Livres Anciens: An Exceptional Catalogue

- by Bruce E. McKinney

Chamonal

Rodolphe Chamonal, a dealer whose catalogues are as collectible as his books.


By Bruce McKinney

Book dealers of course issue book catalogues to sell books but such catalogues also serve other purposes. They are a statement of serious intent and an invitation to the reader to evaluate the dealer by the basic historical yard-stick of the field: the written word in a printed form. Catalogues are, in short, the vertebrae of the traditional book business. They are also everywhere in decline, the victim of alternative selling strategies that leach the commercial energy of such projects.

We are fortunate that some dealers do not bend easily to marketplace whims and the deeper trends. They remind us that progress has a price. In December I was fortunate to receive from Rodolphe Chamonal Libraires of Paris, a catalogue that simply can not be placed next to the other catalogues I received in 2003. It is simply the Christmas 2003 Chamonal presentation. It is in fact not a book catalogue. It is eleven of them in a royal maroon box. An exceptional dealer, Rodolphe Chamonal has the history, wherewithal and experience, not to mention inventory, to do this. Few others have the skills or nerve to even try.

Such efforts have been uncommon in any era. Most catalogues are solid but pedestrian: their goal to sell rather than to celebrate the books offered. It is these pedestrian endeavors that are most closely duplicated on the net today. The net, more efficiently than the printed and mailed catalogue, delivers the seller’s description anywhere in the world to anyone who knows where to look and has the interest to do so. However, it does not do so with the spirit and pizzazz that the exceptional booksellers’ catalogues do: at least not yet.

Material offered in such presentations is potentially more valuable and more easily valued by collectors so long as there is a clear informational trail to accompany both the book purchased and to record its place in high powered printed catalogue descriptions. Rosenbach’s Catalogue 19, The Sea, is one of those catalogues and occasionally a skillful bookseller will identify a book they offer for sale as being the same copy offered for sale in 19. Such references most often will fly over the heads of collectors and unfortunately even of some dealers. Such selling history is very important to the value of a book but this history is too often ignored, suppressed for various reasons or forgotten.