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book collecting,or bibliophily, the acquiring of books that are, or are expected to become, rare and that possess permanent interest in addition to their texts. Collecting has traditionally concentrated on first editions in the field of pure literature.
Contemporary accounts mention personal manuscript collections in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome; because manuscript media—scrolls and papyri—were scarce and expensive (and illiteracy general), collecting was confined to religious leaders and heads of state. During the Middle Ages monastic institutions were the main accumulators of valuable manuscripts.
Book collecting proper began after the invention of movable type (c.1437) and the proliferation of inexpensive books. The aim of early collectors, such as Willibald Pirkheimer (1470–1530) and Jean Grolier de ServièresGrolier de Servières, Jean, vicomte d'Aguisy
, 1479–1565, French bibliophile. Grolier served Francis I as government treasurer and was later ambassador to Italy. There he met the printer Aldus Manutius and began collecting books.
..... Click the link for more information. , was to assemble personal working libraries. Many early collections became the cornerstones of public libraries. The Bodleian LibraryBodleian Library
, at the Univ. of Oxford. The original library, destroyed in the reign of Edward VI, was replaced in 1602, chiefly through the efforts of Sir Thomas Bodley, who gave it valuable collections of books and manuscripts and in his will left a fund for maintenance.
..... Click the link for more information. at Oxford and the Harleian LibraryHarleian Library
, manuscript collection of more than 7,000 volumes and more than 14,000 original legal documents, formed by Robert Harley, 1st earl of Oxford, and his son Edward, 2d earl of Oxford.
..... Click the link for more information. of the British Museum were founded respectively on the private collections of Sir Thomas Bodley and Robert Harley, 1st earl of Oxford. By the end of the 17th cent., book auctioning was common throughout Europe.
In the 18th cent. collectors shifted their focus from building up libraries to seeking original editions, including incunabulaincunabula
, plural of incunabulum
[Late Lat.,=cradle (books); i.e., books of the cradle days of printing], books printed in the 15th cent. The known incunabula represent about 40,000 editions.
..... Click the link for more information. , of earlier works. At first criteria were more visual than literary: early printing, fancy binding, and colorful illumination. Richard Heber (1773–1833), whose collection of first editions of literature and history filled several houses, was one of the first collectors to consider contextual factors primary.
During the 19th cent. first editions of native contemporary literature began to attract book collectors. The two most notable collectors of the second half of the century were Henry Huth (1815–78), an Englishman, and Robert Hoe, the first important American collector. In 1884 Hoe became the first president of the newly founded Grolier Club, a New York-based society dedicated to the appreciation of fine book production. The three greatest American book collectors were Henry Clay FolgerFolger, Henry Clay
, 1857–1930, American industrialist and collector of Shakespeareana. His connection with Standard Oil companies, beginning in 1879, continued until his retirement 49 years later as chairman of the board of the New York company.
..... Click the link for more information. , John Pierpont Morgan (see under MorganMorgan,
American family of financiers and philanthropists.
Junius Spencer Morgan, 1813–90, b. West Springfield, Mass., prospered at investment banking. As a boy he became a dry-goods clerk in Boston; later he entered a brokerage house in New York City.
..... Click the link for more information. family), and Henry E. HuntingtonHuntington, Henry Edwards,
1850–1927, American financier, b. Oneonta, N.Y. He was prominent in railroad and other enterprises. Until the death of his uncle, Collis P. Huntington, the two were business associates. His estate at San Marino, near Pasadena, Calif.
..... Click the link for more information. . During the 20th cent. book collecting on the massive scale practiced by Huntington has declined. Institutional libraries now vie with private collectors for rare books dispersed by auction and through antiquarian bookshops.
Approaches and Costs
The three traditional approaches to collecting first editions are the author collection, the subject collection, and the cabinet collection. This last is a collection of deliberately small size (originally a single bookcase) designed to represent the epitome of one bibliophilic category, such as 15th-century French illumination. The most valuable first editions are of literary classics and early or obscure works of famous authors. The desirability of the first edition is based not only on speculative but also on historical considerations; a first edition is one step from a manuscript. Book collectors use points, such as broken type and text excisions, to distinguish between different issues of first editions.
Modern collectors who cannot afford first editions—Poe's Tamerlane (Boston, 1827) generated $165,000 at an auction in 1990—collect in peripheral fields. Such fields include Americana; books illustrated by famous artists; early books on natural history (especially those with colored plates); books printed by such noted private presses as the Kelmscott PressKelmscott Press,
printing establishment in London. There William Morris led the 19th-century revival of the art and craft of making books (see arts and crafts). The first book made by the press was The Story of the Glittering Plain (1891), by William Morris.
..... Click the link for more information. , the Cuala PressCuala Press
, private printing press founded in Dundrum, Ireland, in 1902 by Elizabeth and Lily Yeats, the sisters of William Butler Yeats. Called the Dun Emer Press until 1908, it began as part of a larger company whose purpose was to provide employment for Irish women.
..... Click the link for more information. , and the Nonesuch PressNonesuch Press,
private press founded in London in 1922 by Francis Meynell and David Garnett. Unlike most private presses, Nonesuch designs the books it publishes on its own small press but has production done by selected commercial firms.
..... Click the link for more information. ; early books recounting travel and exploration; ancient manuscripts; and letters. Some books in these fields, sold at auction houses such as Christie's and Sotheby's, bring substantial prices. For example, John James Audubon's The Birds of America was sold at Christie's in New York for $4.07 million dollars in 1992, a record price for both an illustrated book and a printed piece of Americana.
Information on the existence, location, and prices of collector's items can be found in author bibliographies, dealer and auction catalogs, and book-collecting periodicals such as The Colophon (1930–50), The Book Collecting World, and the Antiquarian Bookman. American Book Prices Current (published annually since 1895) lists titles and prices of books sold at important auctions in the United States, Britain, and Canada.
See J. T. and D. A. Randall, A Primer of Book Collecting (rev. ed. 1966); J. Carter, Books and Book Collecting (1957), and Taste and Technique in Book Collecting (1948, repr. 1970).