Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Albi Rosenthal

Albi Rosenthal

My first visit to England was in May 1933 to attend Sotheby’s sale of illuminated manuscripts from the Chester Beatty collection. From time to time Sotheby’s hold pre-auction exhibitions abroad and, on this occasion, the venue chosen was Jacques Rosenthal, my grandfather’s firm in Munich. The opening day of the exhibition was April 1, which happened to coincide with the first boycott day of ‘non-aryan’ establishments. The shutters were closed and an armed storm trooper stood outside on guard.

Meanwhile many distinguished visitors were expected – the head of the Bavarian State Library, the Rector of Munich University, professors, writers and collectors. They all came to the exhibition and were let in by the back door. As I remarked in an article in The Book Collector to mark the centenary of the firm of Jacques Rosenthal in 1995, their act of solidarity would no longer have been possible even a year or two later.

Viewed from the Continent, England seemed an island of tremendous stability and in September 1933 I moved here at the age of eighteen. Shortly after my arrival, this aspect of stability was brought home to me when I met A.M. Hind, the distinguished Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. He had just published the first volume of his great work on Italian fifteenth-century engravings and informed me that the second volume would appear in 1937, and the third in 1940. To someone who had grown up in political and, one might almost say, spiritual turmoil, it seemed a miracle to be able to plan ahead in this way.

My father, Dr Erwin Rosenthal, was a distinguished art historian and a wonderful teacher. During my schooldays I went to his study in the evenings and we looked at books and pictures together. By the time I came to England, I was fairly well advanced in the study of art history. My first home was with the family of Dr Robin Flower, Deputy Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum. As I was under twenty-one, I was not yet eligible for a reader’s ticket. Dr Flower kindly arranged with the Trustees for a dispensation and I set to work on my task of learning about medieval illuminated manuscripts.

After six months or so, my father came to London and we went to visit Professor Fritz Saxl, the head of the Warburg Institute. At the time the Warburg was enjoying something of a golden age. There were many outstanding teachers and students, and one used to talk of the ‘daily discovery’ at the Warburg. As a young man, I certainly viewed the establishment as the Mount Everest of art history. Without mentioning a word to me beforehand, my father asked Fritz Saxl if he would take me on as an assistant, to which the professor replied, ‘he can start tomorrow’. I thought my father had gone crazy and told him so when we left the room. ‘I’ll just throw you in’, he said, ‘and you’ll swim’.

It was the start of three and a half enormously happy years. I became the assistant of Rudolf Wittkower, and published my first article when I was twenty-one on a discovery I had made about a Dürer watercolour. Among my contemporaries were Erwin Panofsky, Otto Kurz, Ernst Gombrich and others. One of the most outstanding was undoubtedly Edgar Wind who after the War became the first Professor in the History of Art at Oxford.

The situation in the world remained of course extremely serious and, by 1938, my father was urging me to think seriously about earning a living. I had already founded my bookselling firm, A. Rosenthal Ltd, in 1936 but had not yet begun to give it my full attention. By this stage I was living in a flat in Curzon Street, which my mother had found quite by chance. One day we had been walking past Crewe House when she exclaimed, ‘that’s where I want you to live’. I replied, ‘what next!’ Then we noticed that there was a flat to let on the top floor of the house next door. Nowadays it is incredible to think that one could live in Mayfair for £3 a week.

In 1939 I issued my first catalogue containing books and manuscripts on consignment from my father, Secular Thought in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. A Collection of 100 Manuscripts and Printed Books. It was well received and I found the trade in general very welcoming and friendly. Maggs was just round the corner from my flat, and I had a particularly close friendship with Clifford Maggs. My maternal grandfather, Leo S. Olschki, the great Italian antiquarian bookseller and publisher, used to tell a story about visiting Maggs on Armistice Day. The firm had a room where they served tea to visitors at eleven o’clock. Olschki was a jovial person and had been chattering away when, suddenly, everyone stood up in silence for no apparent reason. For two minutes Olschki was convinced that the entire Maggs establishment had gone mad.

As a young dealer, I did quite a lot of work for Continental colleagues who wanted me, for example, to buy for them at auction. I also did occasional bibliographical research for E.P. Goldschmidt in Old Bond Street – who pointed out that the layout of my catalogue was slightly too close to his own. Indeed I had used the same printer. He was a great scholar and I learned a great deal from him.

In November 1940 the house in Curzon Street was badly damaged by a bomb and had to be evacuated. Miraculously I did not lose any stock, although the ground floor of the building had all but disappeared. My second catalogue was in preparation and I had to decide where to move. I knew that the Bodleian was functioning normally, whereas the British Museum had in effect been evacuated to Wales. There was another reason for moving to Oxford – my future wife was living there.

The firm of A. Rosenthal Ltd was eventually established in Turl Street where it stayed for many years before moving to Broad Street. I started to concentrate on dealing in music, autograph manuscripts and letters, while leaving other aspects of the business to my colleague, Dr Ettinghausen. A brilliant scholar and bookman, Dr Ettinghausen had played a part in the acquisition of the Codex Sinaiticus for the British Museum. In the late 1920s, he had accompanied Ernest Maggs to Russia to visit libraries. While they were in Leningrad, they were shown the Codex, discovered by Constantine Tischendorf at the Monastery of St Catherine in 1844.

Dr Ettinghausen thought it worth asking the Russians, ‘if you ever want to sell it, let me know’. A few years later, the Russian authorities desperately needed foreign currency and a postcard arrived at Maggs saying that they would be prepared to sell the Codex Sinaiticus for £2 million. In 14 Conduit Street, they laughed at the sum, but negotiations started and the price came down to £100,000. It became a matter of national interest; questions were asked in Parliament and the Government voted £50,000 towards its acquisition, the other half to be raised by public subscription. Maggs completed the negotiations on behalf of the British Museum in 1933, and the affair made headlines in the newspapers.

Dr Ettinghausen had directed Maggs’s branch in Paris. After leaving for England in 1940, he moved to Oxford and in due course our long association began. We neither bought nor sold much in Oxford. As E.P. Goldschmidt remarked, ‘you don’t need to live where you sell books – you can do that with a postcard’. From the start the business was export-orientated. I issued catalogues for the music department, and Dr Ettinghausen and I collaborated on cataloguing particularly Spanish and Portuguese books, which were sold to America.

Then came the time when Otto Haas wanted someone to take over his music firm in London. He had been the owner of the most prestigious music and antiquarian auction house in Berlin, Leo Liepmannssohn. After emigrating to this country, he established the business under his own name. One or two people had suggested to him that I would be an obvious person to succeed him and, in January 1955, I acquired the firm of Otto Haas and have carried it on ever since.

My brother Barney (Bernard M. Rosenthal) gave a lecture at Harvard, later reprinted in AB Bookman’s Weekly, on the bookselling dynasty of the Rosenthals and the Olschkis. At the present day, there is myself and Barney in California who deals very successfully in manuscripts and early printed books. He has formed a remarkable collection of fifteenth and sixteenth century books with manuscript notes, which has recently been acquired by Yale University. In The Hague, the firm of Ludwig Rosenthal, founded by Jacques’s brother, has survived the vicissitudes of our ‘wonderful’ century, and is nowadays run by Edith Rosenthal. My daughter, Julia, continues to manage A. Rosenthal Ltd from her home in Oxford. The premises in Broad Street were closed when we were threatened with an enormous increase in rent.

Perhaps there is such a thing as inherited aptitude, but my other children are not engaged in bookselling. Jacqueline, my elder daughter, worked at Worcester College in her secretarial days and is a City Councillor in Oxford. And my son – well, I suppose I’m best known as the father of Jim Rosenthal, the sports commentator. When he was growing up, I used to show him the occasional book, and he would say, ‘maybe I’ll be interested in it in a few years’ time’. He was however always interested in sport. As a child, he ran around in the garden playing football doing his own commentary.

An eminent violinist remarked to me, ‘I’m sure I will start collecting when I’m 70’. He was in his forties at the time, and I thought to myself, ‘you will never collect’. Anyone who has the collecting instinct is most unlikely to suppress it for thirty years. My own collecting began on my twenty-first birthday when my mother gave me a Mozart letter. She had spotted it in an antique shop in Munich in the early ’twenties for DM 6,000, which was a reasonably high price. My father declined to buy it. However, on the same day, my parents were invited to a rather elegant party, and my mother was moved to remark on the hostess’s magnificent hat. ‘Oh Mrs Rosenthal! I was shopping this morning and I fell in love with this hat. It was DM 6,000, but I had to buy it’. My mother whispered to my father, ‘If Mrs so-and-so can buy a hat for DM 6,000, surely Mrs Rosenthal can buy a Mozart letter’. My father succumbed to her logic.

Mozart was my first love and I decided that I would attempt to collect the forty-five or so works that Mozart published during his lifetime. Nowadays of course such items very rarely turn up and, for a Mozart letter of any significance, you would have to pay £50,000 upwards – and a very great deal more for a manuscript on the rare occasions when they come on to the market. In 1990 I asked Bodley’s Librarian if anything was planned to celebrate the Mozart bicentenary in 1991. As the Library had very little material of its own, it was agreed that I should organise a loan exhibition of manuscripts, portraits and first editions, which included many items from my collection.

My second collection is Monteverdi. In 1950 I took part in a Monteverdi concert in one of the Oxford colleges. I had not heard much of his work before and was quite overwhelmed by the beauty of the music. From that moment I decided that I would try to buy anything by Monteverdi that came up for sale. Fifty years later it has become a quite remarkable collection, including the only Monteverdi autograph letter in private hands.

I also collect Nietzsche, inspired by my father-in-law, Oscar Levy, who edited the first complete English edition of Nietzsche’s works in eighteen volumes from 1909 to 1913. Nietzsche had been so misused and falsified by the Nazis that he was quite out of fashion after the War. When German auction houses opened again, one could buy his letters for relatively small sums and, over the years, I have managed to acquire forty or so important autograph letters dating from Nietzsche’s childhood until a fortnight before he broke down.

Professional musicians rarely collect music. There are of course exceptions. Alfred Cortot, the great interpreter of Romantic and early twentieth-century piano music, formed a wonderful library in Lausanne, where I spent almost two months cataloguing it. Everything musical had significance for Cortot. He found inspiration in communion with manuscripts and letters by Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Debussy, Ravel, Fauré and others.

In 1986, Paul Sacher, the conductor, established a marvellous Foundation for Twentieth-Century Music in Basel. It is quite a unique institute with which I am deeply involved. Over the years I have helped to acquire for the Foundation a number of composers’ archives, including that of Stravinsky. During the negotiations I had to contend with three different nests of New York lawyers – I call them nests because there are always at least five partners sitting around the table. In handling major collections, everything should be done openly and it must be clear to all concerned that you are not simply working for your own self-interest. For my 80th birthday, the Foundation dedicated a magnificent volume to me with a preface by Paul Sacher.

Styles of collecting have changed over the years. At one time it was fashionable to collect handwriting specimens of every major and minor composer, literary, historical and artistic personality from the Renaissance to the twentieth century. For example Karl Geigy Hagenbach, the Swiss collector, wanted an example of the handwriting of all great men. Nowadays it is more common to limit oneself. To my mind, collecting requires limitation, otherwise the activity becomes a mere amassing of material without direction.

Music autograph collecting is a comparatively recent phenomenon. The first autograph auction was held in Paris in 1822. By 1850, 146 specialist sales had taken place, listing around 70,000 autographs. As I have remarked elsewhere, the handwritten document embodies the authority, emotions, the very presence of the writer. It is the only physical medium representing the absent writer and it evokes in the addressee heightened feelings of contact and communion with the former. The wish to collect autographs is based on this premise.

In 1988 I gave a lecture at the British Library on ‘Aspects of autograph col- lecting, past and present’ as part of the Stefan Zweig series of concerts, lectures and exhibitions. The series was instituted in 1987 to celebrate the gift to the British Library of Stefan Zweig’s outstanding collection of autograph musical and literary manuscripts. In the lecture I touched on the problem of forgery, which is a favourite subject of mine. Indeed I have unmasked quite a few forgeries in my time.

Letters are of course easier to forge than a score, partly because there are many small details in musical notation, which are difficult to copy. Incidentally, I was surprised to learn from an eminent graphologist that the musical element does not figure in the handwriting of a great musician. Apparently the dominant feature in Mozart’s handwriting is his virility.

About ten years ago there was a marvellous forger of Berlioz letters – I say marvellous in the sense that his work was extremely convincing. An example was sent to me and I became suspicious when I noticed a spelling mistake in the Latin text. Berlioz was an accomplished Latin scholar and would never have made such an error. Six months later, on a visit to the director of the music department at the Bibliothèque Nationale, I mentioned the problem of Berlioz forgeries, which he dismissed as being fairly easy to detect.

The library was holding a Berlioz exhibition at the time and there, in the show cases at the Bibliothèque Nationale, were three forgeries. I went across the road to a café and wrote a postcard to my friend, the director: Cher François, The following letters ... were not written by me. [signed] Hector Berlioz. The items in question disappeared very quickly from the exhibition.

The experience of playing a piece of music lends considerably to one’s appreciation of it. I have been a passionate amateur violinist, beginning to play at the age of seven, although I almost gave up when I was thirteen and heard Yehudi Menuhin for the first time. He was only eleven years old but his playing was quite fantastic. In 1948 the Oxford University Orchestra was revived and since then I have played at the first desk. From the beginning I have tried never to miss a rehearsal or a concert even at the expense of missing an auction. On one such occasion Lord John Kerr remarked on my absence, ‘I see you’ve got your priori- ties right’.

I usually take my violin on my travels as I have friends abroad with whom I like to play chamber music. Recently I was stopped in the green channel by a Customs officer and questioned about my violin and, curiously, what I had been playing. ‘Mozart and Beethoven sonatas’, I answered – somewhat puzzled – to which he replied, ‘last Sunday I played Mozart’s Kegelstadt Trio: I used to play the clarinet in the Philharmonia’.

I very much enjoy travelling. When my daughter, Julia, was asked where I most liked to be, she replied, ‘somewhere else’. I am not particularly restless; I just enjoy so many different places. I am however too sociable to survive on a desert island – although of course it might be my only chance of mastering the Bach unaccompanied suites....

Some time ago I was invited to appear on Radio Oxford’s Desert Island Discs. My first choice was a very remarkable thirteenth century Spanish song, which has quite a story behind it. Thirty-five years ago there was an auction in Stockholm of the remnants of a great music collection formed by a Spanish ambassador to Sweden. During the viewing I came across a slim volume by Francisco Vindel, describing a thirteenth century vellum leaf, which contained the earliest example of secular music in Spain. Mr Vindel’s work was privately printed in 1915 in ten copies only, of which I possessed the copy inscribed by the author to Jacques Rosenthal ‘the greatest antiquarian in Europe’.

To my amazement, the catalogue entry referred, in Swedish, to another lot, which was none other than the actual vellum leaf which had been missing since the time of Vindel’s publication. Presumably the Spanish ambassador bought the leaf from Mr Vindel in 1915 or thereabouts, and was also given a copy of his book. I was so excited by this discovery that I could hardly sleep. The next day the sale started and the early printed books fetched very respectable prices. When the vellum leaf was held up, everyone in the room laughed. This unbelievably fantastic item looked like a worn piece of vellum that might have done nicely for a lampshade. I bought it for £5 and kept it in my collection for a long time. But one has after all to live, and in due course I sold it to the Pierpont Morgan Library.

In 1979 I received an honorary degree from Oxford University. This was an occasion of particular pleasure in my life – and significance in the sense that my normal education in Germany was cut short by the rise to power of a certain dictator. (I will not mention his name as I do not wish to give him free publicity.) In 1984 I celebrated my 70th birthday, and was delighted to receive a marvellous festschrift. Am I thinking of retiring? Let me answer that question by passing on some advice I gave to my younger brother, ‘Barney, you’re too old to retire’.

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in March 1997






Albi Rosenthal

A Poland & Steery Co-production