Bruce Marshall's Pilgrim's Progress - An Interview with Beatie Wolfe
‘I strongly avoided what the Scottish booksellers most enjoyed buying and selling’
From vintage cars (how many rare book dealers drive an Aston Martin?) and guitars to Beslers, Blaeus and Goulds, Bruce Marshall, a major but discreet player in the colour-plate, natural history and travel book fields, reveals to Beatie Wolfe his pilgrim’s progress through the rare book world.
The Blues Brothers
I was very friendly with Peter and Adrian Harrington and outside of business we had occasional blues evenings. I played guitar, a bit of piano and harmonica, Peter and Adrian played guitars and piano. So, I have in fact played with ‘The Harrington Brothers’ – it sounds like a proper blues band, doesn’t it? One of the funniest episodes that Adrian told me about happened a few years ago before Adrian’s sons and daughter had moved out the house. Adrian had bought himself a superb, new electric guitar and was playing away downstairs, when he heard loud banging on the floor above, and then one of his children stormed down and shouted: ‘Will you shut up that row, we can’t sleep.’ That was the child telling the father.
I started off by collecting maps in Edinburgh in the late 60s early 70s. The first atlas I bought was a 1695 Camden’s Britannia, which I purchased from a very amiable company that was called John Grant at that time. They had a lovely shop located on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh. I went along with my wife, Jean, to look at the atlas, and the price they were asking was very reasonable for its value, so I bought it. We later became very good friends with Ian and Senga Grant. That started it all off.
In Edinburgh there was an auction company that is now Bonhams, was previously Phillips, and before that was a company called Dowells. Dowells was the main book auction house in Edinburgh and the auctioneer was a strong Scottish Nationalist who was reluctant to send catalogues further than the border, so I didn’t have an awful lot of opposition. The prevailing book interest in Scotland at that time was for Scottish philosophy and famous philosophy books, or economics, which was also a strong subject. Good travel books and rare atlases were constantly coming up for sale and doing rather poorly at Dowells, so I started to investigate what these books were really worth. I soon discovered that I could buy atlases for much less than they were making in London because these were the days before the internet, and the days before people sent catalogues all over the place. From there I started dealing in Arctic and Polar discovery, travel and voyages, and natural history. I strongly avoided what the Scottish booksellers most enjoyed buying and selling.
While I was attracted to voyages and travel and cartography initially, my main interest was in zoology. After learning a lot about the values of cartography, and voyages and travel books, I realised there was a vast difference between the books put up for sale in Scotland and the ones sold in London. I look back and think of the incredible books that were for sale, that have passed through my hands and that I wish I still had. It was such a different time.
Theatre of dreams
I bought the John Speed atlas The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine in Scotland, which was issued with its Prospect, A Prospect of the most famous parts of the World. I bought the atlas for a price that was really good value, even then, so that was an eye-opener in the sense of comparing bookselling to other businesses and occupations. There was enormous possibility in dealing books, and the fact that I enjoyed books so greatly meant that it was a pleasure to make a business out of it. Of course it’s not always like that, there are ups and downs during that beginning period because you’re learning, not just about books but about the commercial market. Books can be easy to buy, and then prove very difficult to sell, and that is the time when you need to be able to turn stock over fairly quickly. Money disappeared rapidly at the start, as it always does, and as it still does.
Some of the finest books that I have handled include one of the original manuscripts for a Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire; a journal handed over from Gordon of Khartoum to Evelyn Baring, describing the whole affair and situation just before the attack by the Mahdi took place – that was a hundred page manuscript. But perhaps the most interesting item that passed through my hands was a Pepys work. I bought a collection of Scottish family history material, and in among them was a Pepys memoir, one of the editions that was published in the early 19th century. It was annotated throughout in what I thought at the time was a clumsy hand, and it was in pretty shoddy condition so I put it in an outbuilding with a pile of other books that I knew would be difficult to sell. There it lay for about three years, until I decided that no one would want it because of its poor condition, and I brought it into the house with the intention of putting it in a small auction or even donating it to charity. I was very tempted to do this, until I studied it more carefully and noticed ‘STC’ signed at the bottom of every page. I soon discovered that it was a lost Pepys annotated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. So it went from being a nothing work left out in an enormous barn to something hugely important because Coleridge had annotated it all the way through, talking about Wordsworth, Shelley and other such poets. That was an important find, and it’s now in an institution as part of a collection.
Right now I’d say that ornithology and zoology – especially fish and shells – are far, far more popular than flower books are, but it fluctuates. I’m sure this will change, and there will be a sudden interest in botany again. It’s all just fashion and a mood that people perhaps tire of, and it depends on what collectors appear on the market. The botanical print market was colossal at one time because people all wanted flowers on the walls, but it was just a trend, and the same applies for collecting botanical books. First of all they are expensive, and you have to have a serious passion for them. There are far less collectors for books containing flowers than there are concerned with zoology, and it’s a much smaller market now.
Shaken and stirred
I don’t think the botanical market has collapsed, I just see it as quieter. Some serious foreign collectors appeared in the botanical market and these buyers did a lot to make the open market very exciting while they were active. When these collectors moved out, however, it left an upheaval in the market because the prices they paid dictated a value, and such values didn’t hold up when they disappeared again. Initially the most astonishing purchase that the Sheikh made was a 16-volume set of Paxton’s Botany, and he paid an enormous figure – well over £100,000 for something that people were selling for £5,000-£6,000, including Allard Schierenberg who had a set marked £6,000. There was a wealthy foreign collector who was so peeved at the Sheikh coming in and just buying blindly that he pushed him up to this enormous level. At that time the Sheikh was buying against the market, and believed that he was still paying the going rate even if he had to pay a little more, but in this case he didn’t, he paid £150,000, when the set has never brought more than £7-8,000. That purchase rattled a lot of people, and it seriously affected the market because instead of attracting serious collectors who will pay a higher rate and still retain interest in the market, it put them off buying entirely.
The map thief Forbes Smiley had a devastating effect on the map trade with a number of innocent collectors ending up with his stolen material and their reputation in question. Smiley was well connected; he was on the board of one of the libraries, he was very involved in the map trade, so people rightly believed he had good contacts, and he was able to demonstrate quite convincingly how he could come up with this incredible material. There were two booksellers who suspected him much earlier, one was Graham Arader, the other was Donald Heald, and Heald refused blankly to do business with him. I never bought a map from him in my life – partly because I don’t buy individual maps – but he did approach me at my booth in New York. I never did any business with him, and neither did Bernard Shapero, but there were a lot of people who did, and for a long time there was a question mark over whether those booksellers knew, and they were under investigation even though they were innocent. It had a devastating effect on the map trade for quite some time, especially because the collectors who were purchasing maps lost faith.
I don’t think the breakers are doing too well at the moment because the mood for the whole print market has changed dramatically. The recent enthusiasm for modern art has completely altered the antique print market, so now it has to be an architect like Piranesi to attract any real interest. The surreal quality of architecture means it links very well to modernism, therefore the mood right now is for modern art.
I’m not anxious to put everything that I own on my website because the unfortunate situation with the internet is that everyone can become an expert on a subject and forget that you are looking at condition, editions of books, rarity, rather than which one is the cheapest. Quite often the books that I own do not gain by being online because there is not a comparable copy. The moment that one such book is shown on the internet it becomes available to everyone. These books are like paintings, in that once they have been viewed a few times nobody wants to buy them because they have been seen. For this reason I avoid putting anything really interesting online. Sorry!
I regret a lot of the books that I didn’t buy, and there are many items that I sold that I wish I still had. Perhaps the most interesting thing I sold in my early years was an album of photographs that I bought in Scotland. I used to deal in photography when it was in its infancy, only a few people were doing it, and it was really small and exciting. At the time, there was this terrific book, Thomas Annan’s Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow, and only very few had the original series of prints, which used the albumen process. There was an edition with about 400-500 copies published off this myth. I was living in Scotland, and in touch with a collector who lived on the Isle of Wight, and from whom I bought illustrated books. One day I received a call from this collector, to tell me he had stumbled across a collection of about 30 albums of photographs. He listed various titles, some of which were very interesting, and I knew they were worth a lot of money to buy, say at that time £3,000 for all 30. I made him an offer close to that figure, and he was so delighted that he took a taxi with the books from the Isle of Wight to Scotland because he didn’t drive. Obviously his books were costing him very little, but he was so anxious to get this money that he took a taxi all that way to my house and back! I was delighted with the collection; there were some wonderful photographs, including a fantastic album by Felice Beato, which contained just over 100 amazing photographs of Indian princes.
Some colleagues who were dealers in contemporary prints and etchings used to come to Scotland quite often to buy photographic material and etchings. They bought this Beato album for what I thought was a strong price until I discovered that they sold one of the photographs for more than the price of the whole book. I made a colossal mistake with that, but I still did incredibly well. I sold the album for about £1,000, which was a lot of money then, but they sold the best photograph for about £1,000 on its own. Lots of things like that happened.
I bought a superb collection of travel books related to India that John Maggs had desperately wanted to buy. The collector, Ian Dunbar, and I had been very close; he came round to my house almost every day, and after his tragic death, Ian’s brother approached me to buy the collection. It was a terrible time for the family, but they ended up with the best possible price, and I’m not sure, with all due respect, that Maggs would have offered any more. In India, Dunbar had worked with MacMillan & Co, he was thoroughly engrossed with the country, and had built up such a fantastic collection – a library of about 2,000 odd books all related to India – including numerous presentation copies. I sold a large part of the Dunbar collection, not privately, but through Clive Farahar; he used part of the collection to establish Francis Edwards as travel book dealers again and for a while it worked out. This was when Francis Edwards was in London, before the company moved to Hay-on-Wye. He claims it paid for my next house but this is not true.
Cheap and cheerless
I presume a lot of booksellers say this to you, but I never bought individual books that I didn’t like, and I think it is very important not to buy something, even if you see some sort of commercial value to it, if you’re not wholly enthusiastic about it. You really can’t sell something unless you truly like it. You don’t go out and buy a pair of shoes just because they’re cheap or because someone else says they’re nice – well, some people do, but as far as books are concerned I think it is really important not to buy anything you’re not interested in yourself. If you don’t like the subject or the book, it means that you’re also not knowledgeable about it, and that is often a recipe for disaster.
The interview was published on the ABA website. It is presented here by permission of ABA President Laurence Worms.
Published since 27 Jan 2012