The sporting side of book collecting is like any other sport. Hot streaks, great plays, an amazing moment, all unpredictable, all driving an adrenaline rush. And I must say my 2024 book collecting season is off to a fine start. I may be topping the leaderboard in my league right now. However what really matters is simply being in the game. Participation trophies count in book collecting. In this spirit of participation, I’d like to share the excitement of a few recent acquisitions. I cast a wide net in gathering my biblio-collection (sometimes too wide it feels) but that’s the way I’ve always played. I find items everywhere and I never know what’s coming or how. Here are a few recent game winners.
The first is a Belle da Costa Greene letter from 1930 to prominent book collector George Plimpton thanking him for the gift to the Pierpont Morgan Library of his The Frances Taylor Pearsons Plimpton Collection of Italian Books and Manuscripts in the Library of Wellesley College (1929). She adds as a P.S., “I am thrilled by your inscription to me in the book!”
I’ve collected both Greene and Plimpton material over the years so this letter linking the two has a special appeal. Greene (1879-1950) was the private librarian for both J. Pierpont Morgan, Sr. and Jr., the first director of the Pierpont Morgan Library, and a force in the rare book world, playing a key role in building the magnificent collection. I began collecting Greene before she rose to prominence in the wider scholarly community / world at large. This surge of general interest occurred when it was revealed in Jean Strouse’s 1999 biography Morgan: American Financier that Greene was African-American but passed as white. What Greene would think about the resulting focus on her racial origins is of course speculative. Perhaps she saw passing as white as a practical, necessary step for advancement, not a larger statement. Being a woman at the time presented enough challenges on its own. Evidence indicates that many contemporaries close to her knew of, or at least suspected, her African-American heritage. But to their credit, particularly the Morgan’s, both father and son, her talents and abilities were first and foremost, her council valued, and she held a position in the rare book world unique for its time.
The letter’s recipient George A. Plimpton (1855-1936) was a formidable collector, building a 15,000-volume library focusing on textbooks and instructional materials that spanned the 10th century to the middle of the 19th century. He presented a large collection of Italian literature to Wellesley College in memory of his wife, described in the book presented to Greene, and assembled a sizable collection on the French and Indian War. His primary library went to Columbia University and the collection of French and Indian War material to Amherst.
The next buzzer beater is an original, signed 1923 typescript essay by Edward A. Ayer (1841-1927) titled “Why I Love Prescott’s ‘Conquest of Mexico.” Ayer recalls how a chance encounter with a copy of William Prescott’s famous history while serving in the Army during the Civil War sparked his interest in the American Indian and the Southwest. He writes, “I read it through twice and was astonished to find that history could be so interesting and everything painted so clearly in words.”
After he returned home from the war in 1864, he sought out a copy of the book to own. He purchased a set in Chicago of Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico and Conquest of Peru for $17.50, a huge amount for him at the time. The bookseller was Cobb and Pritchard Book Store. We’ll let Ayer himself continue the story, “I was being served by one of the proprietors and I never wanted anything so badly in my life. I finally said, ‘My name is Edward Ayer, I live in Harvard (IL). I have been on the plains and in the war four years and returned a month ago. My father has given me an interest in a store. I have $3.50 that I can spare now. If you let me have Volume 1 of Mexico, I will give you the $3.50 I have and every month when I come in I will take and pay for another volume. He said (bless him) ‘Young man you give me the $3.50 and take the whole set home with you now.’ My return home was a triumphal procession. I was certainly the happiest boy in the world and only touched the earth in high places. I continued to prosper and in a few years had a fine library of about one thousand volumes. When it got so I had to separate the Indian works from the others, this volume of Mexico was number one.”
Ayer’s prominence as a collector rose exponentially over the years, his enthusiasm never wavering. Dickinson writes in Dictionary of American Book Collectors, “As the books and manuscripts overflowed Ayer’s home, he transferred them regularly to the Newberry Library in Chicago, where he served as a trustee. In 1910 the Newberry Library set aside special rooms for the materials, and in the following year it dedicated the entire collection as ‘The Edward Ayer Collection on the North American Indian.’ The Ayer collection included early exploration, Indian warfare, Spanish government affairs in the Southwest, linguistics, art, and culture.”
Ayer’s original copy of Conquest of Mexico purchased in Chicago retained a special place in his heart. He recalls in the essay how many years later he had the famous London binder Zaehnsdorf rebind the set in sumptuous fashion in honor of its importance to him. Written on the flyleaves of that copy, still housed in the Newberry Library, is his preliminary draft of the essay. The expanded typescript version now in my collection is unpublished.
My next acquisition was the result of a quick play for an under-catalogued item. I didn’t miss the short putt for the win. It is Henry Stevens’ Historical Nuggets: Bibliotheca Americana or a Descriptive Account of My Collection of Rare Books Relating to America. (2 vols. London: 1862). This beauty is from Stevens’ own library “bound by W. Pratt for H. Stevens. 1876” in elaborate red three-fourths morocco. The set is inscribed by Stevens and signed by both he and his wife, “To Father [August] Fischer, A Souvenir of ‘Vermont House’ Sunday, Dec. 7, 1879, Henry Stevens, Mary Stevens.” (Vermont House was the Stevens home in London.) It is the only presentation set I’ve encountered and as a bonus the only item I’ve seen signed by both Stevens and his wife.
Historical Nuggets describes over three thousand titles in detail. It long served as a primary reference for Americana and is still useful. Much of the best material was sold by Stevens to John Carter Brown and James Lenox. This was Stevens’ majestic precursor to his long planned but never finished Bibliotheca Americana, a bibliography of works related to America, similar in general concept to Sabin. Stevens (1819-1886), born in Vermont, was the most prominent American bookseller of the 19th century and one of the greatest of all time. His story is a fascinating one, but generally available, and I’ll let you explore him on your own. However, the recipient of this copy deserves elucidation.
Bibliophile and Roman Catholic priest August Fischer (1825-1887) led an adventurous and checkered life. He was an unruly teenager and had to flee his native Germany for the United States after severely injuring a fellow worker in a blacksmith shop. He ended up in Texas from 1845-48 before he moved to California in search of gold. While there, he accepted the Catholic faith and trained as a clergyman, even though he lived for several years with a woman with whom he had two children. He left them and moved to Mexico in 1852 where he was ordained a priest. Soon he was dismissed by the bishop when he was caught having an affair with a servant girl. He then became pastor in Parras, Mexico, and improbably rose to political power within conservative circles culminating in his appointment as Cabinet Secretary to the ill-fated Emperor Maximillan of Mexico (1832-1867). Maximillan also appointed Fischer as director of the newly formed Mexican National Library. Maximillan, at the urging of Fischer, remained in Mexico instead of leaving when political unrest became acute. Bad choice. Maximillan was captured and executed in 1867. Fischer himself was captured but released and made his way to Europe. Many of the books destined for the National Library were scattered abroad and sold. Fischer’s private collection contained numerous rarities including a large group of 16th century Mexican imprints. It was auctioned in London by Puttick & Simpson on June 1-8, 1869, in 2962 lots under the title Bibliotheca Mejicana: A Catalogue of an Extraordinary Collection of Books & Manuscripts, Almost Wholly Relating to the History and Literature of North and South America, Particularly Mexico (Collected During 20 Years Official Residence in Mexico). An early version of Stevens’ Historical Nuggets (1859) was sold in the auction (lot 1629).
There is correspondence between Fischer and Henry Stevens in the Steven papers at UCLA which I have not yet seen. It is highly likely that Stevens both sold books to Fischer and bought books from his collection when it appeared at auction in 1869. This “souvenir” of a visit to Stevens ten years after the Fischer sale almost certainly was meant to replace Fischer’s copy sold in the auction.
Our final acquisition is akin to a final drive in overtime to win the Super Bowl. This one came expensively for my budget, but you can’t have a great team without great players, and they never sign for cheap. And the monetary cost is soon forgotten with the victory. It is a magnificent association copy of H.P. Kraus’ autobiography A Rare Book Saga (1978) inscribed to Arthur Houghton, “To Arthur, the Great Collector, With best wishes, Hans, Sept. 12, 1978.”
H.P. Kraus (1907-1988) fled Nazi Germany and established his rare book business in New York in 1939. He had experience as a bookseller in Europe but lost almost everything when he left Germany. This did not deter him and within a decade he was well on his way to becoming one of the most dominant rare book dealers in the world. In many ways he assumed the mantle of A.S.W. Rosenbach. He bought and sold more great books and manuscripts than anyone in his time. Kraus recounts his trials and adventures in this classic biblio-autobiography.
Kraus writes, “What was the pinnacle of my bookselling career? What better encore, after buying and selling a Constance Missal, than buying a Gutenberg Bible, the king of all book rarities? . . To buy a copy for stock, without immediate prospect of sale, was risky, considering monetary uncertainties and the threat of recession. No bookseller could tie up that much capital. Or so it was believed. The doubts persisted on that day in 1970, unforgettable to me, when the world learned of my acquisition of the Houghton copy.
“On Monday, February 2, 1970, out of the blue Arthur A. Houghton [1906-1990] called me at my office. He asked me to come for cocktails to his Sutton Place house. . . I knew Houghton and he wasn’t the sort to invite anyone for small talk. I had a hunch he might be ready to sell [his Gutenberg Bible], or at least explore the possibility, so I accepted the invitation.
“Arthur Houghton, president of Steuben Glass, had started young as a book collector. I met him first in 1940, when he was curator of rare books at the Library of Congress. He is one of America’s great collectors and his library consists of rare and beautiful books and manuscripts that struck his fancy. . .
“Houghton came right to the point. After exchanging amenities, during which he probably sensed that I knew what was coming, he announced:
“’I want to sell the Bible.’
“These words danced in my ears. . . Though hard negotiations might follow, I knew the book was mine.
“The decision, he explained, had not been reached overnight. Houghton had owned a Gutenberg Bible, first the very incomplete duplicate of the Stadtbibliothek Trier bought at Sotheby’s in 1937 and then this one, for more than 30 years. His fascination with the book had not diminished in all that time, but his insurance company insisted he keep it in the bank and he did not want a book he could not keep at home. The urge to sell comes to many collectors, especially in a bull market. In 1970 the bulls definitely had the best of the antiquarian book trade.
“I immediately made a substantial offer.
“This took him by surprise. . .
“’How will you pay?’ he asked.
“This, too, proved a surprise. Not every bookseller is in a position to write out a seven-figure check.
“After minor bargaining, we reached a firm price. This was later reported in the press as ‘between one and two million dollars.’ I agreed with Houghton not to reveal the exact sum.”
This excerpt about the pinnacle of Kraus’ bookselling career is from a much lengthier account of the acquisition in A Rare Book Saga (pp. 234-241). The Gutenberg remained in Kraus’ stock a number of years, garnering Kraus much publicity, before he sold the Bible to the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz. Kraus writes, “It is especially gratifying to us that our copy goes home, not only to the country but also to the city of its birth.”
I will now ask forgiveness from the non-sporting types for the barrage of sporting anecdotes. (Particularly to my wife.) But if you are a serious book collector, you’re participating in a sport whether you realize it or not. Go out, play hard, play well, and see what happens. The highs and lows, the wins and losses, the rivalries, the comraderies, the evolution of your skills, all combined with the pure enjoyment of it, are worth the exertion. And as a bonus, you rarely get sweaty.