ALDE: A Book Auction Sale at Rossini’s in Paris
“I run the one and only French auction sale house exclusively dedicated to books and manuscripts”, proudly states the 39-year-old Jérôme Delcamp. As a matter of fact, the name of his auction house, Alde, is a tribute to the Venetian printer of the Renaissance, Aldus Manutius - known in France as Alde Manuce. “When I created my business in 2004, I decided to stick to my first love, books.” As a matter of fact, Mr. Delcamp tries not to mingle too much with other specialities and chose, for the sale of October the 31st, not to rent a room at Drouot. He went just across the road instead, at “ la salle Rossini ”. “It is an independant venue, he says. The idea is to avoid the flood of curious during the exposition. People who know nothing about old books keep on coming at us with annoying questions and create disturbances during the sale itself. At Rossini’s, we enjoy a quieter atmosphere.”
On that very day, the items of the sale were stored in glass chests, at the back of the room. The buyers would constantly take a look at them, as if trying to compensate for the photographs projected on a wide screen. Books used to be shown by handlers, one by one, as called for by the auctioneer - it is now over. A voluble sexagenarian architect sitting beside me, just can’t get used to it : “ It is so far from the spirit of old books”, he sighed. There was a time when you could even walk to the stand where the physical books were exposed and take a look at them while the auction was going on. Some items would even pass from hand to hand across the room. Other times, other customs.
“First of all, says Mr. Delcamp, the less you manipulate an old book, the better. Handlers, for instance, are not always careful enough – they have damaged many books over the years. Plus, it creates disturbances.” The cruel march of modernity... Another sign of the times is the increasing number of absentee bids collected via the internet. “We also send a lot of pictures by email,” says Mr. Delcamp. “It has become as important as the printed catalogue itself. Of course, you can still freely look at the books at my bookshop before a sale.” His bookshop is called Giraud-Badin, it is located right in front of his auction house, close to the Parc du Luxembourg, not too far from La Sorbonne, in the heart of Paris. Mr. Delcamp bought it two years ago.
The sale of October the 31st was an ordinary one, composed of 300 items coming from 20 or so different clients. “It was a good sale”, says Mr. Delcamp. But some prices seemed to be quite low and my voluble architect friend felt the same : “ Some even say old books will sell less and less until the day nobody buys them any more. What do you think ?” Indeed, books seem to be losing of their glory. The elites used to consider them as the source of their knowledge and power. Nowadays, mathematics rule – and the power of books slowly fades away. To Mr. Delcamp, the market remains “steady ”. He admits, nevertheless, that whereas books of exception tend to sell pretty good, it has become hard to sell the “ordinary” ones. Our architect giggled : “ The cheaper the prices, the better... for me ! ” As long as buyers think this way, old books have bright days ahead.
Ups and downs of a sale
- Conestaggio (Girolamo). De Portugalliae... Francfort, 1602. In-8, full contemporary red-morroco with a provenance. Appraisal : 3,000 / 3,500 euros.
“It was disappointing, says Mr. Delcamp. This is an interesting book, relating the conquest of Portugal by Spain in 1580. The binding was attractive, though...” The book never met the reserve price – but it was not in the best of condition : it had foxing all through-out and the binding was not that tight.
- Heures à l’usage de Paris [Paris, circa 1500]. On vellum, 162 pp, 79 hand made figures by Le Maître de la Chronique Scandaleuse and Le Maître d’Etienne Poncher. Appraisal : 60,000 / 80,000 euros.
One of the two main items of the sale, a XVIth century book of hours with gorgeous figures. Seven pages of the catalogue were dedicated to this beauty from another time but it did not go over 60,000 euros. To Mr. Delcamp, it is not a bad result : “ The book was simply very justly estimated. ” As a matter of fact, an expert from Paris, Bertrand Meaudre, had been specially called upon for this particular book. The other items had been expertised by Dominique Courvoisier.
ALDE: A Book Auction Sale at Rossini’s in Paris
- La Fontaine, Fables Choisies... (Paris, 1755-59). 4 thick in-folio volumes, in their original boards. Appraisal : 5,000 / 6,000 euros.
When the young and charming assistant from Alde dropped the four heavy volumes in front of me, I felt at once disheartened by the deteriorated binding. In fact, there was no binding. And that is the unusual specificity of this copy, it has remained in its original state : with the printer’s boards and its full margins. “The engravings, preserved from the press, have kept all their relief ”, reads the catalogue. “ This is the first unbound and uncut copy our expert has come across in more than forty years !” boasted Mr. Delcamp during the sale. The books were sold for 7,500 euros (before the commission), quite a good score though Mr. Delcamp was disappointed : “Unlike the French, the English are fond of that type of copies, and we expected more of them to manifest.”
- Herrera, Histoire Générale des voyages et conquestes des Castillan... (Paris 1660 – 1671). 3 in-4° volumes. Appraisal : 3,000 / 4,000 euros.
Quite a high estimation to me, according to the very poor condition of the bindings. This Americana set of books is one of the most sought-after and is quite rare indeed. The author deeply inspired himself from the famous secret manuscript of Las Casas and published a masterpiece that remains a trustworthy historical source. Several people had asked to be called on the telephone and the item went for 4,600 euros. “Well, says Mr. Delcamp, it is a book about America. Any time you have something about the Indes Occidentales (West-Indies), it sells very well.”
- Tortorel et Perrissini. Quarante tableaux (...) touchant les guerres, massacres et troubles advenus en France ces dernières années (1570). 1 in-folio volume, full contemporary vellum. Appraisal : 10,000 / 12,000 euros.
“I’m not very old,” smiles Mr. Delcamp, “but that was the first time I could set my eyes on this legendary collection of engravings.” Published right in the middle of the French religious wars of the 16th century, it brings us back to terrible times. The bibliographer for the sale, Jean Lequoy, introduced it to me, and I could feel his emotion as he was speaking : “At the time, the use of copper plates was very new. They used wood plates instead. Some of these were printed from copper plates and as they were less common, they tend to be more valued - though the result is sometimes a little blurry.” One of these engravings graced the cover of the catalogue. “They are like pictures,” says Mr. Lequoy. “On this one, Anne du Bourg directly talks to Henri II in the Parliament, to blame his attitude towards the Protestants ! The people drawn here were present during this historical day.” The young assistant pulled a wry face in front of the next plate : “These beheaded corpses are so... gloomy !” Indeed, the engravings have a disturbing strength, re-enforced by the fact that they came out just before the Saint Barthelemy, one of the darkest nights in French history. The binding was a little bit worn but still fresh. It went for 14,500 euros.
- Van Noort, Description du pénible voyage... (Amsterdam, 1602). 1 in-folio volume, modern vellum binding (by Dechauvelle). Appraisal : 15,000 / 20,000 euros.
First was Magellan, then came Francis Drake... then Van Noort. This Dutch seaman became, in 1598, the third man in the history of mankind to circumnavigate the globe. A very “pénible” (difficult, as the title reads) voyage, indeed, full of mutinies, epidemics and pirates ! This first French edition is almost nowhere to be bought and is illustrated with 26 engravings (views, maps and portraits). A buyer from America could not be reached on the phone before the sale but Mr. Delcamp seems to be satisfied with the 15,700 euros collected for this item. “A respected bookseller from Paris did not go over 15,500 euros for this book. So I guess we had reached the actual price for this copy in a modern full vellum binding.”
ALDE: A Book Auction Sale at Rossini’s in Paris
I left the auction before it reached the books of the 19th century. According to Mr. Delcamp, I am not the only one not to be that interested in this period. He was nevertheless quite satisfied with the sale on a whole although some items did not show up, including an interesting – but quite complicated – copy of Thucydide’s Histoire de la guerre qui fut entre les Péloponnesiens et les Atheniens... (Paris, 1527). A lot of ordinary books were sold at some reasonable prices, including a copy of the works of Boileau, in 2 in-4° volumes, bound in full contemporary morocco - 400 euros only. “It was a Dutch binding,” says Mr. Delcamp, “They're are less sought-after.” Dutch bindings, less sophisticated, tend to be disregarded by bibliophilists. Binding has always been a crucial point in old books. Some people, I’m told, even buy books for their covers only (but how could they judge a book by its cover ?). It is even more true nowadays, as a certain anxiety, due to the crisis but also to the uncertainties about the future of old books, hangs over the mighty but threatened kingdom of bibliophilism.