I always knew that I wanted to do something with books. My father is an academic, and books were very much part of my growing up. We lived in Berlin until I was fifteen when my father became the Director of the Bibliotheca Hertziana in Rome. We lived above the institute in very grand surroundings close to the Spanish Steps. In Italy everything stops for the siesta, and my father would come upstairs for lunch with the family, often with a visiting professor or distinguished guest. The conversation around the table would be very academic with lots of languages spoken. Although I liked books and reading was my only hobby – apart from ping pong - I didn’t want to become an academic. In fact I was unique in my school in not going to university. My father had always said that I should do something that I liked, and supported my decision to do a bookseller’s apprenticeship with Dr Maria Conrad of Das Bücherkabinett in Hamburg.
After I finished school in Rome and before I went to Hamburg, I spent the summer of 1982 working for Fiammetta Olschki, with whom my parents had a connection. My mother had worked for Fiammetta when Leo S. Olschki had a bookshop in Florence, where my father had been a lecturer at the Kunsthistorisches Institut at the time of my birth. Fiammetta had meanwhile moved the business to a hill town in Tuscany. Her house was in the valley and I lived on the top of the hill in the village of Luciniano, and I went up and down on a little scooter. My first job was to catalogue the reference library, and then to go through the shelves in the garage, which were full of supposedly incomplete incunables and post-incunables to 1520. I was asked to look at every book that interested me, find out what was missing, and as much about it as I could. In the process I learnt how to collate a book.
In January 1983 I began my two-year apprenticeship with Dr Maria Conrad, the formidable owner of Das Bücherkabinett. She was a rather stern woman in her late fifties. She had married late and her husband died on their honeymoon, which gave rise to a number of rather unkind jokes. Das Bücherkabinett was one of the last big bookshops in Germany to offer a proper apprenticeship. Basically, you’re the dog’s body, but you do learn the business hands-on, spending time in different departments, learning not only about books but also about book-keeping, and taking examinations at the end of it. During the apprenticeship, you are not allowed to deal in books. Your job is to catalogue books bought by someone else, and to have your work assessed. For the employer, it was a form of cheap labour and, after two years, you move on to make way for the next apprentice.
The experience taught me that I’m a bookman, but I didn’t want to stay in Hamburg – I was still in my anti-German period, which had been a very strong sentiment throughout my youth. I decided that I would like to go to London. Maggs and Quaritch were the two antiquarian firms that were always mentioned in Germany as being the best in England. About six months before my apprenticeship ended, I wrote to Quaritch and received a pompous reply saying that they didn’t employ people without at least five years’ experience. Meanwhile, someone had given me Hugh Bett’s name at Maggs, to whom I wrote – without knowing that he specialised in travel. Hugh told me that Paul Harcourt in the Continental department was looking for someone. An interview was arranged for me with John Maggs, and I arrived on the ferry from Hamburg, wearing a jacket, but no tie and no black shoes. I could hardly see Mr John sitting behind his desk in an incredibly dark office. When I asked him if there was anything I should know, he said that I should always wear a tie and black shoes.
My apprenticeship ended in January 1985, and I started working for Maggs in April, after a couple of months in Paris. I had convinced my parents that I should learn some French and that they should pay for me to stay in one of those typically Parisian hotels in the rue Sorbonne, where you can live very cheaply in a tiny room under the roof. I was accredited to the Alliance Française, went twice, and decided that I would rather hang out with some English people whom I had met there. We spent all our time speaking English, and I can really say that I learnt English in France – I was certainly more fluent when I returned to London in my tie and black shoes.
I didn’t have anywhere to stay, and John and Betty Maggs very kindly invited me to their house. I stayed for a month, and it taught me everything about English life that I could possibly need to know. Betty was a doctor specialising in family planning, and would quiz me over supper on the most unsuitable subjects, while John would talk freely about Maggs and how the firm worked. He told me that Maggs and Quaritch were very like Sotheby’s and Christie’s in terms of their difference in style – Christie’s and Maggs being the more gentlemanly.
In comparison with Hamburg, bookselling in London was much more cosmopolitan. At Maggs you had the feeling that you were really at the top table. In those days the Continental department was in the big room on the first floor overlooking Berkeley Square. We would eat our lunch in the tea room in the basement, everyone sitting round the table with their sandwiches. You could read a newspaper or listen to the ‘grown ups’ talking about book-trade gossip. It was very educational and great fun.
When I started at Maggs, I had very few colleagues of my own age. I was new in London, and decided that the best way to meet people was to go to university after all. After eighteen months at Maggs, I went to King’s College London to read History, where I met lots of people, had a great time and worked for Maggs during the vacations. After my three years as a student, I returned to Maggs, by which time the firm had hired some more young people. Emma Pound, Kate Hudson, Jonathan Reilly, Sophie Edwards (now Schneideman) and Jeffrey Kerr were all there when I came back in September 1989, which was the beginning of my best period at Maggs. I think we were known as the ‘Magglets’, and considered in some quarters as too fun-loving.
Although I was still working with Continental books, I had occasionally helped John Collins in the Bibliography department before Emma Pound joined the firm. John liked to buy books in huge quantities. They would be delivered to the mews in a truck, transferred into plastic crates for the backbreaking job of carrying them up to John’s office on the top floor. Whenever I helped with this job, John would ‘pay’ me with a reference book. My set of Brunet’s Manuel du Libraire et de l’Amateur de Livres was acquired, one volume at a time, in return for carrying books. When John bought around 1,500 books from the Foreign Office library, he gave me the job of cataloguing them. Although John had an auctioneer’s ability to catalogue very quickly from his time at Sotheby’s, he had many other things to do at the time. My catalogue was published in September 1993, Maggs Catalogue 1165, entitled Books from the Foreign Office Library, and was a great success. Although the books were mainly priced at £20 or £30, they all had the Foreign Office bookplate, and often contained interesting annotations by the diplomats who had bought and read them. The catalogue was reviewed by Professor Sabbagh in Antiquarian Book Monthly, writing in characteristic style under his nom de plume ‘Anatole Braun’, ‘At first I thought that this catalogue was an accumulation of hopeless books, but I ended up reading the catalogue from cover to cover and forgetting in the process lots of duties, pleasant and unpleasant’.
Professor Sabbagh was a mathematician at the Sorbonne, and was said to have two apartments in Paris – one to live in and one for his books. I used to bid for him at auction for science books. He gave his bids on other subjects to Quaritch. When the sale was at Christie’s South Kensington, I would meet him at the post office in Old Brompton Road, where he would give me his bidding instructions and signals, which varied for each sale. He would be present at the sale, but I would do the bidding. If he took his glasses off, it meant that I should start bidding but, in another sale, it could mean that I should stop bidding. He had a very good sense of humour, loved the book trade, and knew everything that was going on, which was very helpful for writing his pieces for Antiquarian Book Monthly.
Although I would describe the atmosphere at Maggs as caring and nurturing, the pay was terrible. After I had been there for about seven years on and off, I felt that the time had come to do something else. By that stage both Maggs and Quaritch employed quite a lot of young people, and there was much less of the froideur that had existed between the two companies. I was invited to lunch by some people from Quaritch, and the next day I was offered a job and £7,500 more than I was earning at Maggs. I accepted the offer, and explained to John Maggs that I had met the girl of my dreams – I’m married to her now – and I needed to earn more money.
Then things became slightly farcical when someone at Quaritch remembered that there was an unwritten agreement between the two firms that they wouldn’t poach each other’s staff. I received a call to say that an advertisement would appear in a newspaper for the job that I had already accepted, and that I should apply. I informed them that I would do no such thing, but they went ahead with the advertisement. I didn’t apply and received a furious call from Quaritch. I reminded them that they had head-hunted me and, if they didn’t want to proceed on that basis, the deal was off. I was certainly not going to respond to an advertisement, because of my loyalty to Maggs. I didn’t want Mr John to think that I had gone out looking for a job. After much humming and hawing, Lord Parmoor, the proprietor of Bernard Quaritch, went to see John Maggs to ask for my hand, so to speak.
After three years in the Continental department, I moved to Art and Architecture and worked with Paul Grinke until he retired from Quaritch in 2003. It was a time of good books and interesting conversation. Lord Parmoor encouraged Paul when he came up with the idea of Archaeology. At the time, the subject was a bit like Theology – no one was buying it. As an academic discipline, Archaeology only really dates from the nineteenth century. Everything before that time can be classed as antiquarianism, and is of course very interesting. Paul would go on buying trips to Italy, and I would travel in Germany, go to the Paris book fair and all the American fairs. We had a cupboard behind our desks at Quaritch where we accumulated all these books until we had enough to do a catalogue. Between 1994 and 2003, we issued four Archaeology catalogues for Quaritch and they all did very well. After Paul retired, I did one more Archaeology catalogue, but it was the tail-end of the subject, as the books had by then become too expensive.
Meanwhile, Bernard Shapero had recently bought the Fürstenberg Library at Donaueschingen with Heritage Book Shop, and suddenly there were plenty of very good books around. My first catalogue for Quaritch after Paul’s departure was devoted to an extraordinary collection of 120 early nineteenth-century German circus posters, which I had found in Bernard’s basement. Every circus travelling through the principality of Donaueschingen was required to give to the authorities a copy of its poster, which described the acts in the show. They were very decorative and I had never seen anything like them. The catalogue sold out and we made a lot of money.
With the sale in 2004 of Bernard Quaritch to John Koh, a Singaporean financier, the firm had to find new premises. Lord Parmoor had sold the business separately from the building in Lower John Street, of which he had bought the freehold with the proceeds from the De Belder sale in 1987. The firm moved to South Audley Street, where I had 135 steps to climb to reach my office – not ideal for carrying boxes of books. Quaritch changed considerably under the new management style of John Koh but, as I had a young family to support, I just got on with it.
In September 2012, a few months before my fiftieth birthday, I handed in my notice. I knew it was now or never for starting my own business. William Ward, with whom I went on buying trips in Italy, had been encouraging me for some time. He claimed that it would take £80,000 to set up on my own in terms of stock. In fact it took me a fraction of that figure to get started. Everyone was incredibly supportive. I have a friend, Andreas Müller, with an antiquarian business in Potsdam, and we did half-shares on a number of books coming up in German auctions, which helped financially. I’m also working again with Jonathan Reilly of Maggs, another friend, with half-shares and the like. I soon discovered the delights of working from home, occasional afternoon naps, or working late into the night corresponding with American customers. The lunching remains an important part of my business – now more than ever. I decided that continuity would be an important factor in establishing my business, and so my first catalogue was on the history of collecting, the subject on which I had done an annual catalogue for Quaritch. People saw that nothing had changed and my first list under my own name was very successful – but then first catalogues always are.
From the start I decided not to produce printed catalogues. I’ve been involved with over 60 printed catalogues in my time, and consider that I’ve done my bit for the history of the antiquarian book trade. I’ve always found it frustrating dealing with printers, and doing electronic catalogues is not only easy, but I enjoy the process. I buy my stock privately and from other dealers, and from obscure auction houses that no one has heard of. I aim to do four e-catalogues a year on art, architecture, the history of collecting and unusual books.
My attitude has always been that I buy what I like. I would find it very dull to deal in trophy books, and I’ve never understood the attraction of modern first editions. People make a lot of money, but they’re buying the same books all the time. I hardly ever buy a book that I know. If it ‘speaks’ to me and I think the price is right, I buy it. Nowadays you look at books much more closely than, say, fifty years ago. A book needs the added value of annotations and an interesting provenance. The supply of books is shrinking, but it’s not going to run out; different books are going to become interesting.
Interviewed for The Book Collector Spring 2016