In the present era book collectors can collect books as well manuscripts, maps and ephemera on their own. In the receding past, while all those possibilities existed, knowledge and expertise were held by only a few hands who had entrée to the great collectors.
Recently I read John K. Winkler’s biography, Morgan The Magnificent, the life of J. Pierpont Morgan that was published in 1930, 17 years after Mr. Morgan passed away. Released after the beginning of the Great Depression, there is a wistful sense about how well the post-Civil War reconstruction, the rise of industrial America, and the emerging progressive era were managed by the great financial men of that era. After 1913, it became the Federal Reserve’s responsibility to transition from the last stages of laissez faire capitalism. J. Pierpont Morgan had become the greatest of those laissez faire financial men of that era and over his lifetime the greatest book and art collector since the beginning of the American experiment in democracy.
Many collectors experience exceptional success in their primary work and a smaller community simultaneously live dual lives as exceptional collectors. Bill Gates is well known for this. Certainly, there are many world-class collectors today, evidenced by the breathtaking prices for paintings, sculptures and occasionally printed and manuscript material that are reported on front pages. The impulse to own the beautiful and highly significant seems to have deep roots in the human psyche.
While Morgan was not the first great American collector, his extraordinary financial resources, his self-confidence and his willingness to create epic spaces for his epic holdings, brought him fame for what he converted his judgment and money into.
What he received for his money were meaningful objects he achieved a deep sense of communion with. Not that a collector has ever needed to pursue the greatest objects to feel deep satisfaction, it is remarkable that a financial genius would achieve paramount stature as a collector. To collect deeply you need to understand deeply and to have that capacity is rare for fiscal savants and beyond rare to have that expertise for intense collecting.
Morgan The Magnificent has a celebratory tone. Interestingly, the better researched House of Morgan by Ron Chernow which was a recipient for the 1990 National Book Award, substantially confirms Winkler’s impression of Morgan as a brilliant, tough guy. For him J. Pierpont was a financial person as if the collector didn’t exist, probably because it’s close to unimaginable that two exceptional realities could co-exist. They did.
Both volumes can be found on the major bookselling sites. Buy ’em.
Morgan The Magnificent: The Life of J. Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) by John K. Winkler. Published in 1930. Copies start at $5.00 on Abebooks.
As to Ron Chernow’s The House of Morgan, you can find a copy on Abebooks for the price of a burger and fries.
As to what Mr. Morgan would say to collectors today. Reward yourself.