Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Book Collectors

Lars Forsberg

Lars Forsberg

I was raised in Lysekil, a small town on the west coast of Sweden. We lived in a working class area, where most people had a television in their bookshelves, and a faux-gilded set of the collected works of Selma Lagerlöf, probably bought from a salesman at the door in the 1940s. I was a voracious reader as a child, a Jonah trying to swallow the whale. My home was very close to the public library, and there were a couple of years between the age of seven and twelve when I was borrowing more books than anybody else in the whole town. I was reading everything from Stanley Gibbons stamp catalogue to great literature. My maternal grandfather collected coins and stamps, and he encouraged my fascination for old things. Lysekil had a good bookshop at the time, where my parents seldom went. It was like a temple for us. In Sweden in those days, such places were very much the province of the bourgeoisie, in Lysekil’s case the physician, the dentist and the executives of the canning industries.

After school, I went to Gothenburg to work as a technician in a dairy. After a few years I decided to study English and Swedish at the university, thinking that I would become a teacher. Before I did so, I saw a full-page advertisement in Expressen, the largest daily newspaper in Sweden, announcing a new and exclusive course in copy-writing. I sent in my application and, to my surprise, was one of only eight people chosen. I ended up at the best advertising agency in Sweden ever, Hall & Cederquist. It gave me the opportunity to work with some legendary art directors, especially Johan Sten and Lars Hall, who were extremely knowledgeable about typography and all aspects of design and communication. Thanks to them I was elected into the Swedish advertising Hall of Fame in 1995. The agency occupied a magnificent Jugendstil building in Östermalm, the smartest part of Stockholm, and was decorated with Bauhaus furniture. My colleagues were very influenced by Bauhaus and, in the spring of 1989, before the Wall came down, we went on a wonderful trip to Dessau in East Germany to visit the Bauhaus School, travelling by train in a carriage that had belonged to King Gustav V of Sweden. It was a memorable experience, and so far removed from my background in a small fishing town.

In Gothenburg, I had been buying books, mainly for my studies, but it was not until I came to Stockholm that I began to visit antiquarian bookshops, of which Rönnells Antikvariat was the biggest (and still is). At first I never spent more than £50 on a book. It had to be on an interesting subject, in good condition, and nicely printed and bound. The art directors, with whom I worked, were also buying books – not antiquarian or particularly rare, but books on design and photobooks. One of my clients was a paper manufacturer. I was responsible for editing the company magazine, which covered anything to do with paper. In 1990, when they launched a new paper quality called ‘Linnaeus’, I interviewed Sweden’s foremost collector of books on and by Linnaeus, art director Torbjörn Lenskog. A couple of days later, he sent me one of Ove Hagelin’s catalogues of rare books. Hagelin had worked for Rönnells for many years before starting his own business. He was working from home in Stockholm, and had reached Catalogue 20 by the time I received one. It was a revelation to me. I had never seen a catalogue like it before; it was well designed, very well written and the books were fantastic. It opened my eyes to the possibilities that existed and, from that day, I was a changed collector.

Although I was raised by the ocean, I’m afraid of water. While the other children were out in sailing boats, I was reading and eventually buying Swedish books on swimming and drowning, of which I now have an almost complete collection. This theme developed into an interest in sea monsters, on which I have almost 200 items, from the great sixteenth-century work of Olaus Magnus on the history of the northern peoples, to obscure nineteenth-century pamphlets. My interest in sea monsters evolved, and I began to collect books on monsters in general, human freaks and other anomalies of nature. I particularly liked catalogues of Wunderkammern, and my collection was gradually resulting in my own cabinet of curious books. Meanwhile I was also collecting photobooks before the market exploded ten years ago with the publication of Andrew Roth’s The Open Book. A History of the Photographic Book from 1878 to the Present, and The Photobook: A History by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, in three volumes. These two books aroused great interest in the subject, prices rocketed and I decided to sell my collection. I had bought a lot of my photobooks from Sven Becker, when he was running Simon Finch’s wonderful bookshop and gallery in Ledbury Road – Sven’s now doing a fantastic job at Christie’s. I found Simon Finch’s catalogues with their combination of old and modern and expensive and cheap books very inspiring, not to mention the elegant prose. Serge Plantureux, the dealer in Paris whose business is called Rhinoceros, specialises in photography exclusively these days, and had, when he started in the 1990s, the same fantastically imaginative approach to combining material in his catalogues, which I regard as being amongst the best ever.

It was through the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and his followers that I came to the subject of slavery, which I think will occupy me for the rest of my collecting life. Swedenborg believed that the inhabitants of Africa recognised the true nature of God, and that this lost knowledge was still to be found there. In the 1780s, Carl Bernhard Wadström, who had become a devoted follower, went to Africa to set up a colony in Sierra Leone. He never got there, but witnessed firsthand the horror of slavery in Senegal. On his return to Sweden, he stopped in London where he met Thomas Clarkson, one of the leaders of the English antislavery movement, who asked him on three occasions between 1789 and 1791 to address the Privy Council and the House of Commons on the subject of slavery. Wadström’s testimony made an important contribution to the British antislavery movement. The famous diagram of the Liverpool slave ship, with black slaves packed like cargo, was first published as a large broadsheet in Plymouth in 1787. It was reproduced in newspapers, pamphlets and as a large folded plate in dozens of books, including Wadström’s An Essay on Colonization (1794–95), and Thomas Clarkson’s, History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade (1808). Swann Galleries holds a sale every February of printed and manuscript African Americana in New York during Black History week, with former dealer Wyatt Houston Day as the expert. But there I have to compete with wealthy American collectors and institutions. My interest in books on slavery has developed into a general interest in African history, and the title of my collection is now Slavery & Colonialism. It’s a big subject and can include anything from a seventeenth-century book on the proportions of the male face in different ethnic types to a portfolio of photographs taken during the Sudanese election of 1956, when the country gained independence from British and Egyptian rule. I bought the latter earlier this year from Rob Rulon-Miller. I also have a piece of Swedenborg’s casket in my collection.

Coca-Cola’s recent ‘Share a Coke’ campaign featured personal names on bottles in place of it famous logo. One of the labels for the Swedish market was ‘Mannen’, as in the expression ‘Hej mannen’, which is much used by immigrants when addressing Swedes. I’ve put one of these bottles in my collection, because I find the expression very revealing of the social hierarchy. It suggests that they see themselves as occupying a lower order. At least the Swedes believe that.

I’m always looking for unusual and peculiar material. The internet has made it very obvious that ordinary copies of a book are not worth anything. You need an interesting provenance or some extra detail. Before the internet I bought a lot of rubbish; you would buy a bad copy because you didn’t know where to find a good copy. You couldn’t telephone around the world. Nowadays I spend a couple of hours a day on the internet looking for material. If you enter ‘Exposition Coloniale Paris 1931’ as key words in eBay, it will come up with something like 2,500 hits. Being a collector today almost amounts to a part-time job. Unfortunately there are not so many dealers sending out catalogues these days. I really enjoy receiving catalogues in which the descriptions give you the impression that the dealer has been reading before writing. Susanne Schulz-Falster is a good example; her catalogues are always well written and interesting. I also enjoy the catalogues of Justin Croft, Douglas Stewart, Roger Gaskell, and Charles B. Wood III, who has been producing catalogues at the rate of two or three a year for as long as I can remember. They contain the most interesting and unusual material on nineteenth-century photography, architecture and world expositions. I probably have the world’s largest collection of the Stockholm Exhibition 1930 – but I’m not sure if there are many others. The same applies to my collection of Swedish books with tipped-in photographs from 1855 to 1897. Many dealers are now producing electronic lists, of which I particularly enjoy Bogislav Winner’s. He belongs to the younger generation, many of whom began their careers working for the big firms, and are now on their own. They know how to pick out unusual material and to write interesting descriptions.

Great dealers are the key to being a great collector. They will offer you exactly what you’re looking for. Maintaining a good relationship with a handful of dealers has been the most important factor in my collecting. I have three dealers who have been mentors. Ove Hagelin introduced me to Mats Rehnström, and in 1994 I became acquainted with Björn Löwendahl, who found some wonderful material on slavery for me, for instance the prospectus of the African Association of 1788. All three dealers encouraged me to keep going with my specific interests, and watched the development that my collecting was taking. Whenever I had doubts about what I was trying to achieve, I would have very useful discussions with them. For the past ten years, Ove Hagelin has been head of the Hagströmer Library at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. With the death of Björn Löwendahl in 2013, I lost a friend and the antiquarian book trade was deprived of one of its greatest dealers, certainly the best in Scandinavia. Today Mats Rehnström is the undisputed doyen of the Swedish rare book trade.

In Sweden today, there are a few book collectors who are active on a grand scale, but in general it has become a very uncommon activity. It’s a big change from the old days, when there were plenty of collectors, although it was always dominated by the middle classes and tended to be a male activity of the older generation. Their interests and tastes were reflected in Bokvännen, established in 1946 as the journal of the Sällskapet Bokvännerna, the Swedish society of bibliophiles. Typically its members liked to collect the big names in Swedish literature, books on books and nice bindings. The journal went from a print-run of 6000 to 1000 in the early 1990s. When I became editor in 1994, it was clearly dying, together with most of its subscribers. I tried to widen the scope and to make the journal more international by introducing articles on new subjects, for instance the importance of dustjackets. In 1998, the Sällskapet Bokvännerna merged with the Friends of the Royal Library, the national library of Sweden, which had its own annual publication. Biblis also tended to concentrate on various aspects of bibliography and subjects of largely Swedish interest. When I became the editor of Biblis, we made it a quarterly and I tried again to make the journal more international. After four years, I felt that there was no real interest in adding to the traditional range of subjects, neither from the readers nor the publishers. On the other hand both parties were tired of my not respecting deadlines…

During the last year, I have been buying books specifically for stock, as I have decided to become a dealer. I’m sixty and am starting to take on less work in the advertising business. Like Greta Garbo, I want to be alone. When Björn Löwendahl stopped trading as Björck & Börjesson about twenty years ago, I bought the name from him. I’ve decided to use it for my business. It’s an illustrious name in bookselling and publishing in Sweden. Albert Björck, a Swedenborgian pastor, founded an antiquarian bookshop in 1901, and was joined in the following year by Karl Börjesson, later August Strindberg’s publisher. I plan to continue the numbering of the Björck & Börjesson catalogues so that my first will be number 540. It will be dedicated to Björn, and the subject will be rare books and ephemera on China, in homage to his great contribution to the subject. The catalogue will contain around fifty items, including Samuel Constant’s manuscript with tipped-in photographs from 1936 of his book documenting the street cries of merchants in Peking. It will also include one of the last examples of printing from the Swedish Mission Press at Kashgar before the missionaries had to get out in 1935. I suppose you could call it a Biblical text – it’s the first six chapters of Wallace’s Ben Hur, printed in the Uighur script. The catalogue will also contain the explorer Sven Hedin’s large red leather cigar box, carried by camels through the Mongolian desert.

As writing is my profession, I will try to make my descriptions informative and readable, and my catalogues attractive with a modern approach to classic typography. My favourite typeface is Bell, which was designed for John Bell’s British Letter Foundry in the late eighteenth century, and was the subject of a monograph by Stanley Morison. I don’t think I’ll find it hard to part with my books once I’ve written descriptions of them and produced an attractive catalogue, which will demonstrate to me that I came up with the concept for the collection, and brought it – hopefully – to a successful conclusion.

Collecting requires a certain skill in bringing items together in a meaningful way. I have always given myself a lot of freedom as a collector. For example, if I decide to do a catalogue of bird books, of which there have been thousands, I would widen it to cover the general subject of flight. Why not include the copper plate of the famous eighteenth-century engraving of the poor boy who fell out of a window in the old town in Stockholm? That’s a form of flying, and it certainly makes the cataloguing process more stimulating.

I hope to produce twenty catalogues over the next five years on strange and interesting subjects. If I’m still alive, I’ll make a big catalogue of my collection of Slavery & Colonialism, to which I’m still adding. There’s no difference in my approach to books – both as a dealer and as a collector, the goal is always to find an interesting book in good condition and to discover in these clusters of unique material new and stimulating connections.

Interviewed for The Book Collector Winter 2015


It's been over five years since Sheila's interview with me in The Book Collector. Unfortunately, my ambitions to become an antiquarian bookseller have not been fulfilled. The closer I have come to creating intelligent and unforgettable catalogues, the clearer I have been struck by the insight of the intelligent and unforgettable rare book dealers around the world to whom I will be compared. I mentioned some of them in the interview, but would like to add a few more whose knowledge and prose are unattainable: Deborah Coltham, Richard Neylon, Peter Gidal, James Allen. . .

This autumn 2021, however, it will finally happen. I thank my soon to be 100-year-old mother for her constant repetition of the ancient Swedish proverb: 'Towards evening the lazy one gets in a hurry.' The first catalogue to be published: 'Björck & Börjesson Antiquarian Booksellers & Publishers present: The Dispersal of the Library of the Wunderkammer Ltd Pension Fund. Catalogue 539: Wunderkammern (remains). Rare and Curious Books and Ephemera on the Order of Nature, including Creatures and Objects more or less escaping Classification. In five parts: I. Order. II. Chaos. III. Inner sanctum. Supplement: Lycanthropy. IV. Flora. V. Fauna. Supplement: Sea Monsters.'

Afterword added in 2021


Lars Forsberg


A Poland & Steery Co-production