The Works of Ossian
An Interview with Stuart Bennett
By Sheila Markham
I was the sort of child who collected things. At first it was baseball cards, comic books and then the novels of Jack London. It may have been in my blood as I had a great uncle who collected first editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs. When my uncle died, his family called in the local junk dealer and got rid of the lot. While I was a student at the University of California, I became interested in seventeenth century poetry and swapped all my Jack London novels for an early collected edition of Milton - the dealer must have been laughing all the way to the bank. I came to England to finish my university education, and started reading for the Bar in 1972. The College of Law was in Chancery Lane, and I soon discovered Hodgons’ and can remember the excitement of going to my first book auction.
There was a job lot of sixteen volumes of Greek and Latin classics which had caught my interest. Wilfred Hodgson opened the bidding in his usual way, saying ‘a pound for that?’, in a tone which conveyed genuine doubt that anyone would want to pay so much. I raised my hand and the bidding went up to £ 10 against me. After a moment of agony, I stuck up my hand and got the lot for £11. When I went to pay, Fred Snelling looked down from his desk and said that Quaritch were interested to know who had bought my lot, to which I replied `Who's Quaritch?' It turned out that they had missed their bid and were specifically interested in a translation of Aeschylus which was in the lot. For this they gave me £15, leaving me with a £4 profit and fifteen books.
The whole experience was like a glimpse of heaven. Not long after the sale, I dropped out of law school and tried to find a job at Sotheby's or Christie's. Christie's had an opening for a night watchman, and a five-year waiting list for a job on the front counter. Sotheby's were much more forthcoming and offered me a job as administrator in the classical antiquities department - but were unable to get me a work permit. After eighteen months of letters and interviews – during which time I was a night courier and pre-school teacher, among other things – Sotheby’s came back to me with another job.
In the summer of 1974, I went to New York to catalogue photography sales for the book department. It was made clear to me that I would also have the chance to catalogue books, and in addition to general book cataloguing, I helped with the catalogue for William Stockhausen's superb collection of English literature.
My first boss at Sotheby's was Gabriel Austin, a former Grolier Club librarian. He was not terribly pleased about my having been hired without his approval, and I spent my first two weeks in a windowless office reading books from Sotheby's reference library. One afternoon he came in and found me taking obvious pleasure in my task. I think he suddenly twigged that I really liked books and from then on he put me to work. I learned a lot from Gabriel, particularly about the scholarly approach to books in the context of an auction room.
Gabriel loved books and brought scholarship and ironic humour to his job. I remember when he sold the Stockhausen copy of Poe's Tamerlane for a record $123,000 in 1974. The bidding stopped at $100,000, and John Fleming called ‘a hundred and one’. Gabe Austin replied ‘I want a serious bid’, and after a long pause, Tom Clarke, the Americana expert, said ‘that is a serious bid’. Gabe shrugged his shoulders and the bidding went on from there in thousand-dollar increments. A few years later, at the Houghton sale at Christie's, Fleming did the same thing to Jo Floyd, Christie's chairman. With a similar shrug, Jo Floyd took the bid, looked across at Fleming, and said ‘for an old friend’.
In 1975 I came back to London to marry my English sweetheart. In the same year I joined Hodgson's which, unbeknownst to me, was just being reconstituted. Gone were the days of old-style Hodgsons’, selling the detritus from Sotheby's and whatever they could get. Instead Michael Heseltine was sent down from Bond Street to run specialised sales - modern first editions and illustrated books. After six months or so, I became a turncoat and went to Christie's to do photography and book sales in South Kensington.
The ‘70s were a wonderful time for photography sales, with practically every sale containing a new discovery, from the first photograph of the act of photography (Jabez Hogg in Beard's Studio, c.1842) to a unique assortment of Roger Fenton's 1850s academic studio studies. In 1976 Robin de Beaumont came in with a large rustic scene his girlfriend had found under her mother's staircase. My secretary, leafing through a Sotheby's Belgravia catalogue at a friend's house, discovered another print from the same negative, and our anonymous £5o rustic became H. P. Robinson's 'Old Dapple; and sold for £520. Such was our scholarship in those days.
During this period I started writing the auction column for ABMR which appeared, with a couple of hiatuses, for over ten years. I took over from Nalini Patel, otherwise known as John Collins of Maggs, and used Ossian as my pseudonym. When I eventually set up in business on my own, I saw no reason to stay pseudonymous and continued the column in my own name until 1989. At one time or another I managed to irritate almost everyone in the business - from a bookseller who told me he owed me a punch on the nose, to my Christie's colleagues and Roy Davids at Sotheby's who once threatened a lawsuit.
I was offered the directorship of Sotheby's book department in New York, an offer too good to resist. Unfortunately for me, the man who recruited me was supposed to replace, decided in the meantime that he did not want to go. Only when I finally resigned a year later did a member of Sotheby's executive committee tell me that my predecessor had told the committee within two weeks of my arrival that he did not think I was up to the job. The lesson I took away from that experience was that, however impeachable the source of a nasty rumour, there are always those who will believe it.
After York, I came back to England in 1980 to start my own business. It seemed the right place to be as I wanted to specialise in English books and had got to know the English trade much better than the American one during my years at South Kensington. In 1986 I moved to Bath and in 1989 back to the United States, where I’m now living in the San Francisco Bay area. From 1989 to 1994 I went parttime while I took a law degree and spent a couple of years working as an attorney. I think of those years as my mid-life crisis.
But I recovered and in mid-1994 went back to bookselling full-time, staying with my longtime specialities - I describe them in the ABAA Membership Directory as English literature printed before 1850, social history, satire, philosophy and literary controversies. Next year I shall be bringing out a sequel to my catalogue of 1800th century libertine literature which first appeared in 1985.
When I started my own business in 1980, there was a collegial group of booksellers I felt privileged to join, albeit in a junior capacity. Martin Hamlyn once called the book trade a fraternity, and it was true that those I most admired were men and that women booksellers were few and far between. Among my role models was Martin himself, who seemed to have magical capacity for finding interesting and racy books and whose enthusiasm flowed through his catalogue descriptions. Arthur Freeman, whose effortless scholarship made Quaritch's English literature catalogues works of reference and Robin de Beaumont who has an incredible eye for books as physical objects. This list could go on and on....
In the mid-'80s, I began to notice the increasing presence of the provincial auction ring which seemed to be working quite successfully to gain control of both the country and the secondary London sales. The ring was nothing new - I discovered that many of my colleagues had long since given up on country sales for the same reason that I was beginning to find them so difficult. I felt that the ABA, during the course of the '80s, increasingly divided itself into two groups, the ringers and ‘don't ask, don't tells’.
For a ring to work, you need a core of dealers who go to all the sales – Exeter one day, Ipswich the next and so on. This is possible in a country the size of England, but it is much more difficult for a similar network to function in the States: the country is just too big. Although I am sure that American knock-outs exist, I think American dealers find it easier to share auction purchases, and to cooperate in their cataloguing and selling. Is there a substantive difference in the two practices? Maybe they both depress auction room prices, but the American approach seems to be based more upon collegial courtesy than the combative 'us and them' system of the ring.
John Brett-Smith, a transplanted Englishman who owns Princeton Rare Books, once said to me that there was nothing better in the world than looking at books. I think that by ‘looking at books' he meant books at least potentially and preferably actually for sale, rather than institutionalised books which could be handled but not possessed. John and I suffer from the same collecting bug, a bug which many if not most of my bookselling colleagues are resistant to, and I think the resistance makes them better businessmen.
Certainly Steve Weissman of Ximenes Rare Books, whom I consider the consummate bookseller of his generation, has managed to sublimate his collecting instincts into his profession. He combines superb business sense - I have never been able to sell him a book I wanted to get rid of - with the very best type of scholarly bookselling.
I collect seventeenth-century English poetry in the most bibliographically insignificant editions available. If I can find, as I sometimes do, a less significant edition and preferably prettier copy of a text than the one in my collection, the earlier and more valuable edition goes into stock. By and large, my interests do not clash with those of my customers. But when they do, it is sometimes hard for me to predict whether, in the ensuing struggle, the bookseller or the collector will triumph.
Since this interview was first published, Gabriel Austin has reminded me that the increments on the Stockhausen copy of Poe's Tamerlane only went to $1,000 at $105,000, not the $100,000 I recalled. The bookselling world at the beginning of the twenty-first century is not too much different from what it was in the last decade of the twentieth. We knew there would be even fewer books, but there are some new, younger, collectors, and some impressive and highly successful independent women booksellers have joined the trade since the interview was published in 1994. My own business is still ploughing the same literary furrows as it did ten, and even twenty-five years ago, and the solitary ox/ploughman is attempting to get back into the yoke after two years spent researching and writing Trade Bookbinding in the British Isles 1660-1800.
In the original interview, I mentioned the forthcoming sequel to my 1985 English Libertine Literature. That sequel duly appeared in 1995, and its slated for 2005.
Stuart Bennett is President of the ABAA. He is specialized in English literature printed before 1850 (fiction, verse, satire, philosophy, criticism & literary controversies), and English children's books printed before 1850.
First published in Sheila Markham, "A Book of Booksellers. Conversations with the Antiquarian Book Trade 1991-2003". Sheila Markham Rare Books and Oak Knoll Press 2007, pp. 150-155
The interview is presented here, with our thanks, by permission of Sheila Markham. For more information see www.sheila-markham.com and www.oakknoll.com