Published on 01 March 2011
One Hand on the Wheel
By Anton Gerits
In 1985 I was elected to the committee of the ILAB, the international umbrella organization then uniting the national associations of eighteen countries, now twenty-one. The problems a small national association like the NVvA has to cope with do not differ fundamentally from those faced by the ILAB. The committee consists of members from various countries, who, when they agree to join the international committee, are expected to let the international collective interests prevail over the national and/or private interests. These responsible positions are not subject to any payment, and compensation for expenses is only partial. By raising the yearly financial contribution of the national associations to the ILAB treasury bit by bit, and through a levy on the booths at antiquarian book fairs sponsored by the national associations, the financial position of the ILAB slowly improved. In 1996, just before I retired as president of the ILAB, I was able to convince a majority in the General Assembly to vote for more appropriate reimbursement of costs for future members of the committees.
The ILAB was founded on the initiative of the NVvA, under the strong influence of Menno Hertzberger, who in 1947 invited some foreign antiquarian booksellers from Denmark, France, Great Britain, the United States of America, and Sweden to Amsterdam. Soon everybody present agreed that it would be very useful to establish an international umbrella organization that would unite the various national associations with the aim of stimulating friendship among dealers from all parts of the world and joining forces for the promotion of old books, manuscripts, and prints as objects valuable for collectors and as retrospective information sources. In 1948, during the first congress held in Copenhagen, the ILAB was formally founded. All the countries represented at the first meeting in Amsterdam except the United States immediately became members of the ILAB.
An international directory, still being published roughly every two years, came into existence. Menno Hertzberger composed a six-language dictionary of expressions and descriptive vocabulary used in the antiquarian book trade. An improved edition appeared in 1994, now restricted to the four main languages -French, English, German, and Italian - edited by the Dutch antiquarian bookseller Edgar Franco (Amsterdam: ILAB/LILA, 1994, and still available through the national associations). For less experienced readers of German and Italian catalogues, which often contain obscure abbreviations, the ILAB published A Dictionary of Abbreviations Commonly Used by German and Italian Antiquarian Booksellers, composed by the highly esteemed American antiquarian bookseller Bernard M. Rosenthal. This work, too, is available through the national associations.
However much all the men and women involved do their very best to realize the objectives of the ILAB, it is still difficult to guarantee the ILAB committee sufficient power and authority. The problems national associations face in this respect do not differ from those that occur on an international scale. Minor conflicts between dealers from different countries are nearly always solved through the intercession of the national presidents, sometimes with the assistance of the ILAB president. From 1985 until the end of 1996 I was a member of the ILAB committee.
During the period when I was acting as vice-president (1989-1991), we were shocked by the discovery of the so-called "Texas Forgeries." This affair began with the counterfeiting of a document important in the history of Texas, the Texas Declaration of Independence, of which it was believed that only one copy had survived. During a rather short period of time several more copies of this document appeared on the market. A few university libraries had paid very high prices for these copies. It was the antiquarian bookseller W. Thomas Taylor who discovered that they were forgeries and that other, similar documents had been forged as well. He made his findings public, and in1991 he published an extensive and well-illustrated book on the subject: Texfake: An Account of the Theft and Forgery of Early Texas Printed Documents (Austin, 1991). The calm world of antiquarian books became even more upset when it became evident that a former president of the American association, John Jenkins, had been involved, maybe not directly, but certainly indirectly. He had sold several of the forgeries. Shortly after the case came to light he was found dead. It was not clear whether he was murdered or whether he had committed suicide. Anyhow, a bullet through his head had taken away one of the most important witnesses. When the commotion had calmed down a bit, the University of Houston organized a Symposium on the subject of forgeries. Experts discussed the various ways of discovering and fighting this kind of criminality. One of the speakers was Anthony Rota, honorary president of the ILAB. He spelled out plainly the honest dealer's duty in such cases.
Apart from the question of whether and how the ILAB could contribute to the fight against forgeries, the up to then calm and rather cosy community of antiquarian booksellers was confronted with a new reality. It was clear that prices for old books, prints, and manuscripts had reached a level where they were proving to be of interest to the criminal world. Many national associations as well as the ILAB started to organize lists of stolen books, manuscripts, and prints, first in print and later on the electronic highways. Closer cooperation between the booksellers' organizations and the police began. As a result, a considerable number of thefts were solved, and many stolen books were recovered.
About 1950 antiquarian booksellers started to leave the downtown areas and shopping centers of big cities and move to provincial villages. The shops they left were taken over by airlines, travel bureaus, employment agencies, real estate offices, and clothing boutiques, which could still afford the continual increases in big city rents.
The cost of rental space played a role in this new trend, as did the growth of so-called petty crime in the cities. Much was stolen from shops with stock open to the public. Two or three people could easily distract the attention of a solitary antiquarian bookseller and give a fourth person time to take books away. For a short period my eldest son had an open shop in the center of Amsterdam. There were days when more was stolen than sold. Soon the door was closed and visitors had to ring the bell. There are few antiquarian bookshops left where you can browse freely. Our freedom has become more and more restricted in spite of politicians' proclamations to the contrary. If you wish to visit an antiquarian bookseller with a large stock, you have to make an appointment; and if you are not well known, an assistant will constantly remain nearby to keep an eye an you. This may be one of the reasons why antiquarian book fairs attract so many people. All stands are, albeit under constant surveillance of visible or invisible security officers, open shops for a short period of time.
During my presidency of the ILAB (1991-1996) I only once had to handle a rather painful incident. It was a case already put before the committee by my predecessor. During an ILAB antiquarian book fair in connection with an ILAB congress in Tokyo, a dealer had responded to a remark from a colleague about the bookseller's high prices by saying, "That does not matter. The Japanese will pay them," or words to that effect. At least that was the complaint made. Very likely the exact reply will remain unknown, since the complaint was made only verbally and hence soon became, very regrettably, the subject of gossip and "confidential" letters. Japanese people often have a much better knowledge of languages than we are apt to suppose. They do not show their knowledge, because they are afraid of making mistakes. They are prepared to use a foreign language only when they are convinced that they have mastered the language fully. There are also a surprisingly large number of Japanese who can understand and read Dutch. For many years I had regular contact with a Japanese gentleman who studied the role of the Dutch East India Company (the VOC) in Asia. For this reason he had learned Dutch. However, he had studied 17th century Dutch, because that is the language of the original documents pertaining to that history. Hence, I received beautiful letters written in 17th century Dutch. From the autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa, translated into English by Eiichi Kiyooka (New York: Columbia UP, 1966), we know that Japan during the period of isolation from the West had contact only with the Dutch, who had permission to maintain a trading-station near Nagasaki. Japanese people therefore thought that Dutch was a language spoken worldwide, and Fukuzawa teils us how disappointed he was when he - after having taken such severe risks, because studying a foreign language was subject to the death penalty in Japan at his time - discovered that with his knowledge of Dutch he could not speak to the first Americans who landed in Japan under Admiral M.C. Perry in 1854.
Not all antiquarian booksellers were aware of the Japanese gift for languages. A Japanese visitor had not only overheard the remark I have quoted, but he had also understood it.
The complaint was made verbally, and that also is typically Japanese. It was made to the Japanese association, and the Japanese president had put it before the ILAB president. My experience with Japanese culture and habits had already taught me that the Japanese would never mention the name of the accused dealer. That is not the way a host treats his guests. They just wanted to issue a warning. Nevertheless, the indignation among the members of the ILAB committee was great. The committee's feeling was that the damage done to the reputation of the profession by this kind of incident should not be underestimated. The ILAB committee made an official statement of disapproval of the remark in question. Among dealers in The Netherlands as well as in other countries there was speculation about the identity of the anonymous dealer, who very likely had not expressed the official policy of his firm but rather had tried to save face in front of a critical colleague. If you have insufficient knowledge and hence feel uncertain about your own prices, you are vulnerable, and seeking an escape in strong words under such circumstances is tempting.
No sooner had I taken over the presidency of the ILAB than I made a new statement about this controversy at the first congress over which I presided, which was in Cologne in 1992. My aim was to stop all gossip. I explained that the committee did not know the identity of the accused dealer, but that there were reasons to believe that the accusation was true and serious enough to be concerned about. The statement once more declared how damaging trade practices and verbal bravado of this kind were for the entire community of antiquarian booksellers. There was no official written complaint, only a fraternal warning to be taken seriously by all concerned. The case was herewith closed, but the concern about bad practices remained, though I do not believe that there is any profession in the world composed exclusively of saints.
The objective of the ILAB is to represent a number of national associations of bona fide and expert dealers. In addition to the already mentioned limited authority, which is inherent in the national associations and the ILAB, no professional organization can guarantee that a member of the association will not act improperly. And that it is often difficult for the committee of an association to punish a member of its own organization is certainly not a problem exclusive to antiquarian booksellers' associations. That is why buyers who wish to acquire material about which they themselves do not have sufficient expertise do better to use the assistance of experts whom they feel they can trust. It is not always enough to make sure that the expert is a member of an association. It can be an advantage, because in case of a conflict you have the board of the organization to which you can make a complaint. It is always in the interest of such an organization to protect its reputation. Complaints from the outside world are taken very seriously and seem often to receive more attention than complaints from within the associations. However, getting recommendations from people who already know an expert and have experience with his or her way of handling requests for advice is always the best way for a newcomer. Nobody would ever think of buying a house without consulting a building inspector one knows or who has been recommended by trusted friends; nobody would buy a second-hand car without asking an expert for advice or having a mechanic check out the vehicle. Only when old books are being bought do people too often think they do not need advice.
In October 1992 on behalf of the ILAB I accepted an invitation from the Association of Librarians in Rumania. I attended meetings in Bucharest and Craiova. After the looting of the National Library in Bucharest by the Ceaucescu clan, extensive assistance was organised on the initiative of Dutch libraries and publishers, which was also supported by the ILAB. On behalf of the ILAB I addressed the librarians, and we (Paula had accompanied me) were guided through the destroyed National Library. We were shown the rebuilding plans and told of the financial problems that went with them. Our accommodations were in the hardly luxurious quarters of the former commanders of the Securitate, the Romanian secret police. What struck us most was the general feeling of discouragement. It indeed seemed a hopeless task to restore public life. It was hard to know where to start. Everywhere the streets were in miserable condition, everything was dirty, people seemed depressed, poorly dressed, and apathetically accepting of endless lines for poor and scarce public transport. We were constantly accosted by black marketers and sometimes even by aggressive beggars.
The Romanian National Library had quite a large budget, mainly originating from gifts from Western European countries. The librarians wished to use a major part of the funds for the acquisition of old books that were lost in the fire. I advised them to make a list of books they wanted to buy again. As I instructed, this list was sent by the ILAB secretary to all national associations affiliated with the international organization. It was remarkable that only a few companies made any offers. For at least two years at auctions and from dealers my son and I bought books appearing on that list, and we managed to replace quite a number of books. Some hundreds of thousands of Dutch guilders were involved.
We wondered how inactive antiquarian booksellers could be and still have good sales' results. The antiquarian bookseller who has no other income and for whom the sale of books and manuscripts forms the only source of revenue cannot permit him or herself to be lazy, but can often take advantage of the inertia of others. For us this affair had a special dimension because I had seen for myself the confusion among the Romanian librarians. I felt involved not only commercially but also emotionally.
Early in the 1990s the Japanese antiquarian booksellers' association tried to establish contacts with dealers in old books and manuscripts in the Chinese People's Republic. In 1993 a decision was made to send a delegation to China. In view of the historically rather difficult connections between the two countries, I was asked whether I could accompany the delegation as president of the ILAB, thus giving the delegation an international flavour. The committee of the ILAB voted unanimously in favour of responding positively to the request of the Japanese association. I thus travelled with the Japanese delegation to Beijing and Shanghai. The way in which we were received did not differ much from the manner common in Eastern Europe under the communist regimes. The accommodating young lady was always present as our guide. She succeeded in provoking much laughter among the Japanese but did not impress anyone. The way she combined her information with political statements also occasioned much hilarity. At the end of the trip she was praised and received a small gilt. With a little nod she left on her way to the next group to be guided, with travel facilities and culinary pleasures for herself included.
Zhang Yueqing (Clear Moon), the young woman who was my personal interpreter, fortunately provided more objective information about Chinese history and culture. I remained in regular contact with her after I returned home, and she even managed to visit us once in Amsterdam.
During my stay in China I made the acquaintance of another student, whose identity I shall not reveal because she could still become subject to risks under the present regime. For the time being let us call her Julia. I was able to accompany her on a few walks and visit with her the remains of an old Buddhist monastery, in one of which, Yun Shui Dong in Fangshan near Beijing, we saw a large stone library, that is, a big collection of large stones bearing old inscriptions. In the course of these visits we had time to discuss our different ways of life. She had belonged to the last small group of students who had left Tiananmen Square (The Square of Heavenly Peace) during the students' revolt of 1989. I asked her whether she would be prepared to take me to the square. After some hesitation she agreed to do so. She had not been to the square since the bloodshed.
It was obvious that she could control her emotions only with difficulty. We discussed the revolt at length, and we became friends. We arranged to correspond; we still exchange letters, now by e-mail. She visited us once in Hilversum and entrusted us with her diary from the period April-June 1989. It may make sense to give a short summary of its contents, because it differs in some aspects from the picture we got from the stories of Chinese students who could take refuge in the West.
Up to the beginning of the 1990s it had been the practice, she explained, that all students of a university after having completed their studies were allotted a job - not one of their own selection, but as a take it or leave it proposition. They were assigned to one of the governmental institutions or offices in Beijing, or in a remote village or frontier hamlet. If you refused such a job, you lost your official status, and the chance that you would ever find a job was next to nil. Students declaring in television interviews that they condemned Western society and were pleased with the Chinese way of life have to be seen in the light of these conditions. To be assured of a job, you could not do otherwise. A number of students who participated in the strike of March-May 1989 after the sudden tragic death of the moderate party secretary, Hu Yao-bang, who had done much to reduce the consequences of the Cultural Revolution, had asked the government to assure them that they would not be punished by being denied job offers. This guarantee was not given, and when the strike was ended the most feared punishment followed.
That was the reason a group of mainly first and second year students from Beijing University started a hunger strike on March 13, 1989. Students from other universities joined the group. From that moment on, Julia spent all her time on Tiananmen Square looking after the hunger-strikers. When it became clear that the government was not willing to accept any compromise and the strike continued, these young people were soon in a miserable state of health. Among the students who remained on the square to take care of the hunger-strikers, a number started to faint and had to be transported to hospital. One tried to commit suicide but was restrained at the last moment by fellow students.
During the night of 19-20 May the student union declared the strike over. However, some strikers still persisted. From that moment all attention was on the armed forces, which were concentrated in the streets around the square, ready to advance. That finally happened on the night of 3-4 June. The square had meanwhile become a symbol of freedom and democracy for the students. Julia and her group were pushed back up to the steps of the Monument of the Heroes. They sat opposite the Great Hall of the People, virtually a holy place for most Chinese. Beginning with their earliest education at home and in primary school, children were taught that the purpose of the Hall was to serve the people for discussing topics of national interest.
Things remained calm for some time, although fear and uncertainty reigned. Julia used these hours to write down on a piece of cloth her last will and a possible last greeting to her parents, brother, and sister. This text was recently recovered and entrusted to Paula and me.
Suddenly all street lamps were put out, except at the entrance of the great Hall, where television cameras stood ready. What followed then was in Julia's eyes the most disgusting behaviour you could imagine. While in the streets around the square students made desperate efforts to convince the soldiers that they should not participate in an attack on youngsters they ought to consider as their brothers and sisters, from the holy Hall of the People troops appeared, guns pointed at the students on the square. Even more dramatic was that - as she discovered only later - by then the students' leaders had already safely left the square. Wasn't it Rousseau who asked in his Les reveries du promeneur solitaire (1782; Dreams of a solitary walker) the rhetorical question, "Can one expect good faith from party leaders?" Generally speaking one cannot, I fear. They proclaim theories, rules of conduct, and requirements for other people. The loyal supporters, as always, have to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for them. Recent experiences in Europe and in the United States of America have taught us again that this mentality is not limited to any particular place or time.
According to Julia, after a not very clear announcement by Hou-De-jian, a singer from Taiwan, a small minority decided that it was wise to leave the square. When, after deliberation with the army officers, they left the square, they were hit on the head with rifle-butts. The last few hungers-strikers were then removed from the square by force.
The professional meetings we had with the Chinese booksellers' representatives were formal and plodded along wearily. The typical communist way of sheltering behind the excuse that everything was still in a state of reconstruction after the ravages of the ancien regime did not bring much hope for the future. Also the lack of somebody at the Chinese end who had the authority to make decisions was frustrating. Our discussions remained only an exchange of known positions and views. Zhang Yueqing helped me to explain to these state administrators in a non-provocative way that affiliation with the ILAB could only be considered when an independent Chinese antiquarian booksellers' association of private companies had been founded. The Chinese replied that they fully understood this and that they expected that liberalization of the trade, namely the trade in books, was not far away.
This first contact with the Japanese Association and the ILAB president was highly appreciated, and the Chinese delegation expressed its desire to continue the exchange of ideas. To prove their good intentions, the Undersecretary of Culture came to shake hands with us.
During the more informal meetings, around well-filled dinner tables and during visits to museums and libraries, the atmosphere was very friendly and relaxing. Of course I had to show how I could tie a bow-tie without standing in front of a mirror. Such acts are usually executed smoothly when you are alone, and turn into a kind of slapstick comedy when people are watching you. But this time I managed to give a perfect performance, and the applause and laughter were abundant.
The Japanese colleagues were able to buy a number of attractive Chinese documents and manuscripts, and we agreed upon further informal contacts between the Chinese delegation and the ILAB. Emphasis was put on the fact that liberalization of trade was at hand. I had invited a Chinese delegation as observers to the last ILAB congress over which I presided (in 1996 in Amsterdam). Through the Japanese association, which has organized a yearly visit to the Chinese People's Republic, the ILAB has followed developments, but a liberalization of the book trade seems for the time being still an illusion.
30th Anniversary of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of Japan (ABAJ)
The relations between the Japanese association and the ILAB had improved through this close cooperation, and my connections with the members of the Japanese delegation became more personal. Several Japanese colleagues invited me into their homes, and I was allowed to share their family lives during dinners where I could meet their children and sometimes also their parents. In November 1994 the ILAB president was invited to participate in the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Japanese association. The ILAB committee agreed to accept this invitation, and I very much enjoyed participating in the celebrations held in Tokyo. The international contacts and the quality of the relationship between the various national associations improved during my presidency. I was lucky enough to be able to take advantage of new technologies, which simplified and quickened communications. In this respect the world had become much smaller, and of course the influence of these developments affected the ILAB.
When I became president of the ILAB a problem with the German association was still smoldering and, in my view, had to be resolved in order to avoid serious difficulties with the American and Canadian associations. Antiquarian book fairs organized by the German association were open only to participants who were members of the German association. A foreigner who was a member of the association in his home country could, true enough, become a so-called associate member of the German association by paying a fee and thus participate in the German book fairs. The chance for a new member or associate member of the German association to obtain a booth in the German fairs was, however, rather small since the available space was usually fully booked. Once participants had obtained a booth, they had first choice every year; and as long as a firm made use of this right, very few booths became free for newcomers. Because in all other countries the book fairs organized by the national associations were open to members of all associations affiliated with the ILAB, the restrictive German approach caused much annoyance and even anger. It gave me much satisfaction that after a large number of discussions and some pressure from my side, firmly supported by Godebert Reiss, the dominant figure in the German association, but also especially by young German colleagues and the acting president of the German association, Dr. Christine Grahamer-Wölfle, the matter was settled. In October 1995 the first German antiquarian book fair open to members of all associations affiliated with the ILAB was held in Cologne. No Americans or Canadians participated, however.
Within the ILAB a new problem came up. American colleagues felt increasingly unhappy with the dominant role of the European associations. The American association represents about 25% of all the companies affiliated with the ILAB through national associations, but it is represented within the ILAB by only one association, the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America (ABAA). True, the larger associations have two votes in the ILAB whereas the small associations have only one vote, but the ABAA still always remains in a minority position. Within American society habits and an interpretation of what is democracy differ from the European way of acting and thinking. During the period of my presidency of the ILAB the president of the ABAA never appeared at a meeting with a clear mandate from his association. He could vote in favour of a proposition that was accepted by a majority of the ILAB members. Then at the next meeting American support might be withdrawn because the American president had not obtained majority approval for his decision within his own association. In such cases the American representative always preferred reopening the discussions because the former decision was in his view not democratic, since it was not supported by the ABAA. When the other national associations represented by their respective presidents refused to restart discussions on an earlier decision made by a majority vote, the Americans were quick to call the refusal undemocratic. Hence the position of an American colleague on the ILAB committee is rather precarious. Yet, all associations are always in favour of there being an American member on the ILAB committee. Not only do the Americans constitute the largest association in terms of the number of members, but also they have a gilt for practical solutions and a loyal sense of fraternity, and are known for their generous hospitality. In 2002 an American, Bob Fleck, proprietor of Oak Knoll Books, was elected president of the ILAB and has provided excellent leadership.
Because the financial contributions of the national associations to the ILAB are based on the number of member firms of each association, the ABAA bears a large part of the general costs. The Americans feel that for that reason they are entitled to more influence. But it should be remembered that they joined an already existing organization set up exclusively by European associations - yet it is understandable that they are not always happy with their relatively weak voting strength. A growing number of members of the ABAA, however, have a background - I will speak in more detail about this later - which makes it logical that growing ABAA influence within the ILAB is not preferred by all.
The dual official conference languages of the ILAB - French and English - form a constant subject of discussion. During my presidency the suggestion was often made to drop French as one of the official languages. The argument was made that young Frenchmen nowadays understand English well. Of course, having to publish and print all official papers in two languages requires a lot of extra work and money. Yet I have constantly refused to use English only. I wanted to serve my elderly French colleagues, who generally do not have a fluent command of foreign languages, as well as Italian, Spanish, and a number of Belgian, Canadian, and Swiss colleagues. Even more important, I feared that once French was dropped as an official language, British English would quickly be dropped in favour of American English, which would make communication again more complicated. Those who have learned English at European schools often do not readily understand American English, whereas Americans easily understand British English.
Another problem is that ABAA rules do not permit voting an whether someone can join the organization, with the result that the ABAA is open to those who are second-hand dealers of national scope rather than international antiquarian booksellers. There are more of the former than the latter in the ABAA, and hence they have a dominant influence. The result is that antiquarian booksellers of international reputation are not always eager to participate in the work of the ABAA committee. This situation influences discussion and action within the international community. In Europe the same problem is becoming more obvious. National associations have started to accept local second-hand booksellers as members. The growing number of members offers the associations more financial power, but the result is that within the associations conflicts of interest begin to become more and more manifest. The actual and prospective committee members of the associations have a difficult task, which will become much harder than the one we faced in the years of my membership on national and international committees. It seems to me inevitable that the ILAB and the national associations will have to face a restructuring of the organizations.
One option would be to create two sections within each body, one for local second-hand dealers and one for international antiquarian booksellers. Each section could have a committee and a budget of its own under an umbrella organization. This arrangement would insure that members would not have to contribute financially to activities of no interest to them, such as international book fairs and collective catalogues focused on the international market.
In the fall of 1996 I handed over the presidency of the ILAB to Alain Nicolas, a bilingual Parisian expert on autographs and the author of articles and an esteemed handbook on that subject.
The excerpt from "Books, Friends, and Bibliophilia. Reminiscences of an Antiquarian Booksellers", by Anton Gerits, is published on ILAB.org by permission of the author.
>>> Anton Gerits: Books, Friends, and Bibliophilia. Reminiscences of an Antiquarian Booksellers. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll 2004