction or wilful non-disclosure of relevant information shall of itself be deemed a breach of the Code.
* SHORT VERSION
The display of the Association’s badge pledges members to:-
the authenticity of all material offered for sale
the expert and proper description of all such material
the disclosure of all significant defects or restorations
the clear, accurate and professional pricing of all material
and the fairness and honesty of offers to purchase
Item 9 is a dud, and always was.
Briefly – yes our Code does need strengthening and many parts should be elevated to mandatory. We also need to put clear light between ourselves and some of the characters selling printed matter on ABE, Amazon and E-bay. Item 9 should be retained, even in these times of on-line auction bidding, it’s not a “dud” and should perhaps adapted in some way to take into account on-line bidding.
Some thoughts, at random:
• It’s a curious document. It rests on the assumption that adherents to the Code are gentlemen who can be trusted to act as such, yet need the odd reminder not to engage in or condone plainly illegal conduct. These honourable but forgetful gentlemen are all known to one another, wherein lies the strength of the Code; its rules are enforced by a self-policing community who in theory can directly benefit from or be damaged by the actions of any individual.
• What is the intention behind the advice to pay by cheque? A bank transfer is surely a sufficient third-party record of a transaction, unless I’m missing something.
• I would suggest that the clause on returns and mentions of returns elsewhere are now far outpaced by consumer legislation enacted in 2013 and 2015 (which, it would seem, continues to be ignored by some booksellers as if what we do isn’t mere commerce).
• Something, perhaps, that might make non-members more willing to join is some expression of the idea that membership involves more than just the judgement of one’s peers, but also their support as part of a body that champions them behind the scenes and organises effectively to promote them to the public. What do non-collectors know of the ABA or its Code? What marketing or PR efforts exist outside of fair season? These are questions outside the scope of the current revision process, perhaps, but relevant. But public awareness of the ABA is what, ultimately, will distinguish members from the chancers and randos cluttering up the bookselling internet.
To follow-up on this comment, I would like to expand on the idea of the code of good practice as promoting positive practices and attitudes, as well as forbidding or censuring negative acts. As Mr Worms acknowledges, the code derives its strength primarily from the consent of the governed, and establishing some general traits that characterise good professional practice would encourage booksellers to adopt them. For this, I envision an addition to the preamble or the addition of an initial section which exhorts those governed by it to be honest in their descriptions, upright and friendly (or civil, if the latter is deemed unobtainable) in their dealings, and so on. I would, myself, be in favour of also including something that indicates the skill and scholarly virtues that characterise bookselling, though I realise that may be more controversial. The aim of such a section would be to establish the spirit in which the following specific points in the code should be interpreted; it suggests that good practice encompasses these points but also is expressed in other larger ways, which may make the code more appealing to those currently outside of it. These standards are implicit in the code as is, but making it explicit would be useful, or at least I feel so.
Similarly, and more fully addressing Pinda’s point above, I would like to see a subsection positively encouraging collegiality (or perhaps a better term for the same idea), with some description of the duties that are implied by such – though I don’t think it should be phrased with one of those binding “musts”. So in addition to “pledging their full support for the code”, members might be encouraged to educate and inform their fellows, to offer advice or point out mistakes, to hint that other booksellers might be ready to rally the wagons around if a disastrous flood were to strike, for instance. To put it another way, they might pledge to help fellow members, and to encourage others to become members.
Finally, I think some basic introduction concerning environmental issues should be incorporated. This should not refer to the production of books (which is quite a separate issue), but to their international transport. It seems to me that customers have come to expect that good professionals will take such issues into account, and that it would be worth including a short entry that suggests that, all other things being equal, as professionals we will select the green alternative. I recognise that to some American observers this may appear to be a political statement, but in the UK it is quite uncontroversial, and would in any case represent the interests of customers.
I realise that some of these points are addressed by other documents, but I would also argue that these warrant inclusion in this code. Simultaneously, I feel it worth pointing out that I have heard others in the trade, for example members of the IOBA, express the wish that they might be taken as seriously as ABA traders, precisely because of the code of good practice – so it seems like it is already working quite efficiently.
As a collector, I believe the ABA Code has indeed muddled together the obligations members have to customers and colleagues, with customers often being put at a disadvantage. The disadvantage is mainly financial, as I will explain when I address specific points. The ABA Code should be a standard of professional behavior for book dealers that also protects book collectors, rather than merely the rules of an exclusive club that protects dealers at the expense of collectors. The world of rare books is a small one and quite clubbish, with the code more of a royal standard of quality one can expect than a vital deterrent to the nefarious.
With respect, it seems rather unnecessary and elitist for ABA members to be concerned about further distancing themselves from “soi-distant” sellers of books on ABE, Amazon and Ebay, as if ethical business practices are completely absent from those sites, with book peddling criminals waiting to pounce with every click. If I buy a book from a seller on the aforementioned sites, I have recourse and buyer protections provided by the site’s corporate owner if the book turns out to be incorrectly described, etc. These protections match those covered by the ABA code. I doubt there are any serious book collectors who blindly buy books online, unaware of the need for caution. The motivation for buying on such sites is price, and I am sure many ABA sellers scout online for the same reasons as their collector customers. Considering how much Amazon and Ebay skew commerce protections in favor of buyers over sellers, I am surprised any serious book dealer would prefer to set up shop, so to speak, with our corporate overlords rather than the ABA, but that is another matter. My expectations as a regular buyer of antiquarian books are higher when buying from an ABA seller and I accept that I will most likely pay a higher price owing to the greater professionalism and scholarship brought to the transaction by such a seller. For that reason, I found some of the provisions of the code thought provoking.
2. Pricing: From a collector’s perspective, I am often puzzled as to how ABA dealers determine “fair and informed” pricing. A book collector who spends on average £250-£500 per book, for example, will frequently find equal or better copies of a desired book from non-member sellers for a lower price. Amateur sellers tend to substitute ample images of a book for an informed description. If price is determined by the marketplace, then I think many ABA dealers consider their target market other dealers rather than collectors. It is considered bad form for a book collector to request a discount, though established customers may be offered one. I know many dealers who would sniff at a mere 10 percent trade discount from another seller. ABA book fairs are the perfect place to witness dealer-centric pricing in action. Collectors know that before we are let in, there is a frenzy of trade among dealers and a book we buy once the doors are open to punters may have passed through the hands of two or three dealers with a bump in price each time. The books didn’t become more rare in the process, just more expensive.
9. Auctions: Anyone who has attended a rare book auction, especially a rare book auction preview, should be forgiven for believing the entire paragraph to be satirical. There is a huddle of dealers at every preview discussing who has a client for which lot or strategizing in some fashion. While not illegal, it conflicts with the ethical standards for which collectors are expected to pay a premium, and certainly puts the client at a disadvantage to the fellow dealer. Auction houses are making great efforts to deal directly with collectors these days, and unless I cannot personally collate or verify the merits of a lot personally, I would not consider engaging an ABA member advantageous.
Unmentioned. Privacy: Though some ABA members already do so voluntarily, the ABA code does not seem to address customer privacy. As a collector, what are my rights to privacy when buying from an ABA member? Will my information be shared or sold with other dealers? With other businesses? Is my personal information stored? Is it secure? Can I have a reasonable expectation that my purchase history is not shared without my consent in an effort to solicit my business from other parties?
The ABA Code is not the primary reason I buy books from ABA members. Its protections are not exclusive to the ABA. Despite my concerns, I prefer to buy from ABA dealers because they are most likely to have the rarest books and the best copies of the books I collect. I will only buy signed or association copies from ABA members because I know I can rely upon their experience and knowledge.
Thank you so much for your comments. You make some very good points, there are others I don’t fully accept – certainly on the pitfalls of novice collectors in particular buying on ABE, etc. – but it was precisely this kind of intelligent commentary from outside the trade I was hoping to elicit. Our president has already responded to you with an invitation to comment further.
This is a most refreshing and welcome series of comments on our Code of Good Practice. There is little point in having a code of conduct if it doesn’t reflect the concerns of our customers. I would be very interested in expanding on these ideas and we would be more than happy if you got in touch with myself, our vice-president Angus O’Neill or our secretary Camilla.
Oscar Graves-Johnston, ABA President.
As what I consider to be a ‘mid-range’ (usually £1000-£1000) collector, I concur with many of William’s comments. For what it’s worth, here are my own:
1) The danger of a code of conduct is that it can appear somewhat antiquated, at best, or pointless, at worst, given that consumers already enjoy adequate protection offered by legislation and common law. However, what a code of conduct can provide is a sense that I am unlikely to require any such recourse to legal protection in the first place. Nevertheless, I would be interested to know how the ABA enforces its codes if and when a member is found to be in breach of them. Have members been expelled, for instance? Otherwise there is a danger that a code of conduct looks like one of those certificates of authenticity issued by certain sellers of quite evidently fake antiquities….
2) Like William, I don’t see that the mention of “fair and informed” pricing is especially useful. What is a “fair” price other than the price that a particular individual is prepared to pay? I assume that it obliquely references the possibility of a body such as the ABA being able to act as a cartel and fix prices accordingly? If so, this should be made clear, as otherwise the idea of a “fair” price is problematic. Indeed, most books (except some fine bindings) have little or no intrinsic value, and many non-collectors would consider it ‘unfair’ merely to price a first edition higher than a later reprint as they just simply wouldn’t see where the added value lies.
As William also notes, ABA members’ prices are usually above the average market offer price. I don’t generally mind this as I am often paying a premium for a superior copy, or one with interesting provenance. I am also content to pay a small premium just for the reassurance of buying from a knowledgeable seller who is less likely to cause difficulties should an issue arise (in my experience, ABA dealers are usually mortified if they make an error). But the “fair and informed” price could also lead to uncompetitive pricing or even cartel-like pricing. Thus, it is striking how often ABA or ILAB members will price their books at very similar levels. Of course, this could be considered prima facie evidence of “fair and informed” pricing at the market value, but it often seems like a case of ‘follow the leader’ where an ABA dealer initially prices a book at £xxx and everyone else assumes that this must be the “fair and informed” price and duly follows suit….
3) Item 1a with regards to description and disclosure is interesting. One of the things that distinguishes honest dealers (ABA members or otherwise) is their adherence to the value of accurate description and full disclosure of faults, remedial work etc. But this is also a matter of competency as well as honesty. Many of the sellers on ABE, Amazon and the like are not dishonest, they merely lack adequate knowledge to describe their books properly. In contrast, I trust that ABA dealers will either have the requisite knowledge or, just as importantly, have the means to find such knowledge. Whilst the consumer is offered legal recourse in the event of misleading information, what I really desire is to avoid any such recourse in the first place and this is why I prefer to deal with ABA members. However, one thing I have noticed creeping in to descriptions is a use of omissions which can be misleading:
Example a) – a dealer might describe a book as “First Edition, Boston, 1886” and although this is not inaccurate, the book might in fact be the first US edition (revealed by the word “Boston”, in the dealer’s defence) rather than the first English language edition. Although there is, in a sense, accurate description and disclosure, “First Edition, Boston” is not quite the same as “First American Edition”.
Similarly, one extremely prestigious dealer offered the American and UK editions of the same title as, in the first instance, the “true first” and, in the second, “first edition, published simultaneously with the American”. I suppose it is theoretically possible for both these statements to be true, but it isn’t exactly a model of clarity.
Dealers will also often make use of whichever bibliographical source best suits their revenue requirements. For example, if they have a copy in red cloth they might describe it as “one of three issues, no priority established [according to xy]” but if they have a copy in green cloth they might describe it as “one of three issues, the preferred first issue in green cloth [according to ab-c]”. Minor stuff perhaps, or just smart salesmanship, but I would prefer not to be put in the position of having to deduce information, especially if one feels that one is paying a premium at least in part for the superior knowledge of the dealer….
Example b) – the use of “not in COPAC”, “only 2 copies in Worldcat” or “no auction records for the last 27 years” is sometimes used to imply scarcity when a quick look at an alternative online library resource or the catalogue records for the last 28 years shows there to be plenty of copies listed there. In general, the misuse of “rare” and “scarce” is largely confined to non-ABA dealers (especially of hyper-moderns) but this subtler form of the same problem seems to be gaining ground.
With regard to item 13: Whilst I have never noticed ABA or ILAB members openly promoting books as investments, they are sometimes cited in newspaper articles and the like which do seem to be at least implicitly recommending books as investments (articles like those recently associated with the ridiculous Stanley Gibbons Book Index). I’m not sure that this does them much credit, although I can understand the value of the exposure gained and that they are never quoted as endorsing the investment value of books directly. Of course, at the same time, they are also more than happy to note that a book being offered by them for £300 contains a laid-in receipt from another dealer 20 years previously for £750…..
On the whole I have found ABA dealers to be fair, knowledgeable and courteous. Naturally, some have their idiosyncrasies which may be found appealing or infuriating, depending on one’s own idiosyncrasies. If a dealer, with whom I have spent hundreds of pounds, decides to stop sending me catalogues as I haven’t ordered from the last three then I might think him foolish, but it’s his business. And yes, I would like to be offered a reasonable discount (10%) if I am buying regularly from you, and would prefer not to beg for it. But, again, that’s not something that an ABA code of conduct could realistically be expected to cover. And yet perhaps, as William notes, the ABA is insufficiently geared towards promotion – both of its members, and of the diminishing clientele. The Code does seem a little too geared towards protection (on both sides of the equation) – perhaps it could seek more to promote a reciprocally-beneficial relationship.