Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Arthur Freeman

[Best Before 1850]

Arthur Freeman

I was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and come from a family of scientists. At Harvard I gave up mathematics for English literature, and took a post-graduate course with the great American librarian, William A. Jackson. Apart from introducing the discipline of bibliography, Jackson’s course was famous for whetting the taste of potential bibliophiles, and I rapidly acquired a penchant for the rare book – a penchant which I could not afford.

In 1961, while I was still at Harvard, I founded the rare book firm of Ximenes, with two indulgent Graduate School backers, a trifling capital, and even less knowledge of books and the book trade. Nowadays we have almost reached a point where traders outnumber their customers, but in the early ’60s things were unimaginably different. Between the Depression and the War years not many people went into the rare book business in America, except from families already committed. As a result there was a gap of almost twenty years between the older generation of dealers and the new crop, and the arrival of Ximenes came as quite a surprise. Survivors like us, upstarts in our time, now find ourselves ‘elder states- men’, for what that’s worth.

On entering the trade, I was given some simple advice by Jackson – ‘Don’t do it’. He believed that bookselling, while a splendid game, and one in which he was deeply interested for scholarly reasons, would corrupt the purity of one’s critical faculties. I also ignored the subtler remark made by a local dealer in Harvard Square, ‘So, you’re going to be a bookseller. How’s your back?’ I replied haughtily, ‘The sort of books I intend to deal in are not very heavy’. He smiled knowingly and said nothing, and my back has been a disaster since 1962.

I can date the back crisis precisely to the occasion when we bought an old bookseller’s stock, packed in dozens of cartons on the fourth floor of a house with a rickety staircase. There was a blizzard blowing and I had to load the books into a borrowed hearse waiting in the street. Secondhand hearses and ambulances have the best suspension for transporting books and were much in demand for this purpose in the States. It was pleasant, however, to discover among that unwieldy lot the long-lost manuscript diary of John Adams, sent home to his wife Abigail, from the Paris peace talks of 1780.

Boston in the early ’60s was a fairly threadbare patch for a rare book dealer, and it was not long before I took a trip to Europe – my khakis stuffed with other people’s capital. Booksellers in London, Paris, Florence and Rome were cautiously willing to sell me the odd book, but cash was tight, and there was no such thing as an overdraft in those days, at least not in America. Dealers just now starting out will deny this vigorously, but many things have become easier. Apart from the financial side, we take for granted the availability of vast amounts of information – auction records, reference books and information on customers, both institutional and private.

I returned from Europe with many parcels of books, but the local clientele weren’t much use. The occasional academic might spring $35.00 on a volume from time to time, but essentially we had no customers, so we resorted to a ‘miscellaneous’ catalogue, slender but rather pricy for the date, and repeated the exercise three times over the next couple of years. We were not trying to make a living out of the business; it merely kept us going and gave us some fun or experience. After a few years one of my partners took the firm to New York and I bowed out of Ximenes.

At the time I was pursuing a fairly serious academic career, specialising in Shakespeare and pre-Shakespearean drama and early popular fiction. I taught English at Boston University from 1965 to 1975 and, since you ask, I wasn’t a particularly good teacher. I’m too liberal in my resort to ridicule and have been known to mistake a difference of opinion for stupidity.

In the summer of 1966 I met Ted Hofmann in London, by which time I had discovered that I was lonely for bookselling. So we set up Hofmann & Freeman, and created a partnership in the States and a limited company in the UK in 1967. Ted dealt out of his home in Kent and I opened an office in Harvard Square. Ted had begun his own firm, in California, as Theodore Hofmann, and had already issued eleven catalogues before our partnership. So we decided to call the first Hofmann & Freeman catalogue Number Twelve, which also gave the impression of a considerable past.

In the event we were only in business together for a year and a half when I took over the partnership and Ted took the limited company. In 1972 I sold half of my American company to a West End firm of booksellers, and represented them for three years in the States. In 1975 I came to England and continued as an independent consultant for the same West End firm for the next twenty-two years. Hofmann & Freeman closed in the States, although the UK firm continued until 1988 when Ted joined the firm of Bernard Quaritch.

A bookseller’s career is the record of what he has handled – whether he buys or sells it, discovers or values it, or simply offers advice, although preening oneself on commission purchases or negotiations as agent is pretty foolish, no matter how big the numbers are. Since coming to this country my activities in bookselling can best be described as advisory. I have worked independently with booksellers and institutions, and carried out assignments on behalf of many of the more attractive – and less attractive – collectors of our time. I have been involved in the sale of whole libraries, collections, and single volumes ranging from a Gutenberg Bible to Shakespeare first folios, and manuscripts as diverse as Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, a dazzling collection of calligraphic verse presented to Elizabeth I at Cambridge in 1564, Byron’s ‘She Walks in Beauty’, Tennyson’s In Memoriam, and Trelawney’s Adventures of a Younger Son. Let’s not stop: several of George Gissing’s novels, a play by Jane Austen, Alexander Pope’s ‘Pastorals’, Scott’s Quentin Durwood, Yeats’s ‘Cast a Cold Eye’, the earliest whaling voyage-log originating from England, an unknown Robin Hood ballad collection, Salem witchcraft depositions, and some funeral marching orders which list John Donne, Ben Jonson, and the murderer of Christopher Marlowe among the participants. These have all been a privilege to unearth, or to deal with.

The Turgenev manuscript, which was incidentally written on the Isle of Wight, surfaced by report at a book fair in lower Manhattan. A friend of mine at the fair was approached by a dealer offering what he said was the manuscript of Sons and Lovers. Not immediately aware that this was already one of the treasures of the Humanities Research Center at Austin, Texas, my friend expressed interest and the dealer raced off to make a telephone call. A short time later he returned, rather crestfallen, and said, ‘Sorry. It’s not Sons and Lovers. It’s something called Fathers and Sons.’

My friend was sufficiently literate to appreciate that this might not be a bad thing either. He contacted me and I recommended that a London bookseller purchase a half-share of it, and I subsequently catalogued it, in spite of the Cyrillic, which I can’t read at all. The ensuing negotiations to place the manuscript were prolonged, but it was finally handed over to Raisa Gorbachev at a ceremony in London. I regard it as one of the most significant autograph manuscripts of fiction sold in our century.

If booksellers need justifications for what they do, one of the very few must surely be that from time to time they discover something that was unappreciated or simply going to waste. I recall handling a small quarto which had been sequestered for many decades in the back room of a bookseller who considered it imperfect, and was waiting, I assume, to fix it up with another defective copy. And indeed it lacked its title-page, but was and is nevertheless the only copy known of Envies Scourge, and Vertues Honour (1603), a fascinating verse-satire, never read or discussed in our time. I’m proud to have found out as much as I could about it, and it has been the subject of considerable academic scrutiny since then.

Imperfect books are a wonderfully unconsidered area of investigation. Collectors have always exercised a certain snobbery toward anything ‘defective’, and many such foundlings have gone into the lazarettos, as it were, of booksellers, with repair and ‘making-up’, or ‘marriage’ with other imperfect copies in mind. As a result, they have often been overlooked by editors and scholars, and can conceal the most wonderful surprises. In my time I have found unvalued ‘cripples’ (I’m sorry that’s a non-PC term) annotated by Defoe, Goldsmith, Pope and Ben Jonson, and, at Sotheby’s no less, a copy of Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, marked up by his amanuensis for the first authorised edition of a masterpiece. Nowadays I find myself looking over a mildly imperfect 1530 Vulgate Bible from Cologne, marked up with 600 English equivalents by one of the Geneva translators of 1560, which must be a snip at one million pounds.

When you are trying to sell a book, it is natural to emphasise the reasons why it is saleable and de-emphasise why it might not be as interesting as you suggest. I have never suppressed or lied about literary material, as far as I know. The book trade is obsessed with ethics, probably because there are so many ethical decisions to be made, mostly involving money. Dealers constantly have to say to people, ‘This is what I think your book is worth, and this is what I will pay you’. What happens next? You buy a book for X and, as you catalogue it and grow more fond of it, the selling price in your mind goes up. Have you then cheated your supplier by only paying X, and should you give him a big surprise bonus – as so many dealers assure me they do, or intend to do?

For this reason booksellers should love buying at auction. I’m reminded again of the imperfect copy of Browne’s Religio Medici. When I attended the sale on behalf of a London bookseller I had placed an upper limit in my mind of £8,500 on this lot. It fetched £90 and it has now moved on at an appropriately higher figure. If that same book had come in the door, carried by the proverbial little old lady, what would I have to give her? Maybe not £8,500, but certainly not £90.

I’m particularly fond of annotated or association material. It presents more of a challenge and calls upon one’s imagination and powers of rhetoric to describe it. During the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s I wrote a lot of poetry and my half dozen published collections mostly date from that period. Poetry requires you to think analogically and this may have helped me in bookselling, if that isn’t lèse-majesté toward the muse. I tend to look at books and move them from context to context, and to emphasise unconsidered aspects of them. Education also helps, although some of the best booksellers of our time were not formally educated, and a PhD means little if you keep waiting for impossible discoveries in your own narrow field of expertise. A good memory is also a great asset for a bookseller. Nowadays I can’t remember anything a week ago, but I’m pretty good before 1850.

The collecting mentality is the subject of a large and often meretricious literature. As a condition, it rarely hurts others. At its best it preserves knowledge and, as a result, serves the future. It has been said that all it requires to build a major collection is three generations of collectors who don’t disperse. Admittedly a lot of cash helps, but time is the essence of collecting. I once remarked to John Fleming that all you needed to build a great collection was to be number one on the list of a good dealer. John replied, ‘All you need to build a great collection is to be number one on the list of any dealer.’ Even a blind sow finds truffles often enough, he meant, and I think he was right.

Buying books simply for investment is damaging to the ongoing activity of collecting. Inevitably it means that books are bought not because anybody wants them, but because it seems financially advantageous to hold them for a period of time. When people invest in books ignorantly, the results are almost always disappointing. However if you take books seriously and still buy with nothing but a capital return in mind, you would probably do pretty well. But it can’t be automatic. A colleague of mine was once asked to buy at auction anything that her client could double in price and resell. She quite rightly replied that if she could do that, she did not quite see why she needed him. Experience of any market teaches that there has to be an element of unpredictability, and that means, in words of two syllables, you’re gambling.

It is however true that certain areas of collecting have shot up in value much faster than others. In 1962 I paid $110 for a perfectly nice copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was then a reasonably common book, and not much rated as literature. I sold it in the same year for $165, from a catalogue, with just one order, from Dartmouth College. Within the last couple of years I have raised my hand, on behalf of a London dealer, to purchase a not quite so fine copy for more than $35,000. In this case we are simply talking fashion. Thirty-five years ago the fact that Frankenstein was a woman’s book may have lessened its value; the opposite is now true. Also the novel was generally considered to be more kitsch than literature and, in the buttoned-up 1950s, the ‘Hollywood’ connotations of Frankenstein’s monster did not help at all.

Printing and the Mind of Man (some call it Percy Muir’s Mind) is probably one of the most influential guides to book collecting. Its influence has however been pernicious to the extent that it is selective – a book should not necessarily be worth more simply because it is in PMM. And yet there are a number of ‘recipe’ books which exercise a similar influence on the market. Indeed the Grolier Club had the wit to include its own prescriptive One Hundred Books Famous in English (or American) Literature in an exhibition of Dangerous Books, alongside Mein Kampf. Surely it’s better to make a mistake in over-estimating a text, but have it be your own.

It is a commonplace to say that you cannot be a dealer and a collector. Actually the impulse for both activities is often similar, if not identical. If you are not inspired by the idea of owning a book, I cannot believe that you would be very effective at buying or selling it. My wife, Janet Ing Freeman, and I collect the history of literary scholarship and book collecting, mainly in association copies. Janet is the author of a standard account of Gutenberg and a new study of the biblio-thief William Stevenson Fitch, and the co-author of Anatomy of an Auction. We share a keen interest in literary and bibliophile rogues and, although we haven’t yet attempted to swell their ranks, we are about to publish a 1,500-page work on John Payne Collier, the Shakespearean scholar-forger, and his circle.

As I approach my sixtieth birthday, I have embarked with Janet on a rather simpler kind of entrepreneurial business. We formed a new company last year and our business is laid back, to say the least – no advertising, no catalogues – like a call girl with an unlisted number, you might say. But we are certainly neither ‘retired’ nor ‘semi-retired’. We’re at home to friends and we buy and sell a book or manuscript at a time.

Interviewed for the Bookdealer in March 1998

Arthur Freeman

A Poland & Steery Co-production