I come from a family of passionate collectors. My grandfather’s house in Madrid contained perhaps a thousand antique beer mugs. Curiously I never saw him drink a drop of beer. One of my aunts was an antiquarian dealer, and most of my uncles were collectors, including one who amassed possibly the world’s largest collection of smoking pipes. My Spanish father met my French mother in England, where I was born in 1965. While we were in London, my father began collecting travel books on Spain as a hobby. Those who knew him before he moved abroad say that living in the UK changed him from a teenage rebel in the aftermath of the Civil War to a tranquil Londoner working for the Spanish Embassy.
When we moved back to Madrid, I was eight years old and spoke Spanish with an English accent. My parents decided to open a gallery and framing business in the Salamanca district of the city. It was initially called Galería Durero, but then the name was changed to Frame – retaining Dürer’s rhinoceros as the logo. It began as a modern art gallery, but my father soon had the first floor fitted out with book shelves, and drawers for antique prints and maps.
Apart from my father, I also have an older brother and an uncle to thank for introducing me at an early age to the antiquarian business in London. When my brother became a student at the London School of Economics, I made frequent trips to visit him, smuggling in supplies of chorizo and ham. He would take me to his favourite shops in Bloomsbury and Cecil Court, off Charing Cross Road, searching for books for his incipient collection of surrealism and science fiction first editions.
On one of my arrivals at Heathrow, aged fourteen, I was stopped by customs. They had no interest in the food in my suitcase, but wanted to know what was inside the cardboard tube I was carrying. I tried to convince them that they were facsimile prints of Piranesi, and purely of decorative value. They didn’t believe me, and called for a police officer, who was described as their ‘art expert’. He mysteriously turned up within minutes, ordered me to pay £150 in cash, which he pocketed in return for a receipt. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a false receipt for ‘dry cleaning’. I remember my parents’ astonishment that such a thing had happened in London.
My uncle José Mario Armero was another avid collector in the family. He was a lawyer in Madrid, and had played a decisive role in the restoration of the monarchy as part of the post-Franco democratic settlement. My uncle kept a flat near Piccadilly, and we would go together on weekend visits to London, during which his driver would take us on a fixed route of dealers, fairs and flea markets. He became a familiar figure, and dealers would keep things aside for him. His immense collection of Civil War posters is now in the Biblioteca Nacional de España. On a lighter note, he collected anything related to Charlie Chaplin.
During my time as a student in Madrid in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I continued my regular trips to London, attending auctions or book fairs for my father, and selling specific items for which there was little market in Madrid. As I was buying Spanish-related material, Paul Orssich was my only real competitor there. Paul had the advantage of being based in London, and so I realised that it was better to join forces with him instead of quarrelling over Spanish items in auctions and fairs. We have remained good friends for over forty years.
Eventually I moved to London for a few years, during which I attended Christie’s fine arts course, and met people of all ages and backgrounds. We all shared the same general interest in the art market, and my fellow students included several future picture dealers, booksellers, appraisers, academics and directors of Sotheby’s and Christie’s. I particularly remember a Californian bike messenger with a great love for antique furniture, who paid for the course with the compensation he received from an accident. He went on to work for a major auction house in Switzerland, and then in New York.
People often say that you learn more on the street than in the classroom. In Christie’s case, the course was a good mixture of hands-on experience and class work. We attended auctions, and went to visit great country house collections and libraries, and all the time our tutors would be pointing out connections between the fine and decorative arts and literature. It was not only great fun but also an excellent introduction to the British art market. I wrote my final paper on the artist David Roberts and his contemporaries, whose work may be found in some of the finest travel books on Spain.
While I was living in London, I continued to buy books, prints, maps and posters for our gallery in Madrid. I also helped to find books for my father’s clients in London. There was a Spanish businessman for whom I formed a large collection of books on Egypt, including all the great names from Belzoni to Roberts, Napoleon’s multi-volume Description de l’Egypte and early photograph albums. Bernard Shapero had just opened his shop in Holland Park, and he would lend me suitcases full of books to show to my clients. I have already mentioned Paul Orssich, who was very supportive in my first years, and Jonathan Potter and Clive Burden both helped me to understand the antique map market. I learnt about ‘runners’ as intermediaries, and the different fairs outside London – I even discovered boot sales, a business model that doesn’t exist in Spain. The taxman would never permit it!
Calle de Claudio Moyano is Madrid’s equivalent of the bouquinistes in Paris. It’s a tree-lined pedestrian street along Retiro park towards Atocha train station. When I was a child, I went there looking for Marvel comics and English novels with my brother. I still go there once in a while, but you really only find books published in or on Spain, priced at five or ten euros. The dealers survive on large turnover. My brother’s enthusiasm for collecting first editions doesn’t really exist in Spain. People don’t rush to the bookshop to buy the first edition in hardback of their favourite authors. Of course there is a market, but it’s extremely small. When a house is cleared, you often have to pay someone to take the books away, and this is the source of much of the material that turns up in Retiro, and book fairs all over Spain.
The Spanish style of doing business has been rather old-fashioned compared to the UK. Traditional antiquarian booksellers would sit on their stock – often unreasonably priced – and wait for years for the ideal client, before reducing the price or selling to a colleague for a discount. In London books flow quite quickly from dealer to dealer for small commissions or discounts. I tried to copy this method in Madrid by using ‘runners’. They would take my newly bought stock and offer it to dealers and clients, as it would be much easier to sell this way. Thankfully things have changed for the better, as younger dealers enter the trade and prices have become very transparent due to the internet.
In the early 1990s my father and I exhibited at the fairs organised by the Asociación Ibérica de Librerías Anticuarias, which had recently been founded. It wasn’t long before we realised that the clients who visited the fair also came to our gallery. It makes sense for a dealer from Bilbao to exhibit at a fair in Madrid, but it didn’t make sense for us. Having said that, I still exhibit at the international antiquarian book fair which is held every November, and alternates between Madrid and Barcelona. At the moment clients from countries like Mexico and Venezuela are making an impact on the market. They have money to spend, and believe that Spain is a safer home for it. It’s a bit of a dealer’s dream – they know what they want, ask the price, pay and take it with them.
In your interview with Robert Frew, he said that one in a thousand of the people walking past his shop in London is a potential client for an antiquarian book, but 50% might buy a print. Every home has walls and you need something to put on them, whereas antiquarian books require a more in-depth understanding. Although I’m a specialist in the different editions of Goya’s prints, I recognise that most clients are not interested in the detail, and simply buy them for decoration. The same goes for rare maps of Spain. I used to say to myself that I wouldn’t sell an important map if I knew that the client only wanted it to decorate a room. My attitude has had to change because it doesn’t pay to be too academic in this business.
Fortunately there are still some very good and active old Spanish libraries, who appreciate unusual and rare material when it comes on the market. I sell a lot to institutions, including the Biblioteca Nacional de España. The curators were pulling my leg recently, telling me to stop offering them maps, prints and books. They were concerned that the accounts department would be surprised by the number of invoices from me, and think something weird was going on. The explanation is of course that I offer them nice things! Experience is a huge asset in this trade. If I come across a book that I haven’t seen in the last forty years, I can be sure that it’s rare.
For many years we sold a lot to institutional clients in Barcelona, but that market collapsed some time ago. As the national representatives of the International Map Collectors’ Society, my father and I organised their symposium in Barcelona in 1986. It was a time when the politicians there were beginning to ‘oblige’ people to use the Catalan language, apart from Spanish and/or English, for publicising events and so on. We published our leaflets for the IMCoS symposium in three languages and, in return, the local authorities helped us financially, and organised some splendid receptions at the various institutions on the programme for the symposium. Many of the institutions started to buy old maps and books to create or complete their collections. In fact the regional autonomies indulged in a frenzy of buying, with prices sky-rocketing, as they raced to form their own ‘national’ collections.
In November 1989, one of the last copies in private hands of the first edition of Don Quixote was sold by Sotheby’s in New York. In the words of the catalogue description, the complete first edition of Cervantes’s masterpiece is the highest prize of Spanish book-collecting, and much rarer than the four Folios of Shakespeare. The Mayor of Alcalá , supported by the local bank Caja Madrid, authorised me to bid up to 50 million pesetas for the book. The plan was to buy it, and recover part of the cost by making a facsimile edition. It sold for US$1.5m, almost five times higher than our bid.
Over the years we have sold some very important Bibles to the University of Alcalá, including the Complutensian and the Antwerp polyglots. The Complutensian is the first printed polyglot Bible, initiated and financed by Cardinal Cisneros, and printed in six volumes in 1514 at the University of Alcalá, which he had founded in 1499. The Antwerp polyglot is the work of Benito Arias Montano, who was commissioned by Philip II to prepare a new edition, printed in 1569 in eight volumes by Christopher Plantin, the great scholar-printer in the Spanish Netherlands. Both works are very rare items in much demand by collectors.
Regretfully interest in collecting major travel literature on Spain is in decline. I don’t know the reason for it, and perhaps it’s not unique to Spanish books. I’ve just inherited my father’s collection, which includes all the great names – David Roberts, John Frederick Lewis, and George Vivian – but interest in the subject is not what it was when I was buying books for him in London.
It’s fifty years since my parents opened the gallery. They are no longer here, but I continue to run the business with the help of four employees. The gallery is quite unusual in having its own framing studio – it gives us more chance of making a sale. Someone might walk in to have something framed, and then see something they like in the gallery. I still enjoy the work as much as I did on my first day. Once you have built up a lasting trust with colleagues all over the world, books can change hands from one dealer to another, as they did in the pre-digital age. We have collectors who have been buying from us throughout my working life. In some cases, it’s almost impossible to find new items for their collections, but the friendship remains.
Interviewed in October 2023