B. Max Mehl and the Will of Edmond de Goncourt
My wish is that my Drawings, my Prints, my Curiosities, my Books—in a word, these things of art which have been the joy of my life—shall not be consigned to the cold tomb of a museum, and subjected to the stupid glance of the careless passer-by; but I require that they shall all be dispersed under the hammer of the Auctioneer, so that the pleasure which the acquiring of each one of them has given me shall be given again, in each case, to some inheritor of my own tastes.
The above desire has much to recommend it and de Goncourt’s dictum has long been utilized by auctioneers to promote their services. The quote appeared in many B. Max Mehl auction sale catalogues and G. Frederick Kolbe reproduced one of them in 1976 in his first sale catalogue. Kolbe & Fanning remain fond of the maxim, while acknowledging that institutional holdings, when effectively utilized, benefit all.
Edmond Louis Antoine Huot de Goncourt (1822–1896), was a French writer, art and literary critic, and book publisher. The above quote is but one of many toothsome ones, among them:
- History is a novel that has been lived, a novel is history that could have been.
- Today I begin to understand what love must be, if it exists... When we are parted, we each feel the lack of the other half of ourselves. We are incomplete like a book in two volumes of which the first has been lost. That is what I imagine love to be: incompleteness in absence.
- A poet is a man who puts up a ladder to a star and climbs it while playing a violin.
- I have always derived indescribable pleasure from leading a decent woman to the edge of sin and leaving her there to live between the temptation and the fear of that sin.
- A painting in a museum hears more ridiculous opinions than anything else in the world.
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An Acquisitive Parnassus on Wheels
Are you a librocubicularist? I confess to being a lifelong devotee, having become familiar with this faintly disreputable-sounding term while reading “The Haunted Bookshop,” the sequel to Christopher Morley’s delightful tale of a travelling bookseller, “Parnassus on Wheels.” The term "Parnassus" in literature typically refers to its distinction as the home of poetry, literature and, by extension, learning. Mount Parnassus, named after Parnassos, the son of a nymph in Greek mythology, became known in some traditions as the home of the Muses, and the Montparnasse area in Paris derived its name from the many students who recited poetry in the streets there.
The book’s Parnassos, Roger Mifflin, is “a funny-looking little man with a red beard” and his soon-to-be-wife and partner in crime, Miss Helen McGill, is twice his size; their traveling bookstore is “a queer wagon, shaped like a van” drawn by “one of the fattest white horses” that Miss McGill proclaims she has ever seen. Mifflin traversed the Eastern seaboard, from Florida to Maine, farm to farm, for several years, selling good books along the way.
Lord! When you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue—you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night—there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean.
But I digress—much akin to the main character in both works, the erudite Roger Mifflin. Over the years, Kolbe & Fanning have also traveled far and wide—well beyond the parameters of Mr. Mifflin—endeavoring to buy good books rather than to sell them. Both David Fanning and I have spent a good deal of time in seemingly unlikely locales, living up to the central theme of many 1990s ads in The Numismatist: “We will travel anywhere… We will do the packing… We will arrange for shipping… And, we will pay top price… for worthwhile numismatic libraries.”
From the late 1970s on, I regularly traversed the United States and frequently traveled overseas to secure numismatic libraries. States where I acquired substantial numismatic libraries—and packed them—include Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin. Among countries visited are Austria, Brazil, Canada, England, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland.
Memorable trips include those to:
- Cambuquira, Brazil (the Reminiscences of a Numismatic Bookseller, reproduced below, recounts that rather remarkable experience);
- Waco, Texas (truly an unlikely place to purchase rare classic 18th-century English token books, a number of which were once in the library of one of the most celebrated doyens in the field, Arthur Waters of Leamington Spa);
- Trona, California (a small, desolate, godforsaken town in the Mojave desert with cold winters, blazing summers, and a select number of very nice coin books);
- Phoenix, Arizona (where the seriously overloaded rental truck containing over 200 heavy cartons comprising the John Ford library nearly turned over in a windstorm en route to the San Bernardino mountains of Southern California, and where the library was endangered a few months later by a major forest fire!);
- Newark, New Jersey (under difficult conditions in a less than salubrious neighborhood, where on one buying trip I tipped a curbside skycap who checked in 15 suitcases and several additional cardboard cartons filled with numismatic books—this before 9/11 of course);
- New York City (in an upper floor “railroad flat” whose windows were almost entirely obscured by ceiling to floor book shelves, where the dynamic duo packed more than 150 bankers boxes weighing over three tons);
- Houston, Texas (I flew in early, packed over 100 boxes of books, and returned home late the same day!);
- Dallas, Texas (where a week was gladly spent, all in 100+ degree daily temperatures, readying the remarkable Harry Bass library for transport);
- Dallas, Texas yet again (where, in opposition to the above, George and David found themselves stuck after a highly improbable ice storm shut down most of the city);
- Norwich, England (where a fine and focused library on Russian numismatics was prepared for transport).
Kolbe & Fanning remain ready and willing to “travel anywhere… do the packing… arrange for shipping… and… pay top price… for worthwhile numismatic libraries.”
Reminiscences of a Numismatic Bookseller: Part 4*
By George Kolbe
Originally published in The Asylum
, January-March 2014, Quarterly Journal of the Numismatic Bibliomania Society (coinbooks.org
* No. 3 will appear in a future issue
Over the past three and a half decades I have traveled far and wide to acquire numismatic libraries. A story could be told about a number of these acquisitional forays but none, perhaps, is more exotic than the one that follows.
In the late 1990s, an advertisement regularly appearing in The Numismatist
stated that “We are in constant need of important numismatic literature and are prepared to travel wherever the books are.” Although library buying trips by then had been made to several European countries, Canada, and a great many states across the U.S., this ad, and others like it, had never to my knowledge produced direct results. That changed in January 1999.
I received a telephone call from a coin dealer who had conducted business from Portugal in the third quarter of the twentieth century. He cited the ad and asked if I would be interested in purchasing his substantial numismatic library. Operating from Lisbon, although of Austrian origin, Thomas Faistauer was internationally well known in his day for his numismatic specialties, namely the coins and medals of Portugal, Brazil, and Spanish America. His fine collection of colonial eight reales was sold at auction in 1976 by Jess Peters and his Spanish American colonial coins were auctioned by Henry Christensen in 1979. Other portions of his collection were sold by Christensen in his 1983 Santa Cruz sale and as late as 2000 by Hess-Divo.
A trip to Portugal, a place I had never visited, was certainly appealing. Cambuquira? Yes, Mr. Faistauer confirmed, he and his wife now resided in Brazil, in a small town about a three hour drive from São Paulo. The name of the cidade
conjures an exotic location, if perhaps not as enticing as Coleridge’s mythical Xanadu, surely more than heady enough for a numismatic bookseller. Located in the second most populous state of Brazil, Minas Gerais, Cambuquira is surrounded by commercial agriculture and, as I found out, menacing giant ant hills dot the region. The “General Mines” area was once famous for its rich deposits of gold and gems, later including diamonds. Gold was first discovered in 1693 and mining continued into the nineteenth century. Nowadays the region is the largest producer of coffee and milk in the country, the former readily apparent from the profusion of Coffea
plants, laden with a bounty of red seeds called coffee beans, proliferating on Cambuquira’s verdant rolling hillsides.
Responding to Faistauer’s query in the affirmative, yes, I could visit him in late February, due to prior commitments. The Faistauers, however, were concerned that traveling in and out of São Paulo during Mardi Gras, which began in the middle of February that year, would not be safe and I rearranged my schedule to allow for a trip earlier in the month. A visa was required and a quick trip was made to the Brazilian Embassy in Los Angeles to secure it. The twelve hour flight to São Paulo was grueling if uneventful and, upon arrival, two Faistauer employees met me at the airport. A trip by automobile ensued. Throughout, miles of excellent highway were interrupted by miserable stretches of dirt or gravel, though road work had been supposedly been in process in these areas for years. Halfway to Cambuquira, we stopped for an early afternoon meal at an excellent Churrascaria
. The driver and his companion were very alert and cautious upon arrival and departure, to which I paid scant notice at the time.
Eventually we arrived at the Faistauer residence in Cambuquira, inside a large compound of several acres enclosed by a ten foot high stone wall surmounted by glass shards and featuring an impenetrable steel gate that could be operated only from inside. Following a phone call, the electronic gate swung open and, for a stretch, we passed through various plantings till we arrived at a charming large old plantation house, built in the early 1800s. I was greeted warmly by the Faistauers and was shown to a spacious bedroom suite. After unpacking and resting a bit, Thomas Faistauer gave me a tour of the rooms in the house where his books were located, then we walked around outside. In addition to ornamental plantings, there were experimental sections where organic fruits and vegetables were being grown and pens for a variety of farm animals. As we ventured towards one of the perimeter walls, a number of dogs started growling and barking ferociously. The hounds, Faistauer explained, were loosed from their kennel in the evening and he cautioned me not to venture outside the house at night.
A retinue of employees were housed in facilities apart from the main house. Mrs. Faistauer advised me that their small community was virtually self-sufficient inside their walled enclave. Coffee in the morning was made from beans harvested and roasted there, bread was baked daily, meat, fruit and vegetables were plentiful. A large-scale agricultural operation conducted by the Faistauers took place on land nearby and accounted for much of the produce sold in the town. The Faistauers were clearly in love with Cambuquira and their endeavors had a substantial and highly beneficial effect on the local economy.
When Mr. Faistauer was taking me through the house, I neglected to mention that he had taken me to the master bedroom suite and had shown me several holes and chips in the bathroom tile. Not a young man at the time, he related to me how, less than a year before my visit, he had confronted, exchanged shots with and killed two intruders in the house, one in their bathroom, another in the kitchen. It took several hours for the authorities to arrive and the Faistauers were convinced that the local Policia
were involved in the home invasion. Immediately thereafter, the perimeter walls were heightened an additional two feet, spiked with pieces of broken glass, and gate security was enhanced. The hacienda was an armed camp and everywhere we went during my visit, Mr. Faistauer was packing heat. Even at poolside one morning I noticed the butt of a handgun protruding from his robe. The caution previously exercised by my driver and his helper suddenly came into focus.
Although a charming village, the streets of Cambuquira became a bit less idyllic when I noticed soldiers with automatic weapons stationed on the corners of several of them. One day, on a visit to the charming grounds and mineral spa at São Lourenço, an hour or so away, the car broke down in a remote area and, while we waited for roadside assistance, the Faistauers were quite concerned about the possibility of being accosted. At the time, I never felt in danger. Now I wonder. The Faistauers may have been overly cautious, given their frightening experience, but surely I was far too oblivious to the dangers of being in Brazil at such a tumultous time.
Part of the need for my early visit was attributable to the rapidly deteriorating value of the Brazilian real. On my second day there we quickly agreed on a price for the library and the books were packed. Over the years it typically has been difficult to send books from South America to the U.S. yet Faistauer somehow managed to ship the books quickly and cheaply. The first portion of the library was sold in my November 13, 1999 sale as “Consignment FF: An Important Numismatic Library”; the second part was also sold as “Consignment FF” in June of the following year. It was a fine library, far more varied in content than Faistauer’s numismatic specialties would suggest. That said, it featured many standard works on Portuguese, Brazilian and Spanish American numismatic topics, including classics by Medina, Sousa Lobo, Batalha Reis, Meili, Rosa, and Herrera. Between the two sales, over 700 lots were offered, many comprised of multiple publications. A goodly number of volumes were attractively bound in leather and condition was generally excellent, despite years spent in a warm, humid climate.
At the time, my son was majoring in chemistry biology and environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He was also involved in an experimental farming program there. A large organic farming operation was conducted by the Faistauers and we talked about the possibility of George Albert spending a semester or two there. Unfortunately, the plans never reached fruition and he subsequently spent a year in Costa Rica.
My trip to Brazil is among the more memorable experiences in my life. Certainly I have never bought a numismatic library under more singular circumstances.
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Kudos to P. Scott Rubin
The sub-title to Scott Rubin’s remarkable article in the January 2016 issue of The Numismatist
, entitled “The Discovery of the Original Confederate Cent,” is revealing: “With the help of vintage auction catalogs, a numismatist pieces together the story behind this 19th-century rarity.” Scott has been acquiring American coin auction sale catalogues for over five decades and has one of the most extensive collections ever formed. Dating from the mid-nineteenth century to date, Scott has amassed over 10,500 catalogues. More importantly, he has searched through them all and has organized the results of his findings. For years, major American coin auction firms have relied on Scott’s statistics and research to enhance their descriptions of rare American coins. Recently, Scott came across a description in an 1891 auction catalogue that he had not before noticed. It revealed how a fabled rarity “became available to the collecting public and who was involved.” The article is a must-read.
In addition to 200 or more non-U.S. sales featuring important American content, domestic auction sale catalogues in Scott’s numismatic library break down by date range/number as follows :
Total 10,801 (as of February 2, 2016)
In an email providing the statistical data above, Scott observed: “Some day I will have a large collection, unless Deb [Mrs. Rubin] gets a truck to take them all to the dump.”
Note to Debbie: When you decide on a date and time, David and George will be there with the truck.
Look for more articles from P. Scott Rubin on these 19th-century catalogues in upcoming issues of The Asylum
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ANOTHER Strange Happening at the Boston Public Library
After recounting a series of unfortunate occurrences at BPL in the last issue of The Bookseller
, it is good to report that 2015 ended on a positive note there. An extremely rare and valuable map, the Carte Geographique de Nouvelle France
, was recovered after having been offered for sale by a New York dealer for $285,000. It was missing for over ten years, having been removed from a 1613 work in the library, an account of French explorer Champlain's early voyages to North America.
In 2005, map dealer E. Forbes Smiley dropped a razor blade as he was leaving Yale University Library. Caught razor-handed, Smiley eventually admitted to stealing nearly 100 maps—many from the Boston Public Library—though he did not admit that the Champlain map was among them. Sadly, it must be noted that nearly three dozen maps once present in BPL books were subjected to Smiley’s depradations and have yet to be recovered.
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