Don Heald: A Perspective
Donald Heald in his domain
When Lewis and Clark went west, they did not go alone. They had a guide. When astronauts go into space, they have a team. They are not always sure what they will find but prepare for what they may encounter. For serious collectors of printed materials, the greatest have also sought guides; Sabin to help William Menzies and Henry Murphy, Wilberforce Eames for James Lenox, George Smith and A. S. W. Rosenbach to help Henry Huntington, Peter Decker for Fritz Beinecke, H.P. Kraus for his brother Edwin, the Eberstadts for Thomas Streeter, Ken Nebenzahl for his son Frank. These and many others relied on one or a few dealers to chart their collecting paths.
Such collectors are themselves rare. They embrace a perspective and pursue it for decades. More try than succeed, though, because the pitfalls and chimera are many. Success requires steely discipline and patience, coupled with the belief that relevant material eventually will come to market. When less disciplined, collectors often broaden their perspective to accomodate less germane material, and in that way lose focus that once undone, is difficult to restore.
Three years ago, I had a cup of coffee with Donald Heald, the important American rare book dealer, at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles during the ABAA’s biennial show in Southern California. His memory is storied, but that morning he spoke of an unusual skill—of being able to inhabit a collector’s perspective and, without notes or references, turn the collector’s interests into a sequence of printed items to be pursued over a lifetime, presenting exhilarating challenge, and in time, become a remarkable collection. Armed early with such perspective, a collector’s first decisions could lay the foundation for serious pursuit. Without such perspective, the sheer volume of possibilities makes success less likely.
About this, some dealers may say this is not particularly unique, that many competent dealers can outline a strategy and fill in spaces, if not from memory, then from diligent study. But how often will they place a collector’s interests ahead of their own, suggesting goals and possibilities that defer rather than encourage purchases? In my experience, this is uncommon but not impossible and is often crucial to collecting successfully.
Such an approach—getting the collecting map laid down early—potentially sets the path, if not the arc. Along the way, life will intervene, but if the path is true, the other variables, time, opportunity and money, will be simpler to manage. Absent a plan unchecked collecting ambitions will sprout like weeds. It's that important then to have a plan.
Don Heald: A Perspective
Donald Heald [left], Jeremy Markowitz [right]
With all this in mind, and on short notice when recently in New York, I called Donald and asked if I could come by. “Absolutely,” and a time was appointed. Arriving at a stylish [Georgian] brownstone on the Upper East Side, I was buzzed into the world of Donald Heald, a private club setting where books long ago declared themselves masters of the house. Around them, Jeremy Markowitz, right hand man and whet to Donald’s blade, brought me up to Donald’s office, the entire second level where the old man, like a bee in late spring honeysuckle, was ensconced in a library a king could wish his own.
Reminding Donald of our conversation years before, he began by asking a few questions about my collecting and then launched into a journey through the collecting of important books, gracefully interweaving my interest, Hudson Valley material, that he had in stock. When books touching my focus chanced among his exceptional copies of exceptional books, he seamlessly slipped them in: condition rarities, association copies, and in one case, a terribly special large paper pre-press copy of Bartlett’s American Scenery (an otherwise very nice and quite common two volume set). His copy struck me as a lightning rod of discernment, a stellar example, a metaphor for the Heald approach to collecting, a one of a kind.
The conversation veered toward condition, and books came down in piles to illustrate differences, relevance to collecting subjects, the depth of color, the width of margins, exceptional bindings, and provenance, the explanations seemed both clear and logical, from my own experience differences difficult to discern in the perpetual twilight of dealer and auction descriptions. Copies on specific and often special papers, their stories and a copy's importance, how it fits, and why - altogether suggest the complex alchemy of a collection that will be crucial when in future, these books, today inhaled, become the coherent collection disgorged. Books always return to the market, if not quickly, then a generation or two later, when even libraries tire of the burden. And when they do, these logically connected, best, and unique copies, if the architect has done their job, will be prized —for as the market affirms year after year, the best do best: in a nutshell, the Heald perspective.
Don Heald: A Perspective
Books and rare things about books
So where to begin?
For starters, there are subjects that will better endure and a few that will prosper, and within these subjects, copies that will increase in value, while others decline. Donald has a strong feeling about these things. But his taste is such that when collecting subjects veer beyond what he owns, he still applies the same standards. The copies he recommends will be the important ones, and he’ll inevitably suggest waiting rather than settling, though it adds years to the wait and sometimes zeros to the price. Significance, he believes, should always matter because it multiplies options at dispersal. It’s important advice, although difficult to accept, because collecting has deep emotional underpinnings that express themselves as urgency to buy. To this Donald rejoins, settling is costly.
This said, collecting printed material does not begin with a Gutenberg; it would more likely complete an exceptional effort pursued over decades. And of course, few collections, although they become great examples, will ever need or contemplate such valuable material. Important collections sent to auction as single owner sales may bring $400,000 to $10,000,000, with a median value (at today’s realizations) of about $1.3 million. Greatness, it turns out, is relative, quality comparative, and this why the greatest collections are often collector-dealer collaborations. The dealer’s years of experience shape and sharpen such collections in ways a collector will appreciate only years later.
Within collecting disciplines, there are all kinds of exceptional efforts. My collection of more than 3,000 printed items relating to the history of the Hudson Valley may be worth a million, a collection of early Shakespeare, perhaps 20 prized items altogether $20 million. With so many books and printed examples to consider, there will always be possibilities.
In my view, then when starting a collection, selecting a dealer as advisor and architect will prove more important than buying any initial books. Setting the keel is that important. When the day eventually comes to disperse, if the collection is coherent, the material appealing, and the examples exceptional, the welcome will be warm. In the process, a few of the determined will build not only a collection; they will build a reputation, or as is said in the trade, a name.
This, then, is something to think about when reaching for an interesting book, and if your desire exceeds your knowledge, think to ask who can explain how this single volume will fit into a pattern of purchases that in time becomes a collection.
From Mr. Heald, here are ten examples of books he believes will look as desirable in future as they are today. They connect to many potential collections. If one of these items intersects with your interests, I recommend speaking to your dealer about it for their perspective. And of course, it goes without saying you can contact Mr. Heald’s office yourself. But be forewarned! The man can charm monkeys down from trees.
Link to 10 items.
So, on a beautiful New York day in August 2012 on the Upper East Side it's apparent Donald Heald is one of the few that in an hour or two can bring a potential collection to life. He is that skilled. For a collector these few hours can define an entire collecting career.
Link to the Donald A. Heald website
Donald A. Heald contact information