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What's in a Name : Some Collectors Judge a Book by Its Bookplate

February 02, 1986|BEVIS HILLIER

Every collector, like every fisherman, has a story of "the one that got away." In my case, it was a collection of about 2,000 bookplates that came up for sale at Sotheby's in London about 10 years ago. Bookplates, also known as ex libris , are the ownership identification labels that one sticks in the front of books. At their simplest and least valuable, they are mass-produced designs with a blank where you fill in your name; but the bookplates in the Sotheby's collection were all engraved or etched for particular clients. They dated from the 17th to the 20th Century.

Many of the 18th-Century bookplates were beautifully engraved with coats of arms surrounded by elaborate cartouches. One such was the ex libris of Nathaniel Hillier (no relation), who was known to me as a correspondent of Horace Walpole, the prime minister's son and a dilettante of the arts. Some of the Victorian bookplates were designed by well-known artists, such as W. F. Yeames, who painted "And When Did You Last See Your Father?" showing a small Royalist boy in satin breeches being interrogated by flinty-faced Roundheads--a tableau reproduced in countless jigsaw puzzles and re-created at Mme. Tussaud's waxworks in London.

I wanted that collection--not from mere acquisitiveness but because I wished to inspect the bookplates at leisure. (I also thought they might be turned into a book on bookplates, reproducing straight from the originals.) Sotheby's estimated that the collection might fetch about $3,000. (Of course it would be worth a lot more today.) I bid beyond that, but dropped out at about $4,000. The bookplates went to an English private collector. I wrote to him asking if I might visit him and look at the collection but received no reply.

I have always felt a rankling regret at not having laid my hands on that collection. However, I am a firm believer in the adage that if you want something enough, you can get it. If you don't get it, you didn't really want it enough.

I remembered my failure with the bookplate collection when a Los Angeles print dealer, Jerry Hawke, contacted me recently to tell me about a large collection of ex libris he had acquired. This was a collection quite different in character from the Sotheby's hoard, which was mainly of English examples. Hawke's collection was formed by Baron Rudolph von Hoschek (who died in 1969), from the late 19th Century through the 1950s, and is almost all of German examples. Many are by important artists, such as Max Klinger and Max Liebermann, and some were made for celebrated people--among them Albert Einstein, Richard Strauss, Antonin Dvorak, and Frieda von Richthofen, who married D. H. Lawrence.

I asked Hawke how he had obtained the bookplates. He had had a call from a woman in Glendale about a print collection she owned. He went over to look at it. There were 16 well-made wooden boxes containing four main categories of prints: portraits of the German aristocracy, from the 15th through the 19th Century; World War I recruiting posters, bonds and other material; 800 Nazi propaganda posters in mint condition; and about 10,000 bookplates.

The folders of ex libris were mixed haphazardly among folders of other prints, and at first Hawke didn't pay much attention to them. "Not only had I never taken an interest in bookplates before, but I had never seen one before--beyond joke labels saying: 'This book has been stolen from XYZ.' " He bought all the other prints and left the bookplates behind. But later he began to have that "one that got away" feeling. He did some research into German Expressionist artists. He checked out the bookplate collections in American university libraries. He was haunted by some of the "occult" bookplates decorated with skulls and skeletons. (There is a between-the-wars German kinkiness about many of the ex libris, some of which are flagrantly erotic.) Hawke went back to Glendale and bought the lot.

Hawke wants to sell the bookplate collection as a whole. He has not yet worked out a price; first, he has to find out what a Klinger bookplate is worth, and so on. The price is bound to be substantial. But it is possible to begin a bookplate collection with a small outlay--by buying up almost worthless books that happen to contain good bookplates. For example, picture a stray Volume 2 of a late-18th-Century edition of Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." Its back cover has been ripped off, but the front cover is still in place and bears a magnificent engraved bookplate--let us say that of an armigerous Irish bishop. You might be able to buy the book for $5 to $10 (it isn't of much use to the dealer without its companion volumes or its back cover); and lo! your ex libris collection is started.

Next stage: Buy yourself a copy of Fridolf Johnson's "A Treasury of Bookplates" (Dover Publications, 1977), the best modern introduction to the subject. The book traces the history of this minor art from its glorious beginnings in Germany. (The earliest-known bookplate is one for Hans Igler, South German, about 1470; and probably the finest bookplate ever is Albrecht Durer's woodcut ex libris for Bilibald Pirckheimer.) Fridolf Johnson carries the story down to some of the remarkable 20th-Century designers, including Rex Whistler and the wood engravers Joan Hassall and Reynolds Stone. He devotes a page to six examples of Stone's work. One of the last ex libris Stone engraved on wood before his death in 1979 was for me. I watched him engrave it, the flourishes on each letter executed with unwavering sureness. He did not maneuver the wood-engraving tool about on the wood, but dexterously moved the block about under the knife, on a leather pad.

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