Sotheran’s: 250 Years of Bookselling
James Sprague in conversation with Beatie Wolfe
It’s rare that an antiquarian bookshop should have a history as long and rich as the jewels of its stock. But with Sotheran’s in London’s Sackville Street celebrating its 250th anniversary this year, it can justifiably lay claim to the title ‘oldest antiquarian bookshop in the world’. James Sprague tells Beatie Wolfe about an amazing history and the unique pressures of maintaining such an important name.
The normal quotation is something like, ‘You do not have to be mad to work here, but it helps.’ My take on it is that, ‘You do have to be mad to work here otherwise you would not have got the job in he first place.’ People do tend to get more eccentric, the longer they work at Henry Sotheran Ltd, so no hope for somebody like me who has been here for 30 years.
A family affair
Sotheran’s is a share held company and the shares are now owned by a family trust, two brothers and a sister. Cecil Sotheran died in 1930 and then Sotheran’s moved to Sackville Street in 1936. Almost every night I go outside and look at the façade and think, ‘Hmm marvellous shop.’ It really is awfully impressive looking.
In the beginning
The business started in York in 1761, where it thrived with a chap called Todd. They bought one or two important libraries, including that of Lawrence Sterne. They also had a print works – I’ve seen a copper engraved plate that was published by Sotheran’s and they did York guides – and they even sold wine. The basement was a wine shop, and the ground floor was the bookshop because there has always been a connection between antiquarian booksellers and alcohol. The interesting thing our archivist found out was that, Thomas Sotheran came to London because he had sired an illegitimate child, which nobody knew. Of course history does not record what happened to the poor woman and the child, because I think Mr Sotheran senior probably would have said, ‘Son, you’d better go to London.’ Originally Thomas Sotheran worked from a shop in Little Tower Street, and initially Sotheran’s branches were quite carefully geographically located to be on major coaching roots.
The war effort
If visitors look carefully they’ll notice the pillars in Sotheran’s actually have holes in them, and that is because the building on the other side of the road, which was a very famous print shop called Fores, was blitzed during World War II. As well as the chipped columns, our windows were blown out and had to be boarded up. They left some very small peepholes, however, so people could roughly get an idea of what was in the shop. This shop actually did quite well during the War because it sold new books to the troops – or books, which eventually ended up with the troops. I don’t think antiquarian books changed hands very much at all.
Interestingly, Sotheran’s old export department was very active at the time. We exported learned periodicals, mostly to American universities, and had a steady income, depending on the exchange rates. Also Sotheran’s used to be the repository for the National Library of Wales, which means that one copy of any book published had to be sent to the major holding libraries in this country, Scotland, the British Library and Wales. So at one stage we had every single book that publishers produced going to Wales. Both of these activities were only taken out of the formula in about 1990.
We had a very good team during the War because the people who ran the shop were either female – the woman in charge of the export department, who is still alive, actually ran Sotheran’s during the War – or too old to be called up. We only lost one Sotheran’s employee – a dispatch rider in North Africa, who had worked in the export department.
There was a chap who eventually became managing director who worked in the fire service in this country, so when he wasn’t doing fireman duty he came back. There was another chap who was in the navy in the fleet that sank the German battleship Scharnhorst; he came and worked in Sotheran’s when he was on land. Another interesting person who worked here was a woman called Ida Hertz, who was a German Jewess. The Sotheran’s team was suspicious of her and called her ‘Nun Frat’, as in ‘Non-Fraternisation’. Her claim to fame was that she had, from a very young girl to an old woman, an amazing correspondence with Thomas Mann, which is now in a German library or museum.
Shoulders of giants
I think Heinrich Zeitlinger, who wrote Bibliotheca chemico-mathematica, was the greatest person Sotheran’s ever employed because he knew all the answers. He did for science what Printing and the Mind of Man later did for books that were thought to be important to the development of mankind. Before he did these catalogues, I don’t think anybody thought about collecting science. Gentlemen were interested in collecting county histories, leather bound sets, first editions, but not science. During the First World War he was interned because he was Austrian and then by the Second World War he was too old to be called up.
When Kraus reprinted BCM, two of my former colleagues wrote that Heinrich Zeitlinger did nothing but catalogue scientific books, because I don’t think he ever sold anything. His great claim to fame was the sale at a country house called Thame Park. The auctioneer had lotted up the library and Zeitlinger realised that these were Newton’s books, which nobody else had twigged. After some time, Sotheran’s went back to Thame Park and said, ‘You’ve got Isaac Newton’s collection of books.’ We then took them on sale, and I think they started out at about £30,000 to £35,000, which was a huge amount of money, so they didn’t sell. It was only eventually when, under the Pilgrim Trust’s aegis, Maynard Keynes, the economist, decided that Trinity, Newton’s college, should of course have these books, and Trinity got them for a very small amount of money. But nobody really appreciated scientific books back then. Now most people wouldn’t get near one book, never mind the complete library.
After the War, trade was very good because of American gold reserves. If they were X before the start of the World War II, they were 2X at the end of World War II, which obviously came from this country and the Commonwealth. So lots of books were sold to Americans. Also because so many country houses were either being pulled down, destroyed or left to rot, death duties came into the formula, and there was a country house sale almost every week. There was absolutely no shortage of books to be bought.
High spots and low spots seem to go hand in hand, like booksellers and alcohol. One high point was when we became booksellers, by appointment, to the Prince of Wales, who would buy books here as gifts. Unfortunately a customer of mine bought one at Bloomsbury recently, which I didn’t know about, much to my great irritation. If I’m picking physical highlights from the shop’s past, let’s start with something everybody knows about. Sotheran’s commissioned the binding of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam [£500], which is relatively the most expensive book binding ever done in the 20th century. It is one of the most famous books in the world, but for all the wrong reasons. The book is horrible, the binding is over the top, but it went down on Titanic.
The book inside is pretty horrible, but the binding was leather with inset larch and studded with 1,050 precious stones. Somebody – not a member of Sotheran’s staff – reckoned the ship sank because the eye of the peacock feather is unlucky.
This book is both the biggest high point and greatest spot of folly in Sotheran’s history because of a man called John Harrison Stonehouse – HC Sotheran’s successor, as managing director. He was the one who said to Sangorski, ‘I want the best you can do. Things are marvellous, spend as much as you like. You can do what you like, but I want an Omar in a jeweled binding.’ Sangorski did it as asked and Stonehouse, who was obviously a bit of a joker, went to meet Sangorski in a restaurant and managed to pinch the Omar from underneath the banquette seating, so when Sangorski saw him he was very upset because he couldn’t find the book. It cost a king’s ransom, but Sotheran’s couldn’t sell it. It was like a Fabergé; the craftsmanship was fantastic and certainly could not be done now. Eventually the Rubaiyat was put up for auction with an asking price of £1,000. Unfortunately it was bought for just £405 by Gabriel Wells. He then gave the book to some wealthy young chap to take on Titanic, and of course the rest is history.
Sotheran’s managed to get Althorp’s complete library, including the collection of Caxtons, for £250,000 in 1892. The Caxtons were second to none and were sold to Mrs Rylands in Manchester because she wanted to build a memorial library to her late husband. What amuses me is that not only did Sotheran’s get the Caxtons, along with rest of the library, but they also sold them leather bound sets to fill up the gaps, which I think there is a pleasant symmetry about. Unfortunately because of our blitzing we have very little correspondence with Pierpont Morgan and the Rylands, but they have all of our letters to them.
After Dr Rosenbach, Gabriel Wells was probably the greatest bookseller in the world, at the time. In certain areas of book collecting in America before the Depression, mainly literature, the prices, relatively, have never been better. This was because you had so many robber barons chasing after one another to buy things like Shakespeare folios and quartos. Wells was in on this, and he and Rosenbach bought lots of books from Sotheran’s. He effectively bailed us out while we were in the confusion after the death of Henry Cecil Sotheran.
Sotheran’s gave the marvelous invention of Cosway bindings to the world. Named after the miniaturist Richard Cosway, these books either have a miniature under glass on the upper cover or they can be inside; the most excessive ones can have about 80 miniatures on them. It is an American market, like fore-edge painting, that the English are not really interested in. Sad to say, if books with fore-edges are used too much, they tend to ruin the bindings. Mr Stonehouse was the inventor, and the arch exponent was a lady called Miss Currie, who also did fore-edge paintings. Cosways still change hands for huge amounts of money, but they are not in the best possible taste.
Sotheran’s bought an Audubon’s Birds of America for a record price of £13,000 in 1959, and it is still the most expensive printed book in the world, at auction. This volume was left at the shop for so long that in its packed up state the packing department used it as a tea and card table.
The colour of money
One of our quirkier purchases came when Mr Sotheran bought up 30 tons of Gould stock, mostly bird books, although Gould did one or two books on mammals. I imagine everybody must have thought we were mad buying that. In fact we’ve still got it – not quite 30 tons, but it still rumbles on. We bought everything: the pattern plates, original watercolours, books and loose plates. During the Second World War some wag had the brilliant idea of putting uncoloured Gould stock between the glass windows and the shop, just in case a bomb did fall in Sackville Street. It never happened, but this was actually mooted.
Gould was clever. He would first do something through subscription, and then if he had enough subscribers he would complete the book. Being a wily character, he would create them in sections that didn’t represent any particular part of the book. So you might get the index in the first part, for example, which meant you really had to buy all of the parts. Gould had various works that were going on when he died, which Sotheran’s put their imprint on, and Bowdler Sharpe was a leading light in keeping it going.
We still get pages coloured up because we have the original pattern plates. But we differentiate between original hand-colouring and later hand-colouring because financially it does make a difference. There was a slight disagreement quite a long time ago because at one stage Mr Sotheran thought, ‘Well if we have these pristine sheets of unissued stock and we are the publishers, then we are just continuing the publishing routine.’ So if somebody said, ‘I want a Birds of this,’ we would colour it and bind it up. Mr Sotheran reasoned that if you buy old Gould plates then they are probably going to be foxed and dirty, but if you buy them newly coloured they are as good, if not better, and not foxed. It’s like you order a vintage Rolls Royce, but it’s made for you now. The main problem was Sotheran’s never really came clean about this, and just sold them. Then it all turned a bit nasty because bibliographically things moved on, and people wanted to know what was original hand-colouring and what wasn’t.
So now it is all very clearly differentiated and the original hand-colouring comes at a premium. Of course, once something is out of our hands, a sheet with later colouring can sometimes undoubtedly be sold as original. There is nothing we can do about that apart from putting needles through the pages with ‘Later Hand-Colour’, but that seems a shame. On the other hand all booksellers who had stocks of uncoloured sheets of colour-plate books had them coloured up and bound, and nobody ever really questioned it. It’s only since Lord Rothschild kicked bibliography into the 20th century that scientific bibliography suddenly became deadly serious, and quite well done.
Sotheran’s sold a Gutenberg Bible on vellum to Pierpont Morgan in 1896, which cost him £2,750. Interestingly enough at the same time they sold him a collection of Byron manuscripts costing more, which would not be the case now. And £800 bought you all 4 folios of Shakespeare.
Pillars of wisdom
Sotheran’s is now departmentalised, which is a comparatively recent thing, but the shop wouldn’t work if it weren’t. We have Natural History, Travel, Children’s Literature and Illustrated, Architecture and then Literature and Antiquarian in General, which includes anything that one thinks one can make money on, from signed cricket bats to busts, to original cartoons, autographed letters, posters, you name it. At one stage we had quite a thriving autographed letter department, just because we had the right person. What I’m saying in a roundabout way is that if Mr Big turns up and says, ‘Right I’m an expert on so and so,’ Mr Sotheran will say to him, ‘Well go ahead and do it.’ So our fields of study rather depends who is here at the time of writing and their expertise.
The other thing about Sotheran’s is that if one can see the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow, we will buy it. Mr Sotheran once sent TE Lawrence a letter asking if we could sell his subscribers’ Seven Pillars. A short while later, Sotheran’s letter came back, with a little red ink note: ‘Bog off! Get lost!’ And then it said, ‘Oh by the way my new address is so and so.’ Obviously Lawrence still wanted to be in the limelight. We managed to buy this letter back at auction in 2006 for the archive.
One day a customer walked in and said, ‘I’m very interested in TE Lawrence. Have you got a subscribers’ edition of Seven Pillars?’ Then about two minutes later somebody else walked in with a copy, so a member of Sotheran’s was sent to run down the road, catch the first chap, and after that TE Lawrence was big, big business.
I don’t know our target market. That’s not actually as stupid as it sounds, because up until 9/11, one could have said it was the Americans, which it isn’t anymore. Americans are traditionally very nervous, and since 9/11, mention ‘bomb’, and they all run off screaming. There was Lockerbie, there was 9/11, there were the bombings here and then there was foot-and-mouth, which is obviously not relevant at all, but I think it put the Americans off. So the American market has been flattish for a while, and especially since 9/11.
Footfall through the door is almost negligible now. June used to be the busiest month of the year, and it’s not anymore. January is a quiet month and August is a quiet month for obvious reasons. Apart from that you don’t really get many seasonal variants; there is no rhyme or reason to it whatsoever.
We have a specialist Architecture department, and what undoubtedly was beginning to happen was that people would just come in here, look at the books, and then go home to order them on Amazon. At the moment, people can fart arse about on e-Bay and think, ‘Oh jolly good we’ve got a very cheap book, we’ve beaten the bookseller down with the cost of the post,’ not content with having, on many occasions, got the book for a song.
If you want some academic work and it comes from Timbuktu, its condition doesn’t matter, just as long as the text is there. But if you were buying a rare book, you would be a fool not to look at it first. It does strike me as being the absolute end of the world that people are buying incomplete books online because they are grubbing round, hoping to get some super bargains, and often getting their fingers burnt. I think people will realise if they want super books, they may be lucky, but as often as not, they are going to get the book for what it’s worth.
At the moment the Internet works quite well because it hasn’t been with us long enough for people not to know what they want to collect. But you do need book fairs and bookshops to buoy up the whole business. The trade needs disciples spreading the word, especially because books have always been the poor relation. It’s easy to spend £6m on a graphic painting, but books need to be big bold and brassy now, which brings you back to colour pictures in catalogues.
The one crucial point about Internet shopping that I don’t think people realise is that if customers don’t know what they want to buy, they’re not going to buy it. That is why, as long as Sotheran’s can survive in this lavish West End premises, people will be beating a track to our door, just because there will be very few other bookshops. What with property prices, most small booksellers in London are not going to survive, and any bookseller in the West End has got to make quite a lot of money just to keep their head above water.
Sotheran’s did a lot of vanity publishing. I very often see books published by Sotheran’s that I have never seen before, and we have no record of them. The most recent project we did was a book on Rio Tinto Zinc, but that was the first in a very long time. We produced 700 Chess Problems by Mrs WJ Baird, which you rather guess was done for her, rather than as a breadwinner. We published a lot of John Guille Millais books; he was the son of John Everett Millais, the artist. We also did quite a nice book on orchids called Reichenbachia. So there are a lot of books with the imprint of Sotheran’s that undoubtedly were not commercially viable, but were done at the behest of a wealthy client.
Sotheran’s used to consider that we published all of the works of John Gould, which of course is not strictly true. We bought the publishing house, so obviously some of them bear our imprint. We sort of published John Gould, The Bird Man by Gordon Sauer, and then again sort of didn’t. It was published in Australia and we put our name to it for the English market. Everything you could ever want to know about Gould is in this book, but the index is lousy, and it’s impossible to find anything.
We do a lot of very odd things now that we didn’t do 20 years ago. But you have to keep moving because what you were doing ten years ago is wrong. We sold somebody a large collection of DH Lawrence over the years, but people don’t want to buy him now. What seems to be happening in book collecting is connoisseurship is disappearing. People want Harry Potter, they want Ian Fleming etc, and it’s very much in-your-face stuff, whereas at one stage we would have had customers who would try to collect everything that, say, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in first edition. Now they would buy Treasure Island, and Jekyll and Hyde, and that would be about it. It is high point collecting, it’s City meets bookselling, which is very obvious and rather boring. ‘Oh yes Jane Austen is on the telly and in the cinema, we’ll get lots of her books, and Harry Potter’s.’ We do a bit of this, because we have to, but it’s rather like selling leather bound sets to fill up libraries, it’s slightly depressing.
Antiquarian bookselling is difficult now; there is no doubt about it. We’ve handled some quirky stuff here, and it’s pleasant to do, just because of that. I remember once going to the saleroom and deciding I didn’t want any of the books. So I bought some signed cricket bats instead, which amused me at the time, and they sell. So you can never afford to keep your eyes shut, you have to keep changing otherwise you go under.
The one thing that does strike me is that you need to have a book that has a unique selling point. It needs to be in a one-off binding, it needs to be inscribed, it basically needs to be a non-internetable item because you look up what you may consider to be quite a rare book and you’ll find ten copies online.
So Joe Bloggs, tip tapping away, thinks, ‘Well there’s no need for me to buy that, there are ten copies out there.’ I reckon you need books that are preferably unique. One particular cabinet in our shop is a very good example indeed. It is a Bible, which was put into a converted regency Rosewood cellaret, and you will probably never find another one of those. There is nothing particularly special about the Bible, it’s the presentation, and the box is undoubtedly worth more than the books. So that is the kind of thing you need.
We still do sell books to America but the dollar and 9/11 etc put quite a big damper on that, however it is not necessarily the end of the future. I was quite gratified the other day to sell, for the first time ever, books to somebody from Mainland China. He came from Beijing, and there was a slight language problem, because he came in asking for a ‘Rock’ and eventually we got to ‘Locke’, which I couldn’t supply. Then he was asking for some obscure poet, and eventually I got there chronologically from his dates and worked out it must be the not-so-obscure Byron, so I sold him a set of those. Tesco may be trying to take over the world, but so is China. So one never rules out new markets. The other people that we are beginning to get are the Russians, who seem to go for glitzy goods. It’s bookselling of a type, but not so satisfying.
A chronology of notable events
1760 Founded in York
1763 Subscribed to the Baskerville Bible
1768 Purchased the Library of Lawrence Sterne
1815 Established in Little Tower Street in the City of London by Thomas Sotheran
1845 Launched series of catalogues Sotheran’s Price Current of Literature, present issue being 956
1862 Published a catalogue which included a copy of the first folio of Shakespeare for £53
1867 Charles Edmonds of Sotheran’s discovered Shakespeare’s 1599 Venus and Adonis in an attic
1872 Published Sowerby and Lear’s Tortoises
1875– Published Gould’s Birds of New Guinea in five volumes
1878 Purchased the library of Charles Dickens (two catalogues were devoted to its description)
1882 Purchased the entire stock and copyright of John Gould’s great ornithological works
1887 Published the Supplement to Gould’s Hummingbirds
1891- Published Sharpe’s Birds of Paradise, in two volumes
1892 Commissioned to create the John Rylands Library, including the purchase of the famous Althrop Library for £250,000
1898 Purchased part of the library of WE Gladstone
1900 Sotheran’s secured both the Halliwell-Phillipps Library and the famous Warwick Castle Collection for HC Folger
1901 Appointed booksellers to King Edward VII
1902 Introduced their fine series of ‘Cosway Bindings’
1906 Dr Heinrich Zeitlinger compiled the first of Sotheran’s catalogues of science books: Sotheran’s Bibliotheca Chemico – Mathematica
1907 Purchased Bishop Gott’s Library, Bibliotheca Pretiosa (No 671), which included a set of the first four folio editions of Shakespeare
1910 Commissioned ‘The Great Omar’, a binding which took Sangorski nearly two years to complete and was set with 1,050 jewels; it went down on Titanic
1915 Purchased the complete Philological Library of Professor Robert Atkinson
1916 Purchased the Library of Auguste Julius Clemens Herbert
1917 Purchased the important libraries of Sir Gomme, FSA and Bishop Gallaway, catalogued as ‘The History of Civilisation’
1918 Purchased the scientific library of Sir James Stirling
1924 Purchased the Major WH Mullens library of British Ornithology
1928 Henry Sotheran died. Mr Gabriel Wells purchased the business
1929 Siegfried Sassoon became a shareholder
1936 Moved to Sackville Street
1937 JH Stonehouse, manager, died on 27th August aged 72
1943 Agents for the sale of the ‘Sir Isaac Newton Library’, purchased through Sotheran’s by the Pilgrim’s Trust
1959 Purchased Audubon’s Birds of America
Beatie Wolfe is the new ABA web editor. The interview was published in the ABA Newsletter 361 (February 2011), and is presented here by permission of the author.
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