I had intended to leave Sotheby’s in any case in about three years time. I was not fired; I did not resign - I left by mutual agreement and on bases that were satisfactory to me. There were, doubtless, some differences of culture, personality and style, even perhaps a clash of wills, that played their part. But, au fond, these things often depend on such matters as whether you subscribe to the theory of a person bringing on his successor or to the one that a clean break is better.
Anyway, that part of my life is now over - I had tremendous pleasure running departments in Sotheby’s for nearly twenty years, and I really had done most of the things that I wanted to achieve. Also, as Anthony Hobson once said, no one should be Head of the Book Department for more than ten years. I have found the change an invigorating and exciting experience (so far), although, of course, I went through the psychologists’ gamut of responses - pain, anger, apprehension, delight etc. I have got my old energy back and I am glad to be off the roller coaster of other people’s targets and deadlines, where, ultimately, you are only as good as your next sale.
It was always my self-prescribed aim to run the greatest book department in the world, with the necessary combination of scholarship and commerce that demanded. Ambition should be much more about ensuring command of your own territory and future, so that you can do a worthwhile job as excellently as you desire to, than about self-aggrandisement. Being hyperactive and self-confident, while vital ingredients, do make it almost certain that you will fail with some people and run into others. However, East of the Atlantic, we never lost market share in my time to Christie’s, and, despite what Godfrey Barker im-plied in the Telegraph, and did not retract - although he promised to - our market share rose last year, the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Book Department, and of Sotheby’s. We went from £6m to £25m in the 1980s. I first went to Sotheby’s in 1970, on secondment from Hofmann and Freeman, to catalogue a Phillipps sale. Ted Hofmann, therefore, is largely respons-ible for my coming into the book trade - had I not met him when we were both writing biographies of sixteenth-century Members of Parliament, I might have gone off and done something entirely different.
Jock Campbell told me that he had been offered the job of a book porter at Sotheby’s or a stoker in the Merchant Navy. Fate must have been dabbling somewhat for both of us. During the 1970s there were wonderful manuscripts, and in great profusion (we sometimes had two-volume catalogues then), and country house libraries were literally queuing up for sale. As with tax advice, business-getting was virtually unheard of then - now (with the law) they reign supreme. By the end of the decade things had slowed down and in both Sotheby’s, and in the book trade, specialisation (making much more of fewer books) became the way forward. This linked in with my own wish to combine scholarship with commercial acumen.
One of the first things I did on taking over the Book Department was to cut the number of sales from 66 to 22 a year, thus reducing the amount of administration and clearing the way for high-value, high-profile, cost-effective sales, each aimed at producing £lm, not £100,000. Along with this, most of the cataloguers were switched from being generalists, whose knowledge was largely dissipated, to being specialists who built up and consolidated their knowledge and experience of one area.
In the first year we went from a £300,000 loss to a £500,000 profit. In 1983 Sotheby’s redesigned its catalogues and the Book Department took advantage of this to introduce many more illustrations, more comments on the quality and condition of copies, more footnotes indicating the significance of the books, historically and bibliographically, while also banishing abbreviations. We needed to build our market fast and these changes were part of a conscious move to demystify and enliven the subject and to attract new, largely private, buyers into our world.
Catalogues were no longer written primarily for the trade as John Carter had been able to say they were in 1948 (Taste & Technique in Book-Collecting). Sotheby’s gave me wonderful opportunities to do a number of other things - strategy, computers, sales of modern books, auctions on television, projects of all kinds. As Marketing Director for five years (along with Books and Manuscripts), my team and I transformed design (radically changing Preview and Art at Auction), introduced market research, indirect marketing and a marketing database.
I also particularly enjoyed taking auctions. Two blissful hours away from the telephone! Auctioneering requires fast thinking and reactions (learned as a goal-keeper in hockey), and, at its best can be very creative in terms of ‘conjuring’ bids. In the 1970s and 1980s, ‘conducting’ seemed more productive than ‘dictatorship’, but a lot of the theatre went when the use of buying-in names was discontinued. As I said to the ABA Committee when it met at Stratford-upon-Avon, it does seem that much of the initiative in terms of attracting major libraries and creating new collectors has passed to the auction houses. Now I have turned poacher, so to speak, I shall certainly work with other members of the trade, perhaps more than has traditionally been the case, and I have already created a new buyer for poetical manuscripts. The trade showed great buccaneering spirit in Japan - the West needs some of it.
It seems to me that we have, in the 1990s, entered a new phase and that the time of very specialised activity is passing. I think the whole business will tend towards being more general, not because of any great profusion of supply as in the 1970s, but simply because there are fewer (not enough) books to be had in highly specialised areas. For different reasons, we may have to turn our hand to such opportunities as present them-selves, irrespective of the subject of the material. Maybe flair and making deals will become as important as knowledge. If, as I believe, Eastern Europe, and Russia (and, closer to home, institutional libraries) become the major sources, we may all be doing things we had never dreamt of. For my own future, I shall be dealing in manuscripts, books (particularly an-notated ones), literary portraits, and all aspects of the Gothic Revival and Aes-thetic Movement - manuscripts, books, furniture, works of art.
I am involved in the sale of one or two libraries and I hope to use my experience with larger deals to my own and my clients’ advantage. I am also doing some consulting work. I have already found that things turn up in the most unpredictable ways and from unlikely sources, as one friend told me they would. My dealing will, I hope, enable me to continue, and to upgrade my own collections. While I was at Sotheby’s I found that being a collector provided vital insights into other collectors’ needs and thought-processes - perhaps you need to be a bit mad to understand mania in others. My main collection is poetical manuscripts and it is of enormous importance to me.
You could perhaps say that part of my ambition was driven by the need to fund the collection. I regard manuscripts as a visual art form - it is an appreciation that goes well beyond the object as a source of information. I derive greatest pleasure from the combination of the physical aspects and reading the writing on it. I also collect literary portraits, first editions, and tapes of poets reading their own works. It’s a sense of creating a rounded galaxy for oneself. My enthusiasm for the Gothic Revival and the Aesthetic Movement is comparatively recent, but shares this notion of creating a whole world. Intellectually, the great contributors at that time (Pugin, Burges, Talbert, Street, Dresser, Godwin, Morris) were rigorously trying to develop if not a national then an integrated style; practically, this found its expression in the architect of the building designing the interior fittings and furnishings as well. They were committed to fundamental principles but embraced rather than rejected change and development.
On the whole, I collect objects that can or may be attributed to specific design-ers, and establishing attributions is a parallel to the sort of research I do with manuscripts. Although I am instinc-tively attracted to the quatrefoil, it would be all too easy to fill a house with ‘ghastly’ Gothic. As with all collecting, one has to work to maintain high standards. Someone once said to me that you should never collect anything that you can afford - it forces a sort of discipline. When people come to visit me, the books and manuscripts will be displayed amongst Gothic furniture and objects (perhaps library furniture in that style will become a feature) and possibly a transfer of interest will occur osmotically. As we may find that we have to deal across a wider range to maintain the quality of stock, perhaps collectors will once again widen their horizons Ñ the narrow spectrum is a contemporary curse (and one of the middle class’s).
I am thoroughly enjoying the new free-dom to deal in whatever I like. When I left Sotheby’s the statement was made that I was leaving to ‘pursue wider interests’. I was tempted to say that I ‘wanted to spend more time with my cat’. (Anyone who has met Pushkin will understand why.) These days I feel that my life is a bit like a holiday - I’m just launching boats to see where they might go. Perhaps they will make waves; perhaps they will just go with the flow.
Interviewed for The Bookdealer in July 1994
Roy Davids died on 28th April 2017