Antiquarian Ramblings: The Obsession

This is how it all starts. The obsession.

Someone e-mails customer service. It’s an ARC book, featuring a Picasso lithograph. The email is forwarded to me, as I respond to ARC emails. Because I’m nosy, I look up the person making the enquiry. He is an art dealer in Beverly Hills. This is a very expensive book. That means a phone call.

I’m an infant in the rare book world, still happily grabbing at my toes and making delighted gurgly sounds when I find something cool. When I call the dealer about the book, I expect to learn more about the book than I will be able to tell him. I answered his questions; he suffered through my painful French as I read through the publishing information. I sent him a photograph. He bought the book. He also took the time to teach me why this book was important, what to look for in this kind of art book, and what resources would be helpful for the future.

So. . .
Being an infant, I’m insatiably curious. I start scouring the web for the resources we need for identifying these beautiful books. I learn what a “lithograph” really is, and who created some of the most rare and important lithographs. I sign up for a block printing class at the local art studio because, gosh, it’s a form of art-printing, and I really want to know how this works. I bought some old auction catalogues: Sothebys, Butterfield. I search our own inventory to see what kind of references- jewels- we have tucked in the warehouse.

So…
I’ve spoken with some other dealers who recognize the signs and say, “Yes: when you focus on one thing, we call that a “specialty;” it sounds more chic than “obsession.” People aren’t medicated for having a “specialty.” I begin to ponder the big questions. The book contains an important lithograph: does that make the book itself art? Does the lithograph have any value of its own, or is it only valuable within the context of the book? Can a broken book still be valuable for aesthetic reasons, when full value is obviously lost? Is there a line between art and book? What is value in this space?

And…
Picasso, Chagall, Miro: the giants. The publishers: some are the real deal, some could go either way, and some are mass market only. Will I ever be able to learn enough French to decipher Cramer’s catalogues – or even his website? I suddenly want to be poking around libraries, art galleries, and the internet; talking to other book and art dealers about this new and wonderful thing! How did I ever function in life without knowing any of this? I do not know, and shudder to ponder it.

This is how it all starts. The obsession. I am acutely aware that I have just scratched the surface, but it’s not just a category to me anymore; it’s a bona fide specialty. I love it. Other people in the ARC department are already on their way in other specialties: modern first editions, economics, medieval history, early 20th century fantasy, and more. It’s exciting, all the chasing and digging for that one nugget of information, which leads to other information. Which leads to an obsession. Excuse me, I meant “specialty.”

I’ve just received another e-mail, this one about an edition of a work by Albert Einstein. Wow- this may be an original printing…there are a few editions, but ours is unmarked…we’ll need some references…cool: this is by a tiny press; wow- this is the lecture he gave in 1920 at Leyden!

This is how it all starts.

–Tara Gilchrist

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