Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2015 Issue

Wanted: A Collector with Ambition

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Because booksellers' catalogues randomly appear and because there are thousands of booksellers the sheer magnitude of catalogue production has long gone unrecognized and unreported.  There have been scattered reports over the years of collectors of auction catalogues who have sought to have a copy of every auction catalogue ever printed.  For a few others that has not been enough.  Theirs were to be priced, something not consistently reported much less provided.  Such collections exist but are uncommon.

 

More frequently found but invariably less appreciated are dealer catalogues.  Many, even most, dealers accumulate them as tools for their field.  But in time with experience they learn that the market for dealer catalogues is very thin, that they sit upon the doubly sharpened sword; both hard to find and difficult to sell.

 

Twenty-five years ago I began to accumulate dealer catalogues.  Large troves occasionally appeared and when given the opportunity, I bought them.

 

Twice I bought large quantities from John Zubal in Cleveland.  John is a smart man who concluded long before he sold them to me that he couldn’t do anything with them, something like 25 pallets altogether.  From a Detroit ABAA dealer I made a similar but smaller deal.  From DeWolfe & Wood of Alfred, Maine I bought 2,200 mostly 19th century catalogues.  Susan Heller gave me several thousand she acquired during her career.  And another family, cleaning out their father’s house in the Rocky Mountains, found a trove of catalogues but no willing buyers.  They too sent their catalogues to me with the admonition “please keep them.”  And I have.

 

Since 2001 we have been building the Rare Book Hub Transaction Database.  And we have included the catalogues of many of the greatest dealers of the past century but invariably acquired a much broader inventory, hundreds of first catalogues of young and hopeful dealers and as many, perhaps even more of their final catalogues.

 

But the collection is spotty.  Few complete runs are present.  Mostly the catalogues are the important ones, the examples that other dealers set aside as references.  In total today we have more than 23,000 dealer catalogues representing at least one catalogue from more than 2,800 dealers.  The date range runs from the 1850’s to the early 1990’s.

 

And what this collection turns out to be is the once in a lifetime opportunity for that person or institution who would like to spend the next two decades pursuing examples of every dealer’s catalogues using this collection as a springboard into the netherworld of dealer catalogues that reside in deep collections around the world.

 

We will be selling them at auction as a single lot, roughly 165 [actually closer to 180] linear feet of catalogues.  We will sell them on behalf of a charity.

 

So if you have big ambitions and a large space this may be an appealing direction.  It is perfect for obsessives.  Run of the mill take it or leave it collectors will not have the nerve to step into this.  This will require courage and ambition and a high degree of resourcefulness.  But it will also be a famous undertaking.  Catalogues will continue to spill out of institutions over the next 25 years and their random pieces fit perfectly into an extraordinary mosaic of dealer history and ambition that this collection lays out like a roadmap.

 

I know something of the challenge.  I have collected some eight million-auction records and some five million of them today form the backbone of the RBH Transaction History Database.  In time another possibly 2.5 million records will join their brothers and sisters to create a seamless transaction history dating back to 1850.

 

By comparison the dealer catalogue challenge is a larger undertaking.  We continue to catalogue [we are currently up to the letter R] and now estimate there are 11,000,000 dealer records in the material on hand.

 

Here is a link to an almost complete index of the dealers, dates and quantity of catalogues whose catalogues are in this collection.  The complete list will be linked here by August 10th.

 

If you have some thoughts about this, whether as an advisor, collector or institution, please be in touch.  I’m assuming the material will go to auction in October.

 

Bruce McKinney

877.323,7273

bmckinney@americanaexchange.com


Posted On: 2015-08-25 23:20
User Name: DorothySloan

Dear Bruce:

Somehow reading your article made me think I am not alone with my catalogue fetish. Relief!

I became aware of the rare book world in the late 1960s, when studying with that extraordinary man Dr. William H. Goetzmann in American Studies at the University of Texas. I was fascinated with so many aspects of our history--popular culture to fine art and everything in between. But I did not see how I could pursue a career with such eclectic interests. In one of Dr. Goetzmann's seminars, he assigned us to prepare an exhibit from material in the Humanities Research Center. Walking into that space, a beautiful shaft of light came down from the high ceiling--that kind of moment when we have a vision that shows us the way. At last...

My classroom studies were done, and all I wanted to do was look at every rare book in that library. To make a long short, Dr. Goetzmann did not discourage my curiosity, but rather encouraged it. He told me to go to San Francisco and apprentice with Warren R. Howell, no mean feat since I had to consider two children and the husband I had put through six degrees. In the meantime, he showed me some rare book dealer and auction catalogues. I looked at more catalogues at the HRC and purchased even more of them from dealers here and abroad. Dr. Goetzmann also told me to read Carter's ABC for Book Collectors and other related works. I was a lover looking for something to love, and had at last found it.

I finished my studies and I arrived in San in 1969. When all the domestic and maternal matters were in order, I made by way to 434 Post Street. My first encounter with Warren was when I showed up uninvited at 7 am one morning. I timidly knocked on the glass door and there he was with his fine china cup of coffee and that shock of silver hair at the back of the long, narrow high-ceilinged shop. He frowned at me and waved his hand for me to leave, but I persisted. He came to the door finally and said: "What do you want, young lady?" I replied, "I want to learn everything about rare books and Dr. Goetzmann told me to come here." He smiled, swung open the door, and said, "Darling, you have come to the right place."

In addition to having one of the great book shops in the world, Warren had such a wonderful collection of dealer and auction catalogues. I already had the fetish, and at last count I had over 250 linear feet of dealer and auction catalogues. Those catalogues were a foundation stone in my education in the rare book world, and I thank each dealer and auction house who helped me find my way. I was fortunate in being able to buy a good deal of John Jenkins' collection of catalogues and those of W. Thomas Taylor (the latter were part of my acquisition of Tom's reference collection). When you created Americana Exchange it seemed the most sensible and easy way to deal with a mass of ephemeral but highly useful information. I wish you could include dealer catalogues, too, but what you have done is wonderful enough for now. Yes, the information is more accessible in digital form, but still there is some part of me that wants to hold on to those hard copies.


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