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In Memoriam Walter Alicke

By Barbara and Frank Werner


If you had visited the Stuttgart Antiquarian Book Fair about ten years ago you would seen when entering hall number 2 a six foot high pile of textile pattern books covered with a chain of blinking red lights. This pile belonged to stand no. 23, which, since 1973, was reserved for Interlibrum (Vaduz). The pattern books were from the 1930s and contained, as the owner of Interlibrum would eagerly explain, a rarity of the special kind: the first woven (!) representation in Europe of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse.

Walter Alicke’s business acumen, his enthusiasm for his profession, which fascinated customers and colleagues alike, and particularly his nose for the valuable, important and unusual book was legendary. It made him one of the most important antiquarian booksellers of the second half of the 20th century: he devoted his life and soul to his profession.

From 1984 to 1989 Walter Alicke was the president of the “Association of Swiss Antiquarian Book and Print Dealers”, for many years he was on the committee of the Zurich Antiquarian Book Fair, and he was a member of the ILAB-Committee for many years.

Born (2 September 1938) into a family of antiquarin booksellers in Dresden, Walter Alicke began his career in Frankfurt/Main as an apprentice at Minerva. After this he went on to work at Foyles in London, Hauswedell in Hamburg, and H. P. Kraus in New York. He continued to work for this famous bookshop when he returned to Europe: at Schumann in Zurich and Kraus & Thompson in Liechtenstein. At the end of the sixties Alicke founded the Interlibrum Establishment in Vaduz, his antiquarian bookshop, where he published over a hundred catalogues: many of them made original contributions to the history of the book.

Alicke’s catalogues are standard works for the reference library, and not only because all relevant information is to be found in them. The Interlibrum catalogues are more than “just” catalogues: They outline the history of a science by its most important and relevant books, and they tell, in the commentaries, the stories that made these books famous – including the epoch-making scientific triumphs documented in them as well as the anecdotes connected with the research, the books and their authors. Reading Alicke’s catalogues is a delight. No wonder that many of them already command premium prices on the antiquarian book market.

Printing and the Progress of Man, the name that Alicke gave to a series of catalogues in allusion to Carter/Muir’s famous Printing and the Mind of Man, was especially dear to his heart. He occupied himself with nearly every branch of science. His weas constantly seeking to present his material from a new or unusual perspective, and many are the books which he brought to the antiquarina booksellers‘ attention for the first time. From Alchemy to Atoms, a survey from early alchemy to chemistry and physics to nuclear fission. Pain, a catalogue devoted to this single aspect of medical history. And, of course, The Moon in Science and Fiction, the catalogue which brought space travel to the collectors’ attention not only by concentrating on the technical side of it, but by presenting, as the subtitle states: An unusual Assembly of Rare Books, Autographs, Manuscripts, Maps and Papers.

Without doubt it is to Walter Alicke’s credit that the natural sciences became attractive to rare book dealers and collectors alike. Space and air travel fascinated him immensely. Even in the sixties he still preferred to board a Junkers 52 of an oldtimer airline to be “wobbled” up the Rhine Valley back to Liechtenstein than to fly in one of the modern planes of an established airline. His enthusiasm was infectious. As always with Walter Alicke, this enthusiasm was transferred into catalogues. And though he was not the founding father of space travel, he became the father of the Fliegt-Mit-catalogues. If you ask the young colleagues, with whom he published these three catalogues at the beginning of the 90s, they will start to recount tales of huge collections bought together, of catalogue teams living together in a hotel for a week; of yardlong blueprints of rockets that needed whole corridors to be unrolled; of piles of Russian Pravdas scanned by Walter Alicke at high spped for any mention of Sputniks etc. He was the centre of this group project; its driving force and its focus.

Walter Alicke was always sympathetic to young antiquarian book dealers, and it made no difference to him, what kind of books they were selling, scientific books or others, expensive books or cheap ones. Alicke helped his colleagues whenever he could, and not only with good advice. He knew no barriers and was a great communicator in the antiquarian book business throughout the world.

He was a great antiquarian bookseller and a great “raconteur”. Anyone lucky enough to spend an evening with him will never forget it. These were occasions where talk did not centre around the best computer programme, the best data bank, or the best website, as it is so often the case when antiquarians meet nowadays. No, Walter Alicke talked about the essentials, whatever anecdotic roundabout route he may have taken: He was an antiquarian, who, like all the great personalities in this trade, told the stories of and about the books he dealt with – and this with a joy, verve and eloquence which is rarely found. One could learn so much about the business and the books from him, all you had to do was to listen, to marvel and to be amused.

Walter Alicke died on November 1st 2003 in Vaduz. All his friends and colleagues will miss him tremendously.

(This article was published in German in Aus dem Antiquariat 1/2004)

40th ILAB Congress and 24th ILAB International Antiquarian Book Fair


Find out more about the upcoming ILAB Congress in Switzerland in September 2012. Download the Congress Brochure and click here for more information about the Congress and the Book Fair!

>>> 40th ILAB Congress and 24th ILAB International Antiquarian Book Fair, Lucerne and Zurich, September 22nd - 26th 2012

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