The £3.5 million July sale at Sotheby’s of 400 incunables (books printed before 1500) from the centuries old Fürstenburg Court Library at Donaueschingen last July, together with the auctioneers’ forthcoming sales of parts of the Otto Schäfer library (one of the finest collections of early illustrated books and fine bindings assembled in recent years, to be sold in New York on 8 December) might prompt the question: are the great private libraries of early printed books disappearing and are new collections still being assembled?
There may be more of coincidence to this than trend. Past sales from such collections as, say, the Doheny, Abrams or Botfield, passed unremarked, but the proximity of the Donaueschingen and Schäfer sales, and to a lesser extent, the November sale of the Klotz collection at Christie’s, does raise the question.
In this small, rarified market another query arises. When such variety comes on to the market, is the problem really one of decreasing stock rather than the actual strength of the market. If one major player is removed, are those who remain sufficient to absorb what he puts back into the pool?
In fact, the great libraries are probably not really disappearing. Collections such as Donaueschingen are naturally a declining and irreplaceable commodity, but leaving aside the collections that became institutional or national property, it may be that such libraries are merely changing in form and location, not vanishing.
Sales in the ninteenth and early twentieth century from the great European private libraries saw a great deal of material go to the US. The larger and finest portion has remained, but for Margaret Ford, early book specialist at Christie’s in London, the Klotz sale (an almost unknown library brought to London from upstate New York) was another indicator that some collections are on the move.
Ford feels that the last decade of this century may come to be seen as a prime buying time for European collections. At Sotheby’s, Charlotte Brown has noted a much greater European influence in the buying patterns over the last four to five years.
National preferences can be seen at work: the Donaueschigen sale, for example, saw markedly more German institutional and private buying than one would otherwise have expected at the lower (under £5,000) price levels, while European collectors were active at the Klotz sale.
The two big Donaueschingen lots, however, a blockbook and a blood-letting calendar at £221,500 each, were both bought by one of the world’s leading books dealers, H.P. Kraus of New York. The calendar went into the Scheide library (on deposit at Princeton) and the Ars Moriendi was bought for stock. There is no doubt that at this level the market is led by dealers: Kraus in the US, Quaritch and Maggs in Britain; Sourget and Beres in France; Tenschert and Gunter in Germany.
English collectors are currently thin on the ground, although English institutions are, perhaps surprisingly, better funded and more active than their counterparts overseas. One notable example was the British Library’s acquisitions of the Tyndale Bible at over £1 million.
Japanese buyers occasionally go for highlights, as they do in other book fields, but they are not a major force in the incunables market.
The motivation for collecting in this rarified area varies from collector to collector. George Abrams, whose library was assembled in the 1970s and 80s (and sold by Sotheby’s in 1989) came naturally to such books through his work in calligraphy and graphic design. Otto Schäfer moved from prints to books, funding his purchases from the success of his family’s ball-bearing business.
Looking ahead to other significant early book sales, Christie’s are offering next year (29 March) a collection of nearly one hundred Aldines with estimates between £1,000 and 100,000. This is a lot of material to offer in one sale but this is currently a strong market.
Quality should also propel the Schäfer books, which are all in a sense “highlights” and which will attract a broader-based illustration market, towards their £10 million goal.
A final point is the nature of auction house cataloguing of this type of material. There is some feeling among collectors and dealers that the extremely long and technical descriptions of even mediocre books may simply put off new collectors rather than impress them.
When it comes to attracting new buyers one can only point to the outstanding catalogues of medieval and illuminated manuscripts produced by Christopher de Hamel at Sotheby’s where an impeccable level of scholarship is blended with humour and clarity to make medievalism accessible to all.
The author was for twenty-three years deputy editor of the Antiques Trade Gazette and continues to write the paper’s antiquarian books pages
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Are we running out of old libraries?'