Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2011 Issue

Sotheran's - An Exceptional Story

A Sotheran catalogue of the 1880s

They would move many times, expand and retrench, move into the City and out and rarely over-commit.  They would have as many as five shops in the closing decades of the 19th century and by one account in the 1880s as many as 500,000 books available.  They would become prolific cataloguers, issuing more than 700 “Price Current” catalogues as well as an extensive run of “Piccadilly Notes."  They assisted Enriqueta Rylands to create an institutional library in memory of her husband John, an institution today renowned for its exceptional holdings.  When the trade shifted to America they courted the lions of the day, coming to represent Henry Clay Folger and J. P. Morgan and selling to many others.

In these same decades, when dealers regularly participated in rigged bidding to buy cheap and resell within their ring, Sotheran did not participate.   Those who did were later unapologetic, when their activities were revealed, claiming that it kept their costs down, although it defrauded sellers.

         

In the 1920s, when rarity and collecting merged into an upward spiral of prices Sotheran's stepped aside, later becoming underbidders in the auction rooms, willing to lose out to those willing to pay more as the decade advanced.  Ten years later many who went a bump or two higher were gone.

In 1928 Henry Cecil Sotheran, the last member of the family to be directly involved in the firm, died.  In his stead Gabriel Wells, the American rare book dealer, purchased the firm, in time transferring his interest to the Rothschild family that continues, now three generations later, its involvement, only the second enduring ownership in the firm’s 250 year history.

Looking back it is possible to feel the excitement and impetus for opening a bookstore in 1761.  Literacy was on the wing and English prospects unparalleled.  England would place its stamp upon the world, installing its language upon a quarter of the globe.  The path would prove uncertain but the best place to be at that moment and for decades to come would be London.  The city and nation would dominate the world for the next 140 years and Sotheran be present, its own history developing.  Its story would then follow the transition from the British century to the American one, the transition softened by the shared language that lessened the impact for sellers of the printed word.

Rare Book Monthly

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