Collecting Literary Treasures

For bibliophiles, creating a library of first-edition books is about more than just the written word

By GORAN MIJUK

Collecting books is about passion, not words. “There is nothing at all like the frisson one gets opening a book catalog and paging through, looking for treasures,” says Annette Campbell-White, a prominent book collector and venture capitalist from New Zealand.

[books1]Clockwise from top left, The Morgan Library & Museum (2); The Bridgeman Art LibraryClockwise from top, detail of the Gutenberg Bible; John Leech’s ‘Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball,’ an original watercolor illustration for the 1843 first edition of Charles Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol,’ which was bought by J.P. Morgan Jr. in 1934, and the cover of the same book. 

When she sold part of her library, which included first editions such as James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Marcel Proust’s “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu” in 2007 at auction house Sotheby’s in London for about £1.28 million, it was because she had lost interest in some of them. “I realized that I had a wonderful collection,” says Ms. Campbell-White, who focused on books that were related to the list of 100 important modern novels picked by English critic Cyril Connolly in his 1965 work “The Modern Movement.” “But a number of books and authors in my collection were there just because they belonged on the list. They were like cuckoos in the nest of my bookshelf. The collection had become valuable, but it didn’t represent anymore where my tastes were evolving.” A smaller library gave her a fresh opportunity to reignite her collecting drive and develop a more personal theme. When she recently bought a drawing by French artist Jean Cocteau of French author Raymond Radiguet, which was made when the two had a love affair in 1921, her passion was back. “And that’s the thing—the idea of collecting drawings, portraits, even letters and inscribed books and manuscripts by authors I care about is deeply interesting to me.”

Collecting books dates back to antiquity and is continuing to kindle hearts in our day even as we are witnessing the impact of the digital age on the centuries-old printing trade. Electronic publishing is crippling book prices, but provides collectors with a new channel to find their treasures more easily. The desire to obtain wisdom in paper form—which Italian writer and collector Umberto Eco calls “vegetable memory”—builds the noble root of bibliophilism. But for a collector, first and rare editions are valuable and significant because they put a work in its exact historical context, giving them a romantic meaning that goes beyond the words printed on the page. For many collectors, it is as if history is becoming alive and they are able to travel to the past.

Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 B.C.-322 B.C.) is considered one of the first bibliophiles to have amassed manuscripts and parchment roles to gather knowledge that would illuminate his own writing. His example inspired Roman intellectuals such as Cicero (106 B.C.-43 B.C.) and shined into the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when Italian poet Petrarch (1304-74) embarked on a humanist quest to build a library of around 200 anthologies during his 70-year life. Although the Tuscan writer’s wish to keep his library intact in Venice after his death remained unfulfilled, later bibliophiles had more success in establishing important libraries that helped spread and deepen knowledge that lifted Europe out of the Dark Ages. Among them were the French kings Louis XII (1462-1515) and Francis I, (1494-1547), whose collections constituted the core of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Others were the English writer Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), who bequeathed his famous diaries and some 3,000 volumes to the Magdalene College in Cambridge, or Cosimo and Lorenzo de’ Medici, the rulers of Florence, who in 1571 built the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, now considered one of the most precious libraries in the world.

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Andrew Test/The Wall Street JournalCollector Annette Campbell-White holds a recent acquisition

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Rene BraginskyThe 1288 legal code ofrabbinic scholar Moses ben Jacob of Coucy, owned by Rene Braginsky 

Biblioteca Medicea LaurenzianaBiblioteca Medicea Laurenziana

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[4webooks0104]Sotheby’sA page from ‘Birds of America’ by John James Audubon. 

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Sotheby’sA first edition of Marcel Proust’s ‘A la Recherche du Temp Perdu’ 

While the love for wisdom has inspired many collectors, their success as compilers of knowledge was almost always a question of money. “A library of wisdom…is more precious than all wealth,” Richard de Bury (1287-1345) wrote in his “Philobiblon,” one of the first guides to book collecting and librarianship. “Whoever therefore claims to be zealous of truth…must needs become a lover of books.” But the bishop’s love for books was so excessive and bordering on bibliomania that when he died only one year after completing his guide in 1344, he left a pile of debt that stemmed from his unrestrained lust to collect. His library, intended to stay in Oxford, was sold.

Much more successful was U.S. financier J. Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), who had the financial prowess to spend nearly $1 billion in today’s terms on art and books during his life. The Morgan Library & Museum in New York includes highlights such as the circa 1450-55 Gutenberg Bible, the first printed book from movable type in the West; the sole surviving manuscript copy of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”; the 1843 manuscript of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”; and Henry David Thoreau’s journal that the writer started in 1845, part of which would later inspire his famous novel “Walden.” Morgan’s drive to collect enriched the U.S. cultural scene and many contemporary collectors are equally keen to publicize their private treasures and share the knowledge and wisdom that often took years to build, requiring money, patience and a meticulous study of the subject matter and the book market.

“About two or three years ago, I realized that I had a large collection and decided I wanted to make it public and share my legacy with others,” says Rene Braginsky, a Swiss private-equity investor of Jewish origin. His library includes illuminated manuscripts and printed books of Jewish interest. He says he started to collect to better understand his culture’s past. Mr. Braginsky’s family, originally from an area in modern-day Ukraine, arrived in Switzerland some 100 years ago. His collection, which includes around 600 items, has been exhibited in Amsterdam and New York, and will be displayed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem until April 19. While experts say that one of the most sought-after items in the collection is the 1288 legal code of Moses ben Jacob of Coucy, a rabbinic scholar, Mr. Braginsky says he has no preferred pick, adding that his collecting is based on his private penchant for “the beauty of illuminated books.”

“I usually have good gut feeling when I decide to buy an item,” he says. “Of course, I have the help of a scholar, for example to establish the correct origin of a book. But when one collects over so many years, one becomes an expert oneself too.”

When he started out to acquire books some 30 years ago, Mr. Braginsky learned to appreciate the collectors’ world the olden way, going to bookstores, browsing catalogs of antiquarian and specialized booksellers and participating at auctions, often waiting years to get in possession of the book he wanted. While he tapped the knowledge of experts, he never tired of doing his homework to get the edition he wanted.

A good general entry into the field is “How to Buy Rare Books” by William Rees-Mogg; “A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes and the Eternal Passion for Books” by Nicholas A. Basbanes; and “ABC for Book Collectors” by Nicolas Barker and John Carter. Full of collectors’ anecdotes and wisdom, they offer the information needed to feel comfortable with creating a personal library that doesn’t have to be full of expensive first editions. From there, the quest to collect is a private venture that will be dictated by finances, stamina, luck and personal interest that may span classical literature, books on history, travel, cooking or drinks, science fiction or comics, and may include visits to the flea market or specialized stores. “Go where your literary interests lie, but also where your personal interests go,” Ms. Campbell-White tells prospective collectors.

“It was of course in a bookstore that my fascination for collecting books started,” says Hans-Georg von Arburg, a professor of German literature at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. “But over time, my area of interest became more specific and I had to look elsewhere.” Mr. von Arburg collects encyclopedias and also has a penchant for complete editions, usually of writers “one needs to have,” such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Once the secondhand shops became too small to feed his hunger for books, Mr von Arburg started to participate in auctions in Germany and Switzerland.

But with the rise of the Internet, he has started tapping into websites such as http://www.zvab.com, which provide access to several thousand antiquarian bookstores. Equivalents in the English-speaking world are http://www.ilab.org, the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers; http://www.abebooks.com; or at online bookstore Amazon, where secondhand bookstores also sell their rare items. “It has made collecting easier and sometimes cheaper, but it’s not the same,” Mr. von Arburg says.

While simplifying the life of collectors, the Internet has put stress on many booksellers. “Compared to the 1990s, sales have halved,” says Goetz Perll, owner of the ABC Antiquariat in Zurich, which specializes in books on socialism and on Switzerland. “Of course, one can find a potential buyer more quickly, but the price of many books has fallen dramatically.”

While it is true that prices for first editions of many books of lesser-known writers have fallen in recent years—German writer Alfred Andersch’s “Sansibar oder der Letzte Grund” cost about $150 dollars a decade ago and can now be bought for about $30, prices for coveted items such as “Ulysses” have evolved in a stable fashion, says Peter Selley, senior director and auctioneer at Sotheby’s, which this week sold William Shakespeare’s 1623 “First Folio” for £1.5 million and John James Audubon’s “Birds of America” for £7.3 million, the most expensive book ever to be sold. At a 1992 auction at Christie’s, the richly illustrated book was auctioned for $4.07 million.

But while Shakespeare, Audubon and the Gutenberg Bible, which in 1987 netted around $5.4 million, are the top highlights of the trade, prices for most other books are performing reasonably. This may be because “collectors tend to buy the books because they love them, not so much with an eye to investment,” Mr. Sellsey says. “Compared to works of art, which can be displayed, books tend to be a solitary pleasure.”

Write to Goran Mijuk at goran.mijuk@dowjones.com

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