I was the sort of child who collected things. At first it was baseball cards, comic books and then the novels of Jack London. It may have been in my blood as I had a great uncle who collected first editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs. When my uncle died, his family called in the local junk dealer and got rid of the lot. While I was a student at the University of California, I became interested in seventeenth century poetry and swapped all my Jack London novels for an early collected edition of Milton – the dealer must have been laughing all the way to the bank.
I came to England to finish my university education, and started reading for the Bar in 1972. The College of Law was in Chancery Lane, and I soon discovered Hodgson’s and can remember the excitement of going to my first book auction.
There was a job lot of sixteen volumes of Greek and Latin classics, which had caught my interest. Wilfred Hodgson opened the bidding in his usual way, saying ‘a pound for that?’, in a tone, which conveyed genuine doubt that anyone would want to pay so much. I raised my hand and the bidding went up to £10 against me. After a moment of agony, I stuck up my hand and got the lot for £11. When I went to pay, Fred Snelling looked down from his desk and said that Quaritch were interested to know who had bought my lot, to which I replied ‘Who’s Quaritch?’ It turned out that they had missed their bid and were specifically interested in a translation of Aeschylus which was in the lot. For this they gave me £15, leaving me with £4 profit and fifteen books. The whole experience was like a glimpse of heaven.
Not long after the sale, I dropped out of law school and tried to find a job at Sotheby’s or Christie’s. Christie’s had an opening for a night watchman, and a five-year waiting list for a job on the front counter. Sotheby’s were much more forthcoming and offered me a job as administrator in the classical antiquities department – but were unable to get me a work permit. After eighteen months of letters and interviews – during which time I was a night courier and pre-school teacher, among other things – Sotheby’s came back to me with another job. In the summer of 1974, I went to New York to catalogue photography sales for the book department. It was made clear to me that I would also have the chance to catalogue books, and in addition to general book cataloguing, I helped with the catalogue for William Stockhausen’s superb collection of English literature.
My first boss at Sotheby’s was Gabriel Austin, a former Grolier Club librarian. He was not terribly pleased about my having been hired without his approval, and I spent my first two weeks in a windowless office reading books from Sotheby’s reference library. One afternoon he came in and found me taking obvious pleasure in my task. I think be suddenly twigged that I really liked books and from then on he put me to work. I learned a lot from Gabriel, particularly about the scholarly approach to books in the context of an auction room.
Gabriel loved books and brought scholarship and ironic humour to his job. I remember when he sold the Stockhausen copy of Poe’s Tamerlane for a record $123,000 in 1974. The bidding stopped at $100,000 and John Fleming called ‘a hundred and one’. Gabe Austin replied ‘I want a serious bid’, and after a long pause, Tom Clarke, the Americana expert, said ‘that is a serious bid’. Gabe shrugged his shoulders and the bidding went on from there in thousand-dollar increments. A few years later, at the Houghton sale at Christie’s, Fleming did the same thing to Jo Floyd, Christie’s chairman. With a similar shrug, Jo Floyd took the bid, looked across at Fleming, and said ‘for an old friend’.
In 1975 I came back to London to marry my English sweetheart. In the same year I joined Hodgson’s, which, unbeknownst to me, was just being reconstituted. Gone were the days of old-style Hodgson’s, selling the detritus from Sotheby’s and whatever they could get. Instead Michael Heseltine was sent down from Bond Street to run specialised sales –modern first editions and illustrated books. After six months or so, I became a turncoat and went to Christie’s to do photography and book sales in South Kensington.
The ’70s were a wonderful time for photography sales, with practically every sale containing a new discovery, from the first photograph of the act of photography (Jabez Hogg in Beard’s Studio, c.1842) to a unique assortment of Roger Fenton’s 1850s academic studio studies. In 1976 Robin de Beaumont came in with a large rustic scene his girlfriend had found under her mother’s staircase. My secretary, leafing through a Sotheby’s Belgravia catalogue at a friend’s house, discovered another print from the same negative, and our anonymous £50 rustic became H. P. Robinson’s ‘Old Dapple’, and sold for £520. Such was our scholarship in those days.
During this period I started writing the auction column for ABMR which appeared, with a couple of hiatuses, for over ten years. I took over from Nalini Patel, otherwise known as John Collins of Maggs, and used Ossian as my pseudonym. When I eventually set up in business on my own, I saw no reason to stay pseudonymous and continued the column in my own name until 1989. At one time or another I managed to irritate almost everyone in the business – from a bookseller who told me he owed me a punch on the nose, to my Christie’s colleagues and Roy Davids at Sotheby’s who once threatened a lawsuit.
In 1979 I was offered the directorship of Sotheby’s book department in New York, an offer too good to resist. Unfortunately for me, the man who recruited me and whom I was supposed to replace, decided in the meantime that he did not want to go. Only when I finally resigned a year later did a member of Sotheby’s executive committee tell me that my predecessor had told the committee within two weeks of my arrival that he did not think I was up to the job. The lesson I took away from that experience was that, however impeachable the source of a nasty rumour, there are always those who will believe it. After New York, I came back to England in 1980 to start my own business. It seemed the right place to be as I wanted to specialise in English books and had got to know the English trade much better than the American one during my years at South Kensington. In 1986 I moved to Bath and in 1989 back to the United States, where I’m now living in the San Francisco Bay area. From 1989 to 1994 I went part-time while I took a law degree and spent a couple of years working as an attorney. I think of those years as my mid-life crisis.
But I recovered and in mid-1994 went back to bookselling full-time, staying with my longtime specialities – I describe them in the ABAA Membership Directory as English literature printed before 1850, social history, satire, philosophy and literary controversies. Next year I shall be bringing out a sequel to my catalogue of eighteenth century libertine literature, which first appeared in 1985.
When I started my own business in 1980, there was a collegial group of booksellers I felt privileged to join, albeit in a junior capacity. Martin Hamlyn once called the book trade a fraternity, and it was true that those I most admired were men and that women booksellers were few and far between. Among my role models was Martin himself, who seemed to have magical capacity for finding interesting and racy books and whose enthusiasm flowed through his catalogue descriptions. Arthur Freeman, whose effortless scholarship made Quaritch’s Eng- lish literature catalogues works of reference and Robin de Beaumont who has an incredible eye for books as physical objects. This list could go on and on....
In the mid-’80s, I began to notice the increasing presence of the provincial auction ring, which seemed to be working quite successfully to gain control of both the country and the secondary London sales. The ring was nothing new – I discovered that many of my colleagues had long since given up on country sales for the same reason that I was beginning to find them so difficult. I felt that the ABA, during the course of the ’80s, increasingly divided itself into two groups, the ringers and the ‘don’t ask, don’t tells’.
For a ring to work, you need a core of dealers who go to all the sales – Exeter one day, Ipswich the next and so on. This is possible in a country the size of England, but it is much more difficult for a similar network to function in the States: the country is just too big. Although I am sure that American knock-outs exist, I think American dealers find it easier to share auction purchases, and to cooperate in their cataloguing and selling. Is there a substantive difference in the two practices? Maybe they both depress auction room prices, but the American approach seems to be based more upon collegial courtesy than the combative ‘us and them’ system of the ring.
John Brett-Smith, a transplanted Englishman who owns Princeton Rare Books, once said to me that there was nothing better in the world than looking at books. I think that by ‘looking at books’ he meant books at least potentially and preferably actually for sale, rather than institutionalised books, which could be handled but not possessed. John and I suffer from the same collecting bug, a bug which many if not most of my bookselling colleagues are resistant to, and I think the resistance makes them better businessmen. Certainly Steve Weissman of Ximenes Rare Books, whom I consider the consummate bookseller of his generation, has managed to sublimate his collecting instincts into his profession. He combines superb business sense – I have never been able to sell him a book I wanted to get rid of – with the very best type of scholarly bookselling.
I collect seventeenth-century English poetry in the most bibliographically insignificant editions available. If I can find, as I sometimes do, a less significant edition and preferably prettier copy of a text than the one in my collection, the earlier and more valuable edition goes into stock. By and large, my interests do not clash with those of my customers. But when they do, it is sometimes hard for me to predict whether, in the ensuing struggle, the bookseller or the collector will triumph.
Interviewed for the Bookdealer in November 1995
Since this interview was first published, Gabriel Austin has reminded me that the increments on the Stockhausen copy of Poe’s Tamerlane only went to $1,000 at $105,000, not the $100,000 figure I recalled.
The bookselling world at the beginning of the twenty-first century is not too much different from what it was in the last decade of the twentieth. We knew there would be even fewer books, but there are some new, younger, collectors, and some impressive and highly successful independent women booksellers have joined the trade since the interview was published in 1994. My own business is still ploughing the same literary furrows as it did ten, and even twenty-five years ago, and the solitary ox/ploughman is attempting to get back into the yoke after two years spent researching and writing Trade Bookbinding in the British Isles 1660–1800.
In the original interview, I mentioned the forthcoming sequel to my 1985 catalogue, English Libertine Literature. That sequel duly appeared in 1995, and its successor is slated for 2005.
Afterword added in 2004
Twenty-two years have gone by since my original interview with Sheila in 1995, and thirteen since the 2004 afterword added for publication in A Book of Booksellers. As I look at the list of interviewees there I am comforted to think that at least half of us are still alive.
Has the antiquarian book business slowed down, or have I? Maybe my problem is the decreasing amount of unusual or high-quality antiquarian literature coming onto the market, although I and others had plenty of adrenalin when Robert Pirie’s extraordinary collection came up at Sotheby’s New York at the end of 2015.
In 2009, towards the end of my term as president of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, I was interviewed for the ABAA website and – perhaps reflecting on my pending sixtieth birthday and the fact that the majority of ABAA members were then at least as old as the Association itself (founded in 1949) – I remarked that over the next ten or fifteen years membership would implode and what was left of the ABAA would look around and ask “what happened?”
I have grown more optimistic since then, mostly out of admiration for my younger bookselling colleagues and their generation of collectors and curators. There are fewer of them than there were in predecessor generations, and fewer still who share my affection for really old English books. But those who do are enormously impressive, and the energy and enthusiasm of educators such as those at Rare Book Schools in Virginia and California, Indiana University, the Colorado and York Antiquarian Book Seminars, and elsewhere, along with their growing number of students, should mean that the torch stays alight for at least another generation.
Afterword added in 2017