British Exploration: Collecting Books the (Very) Right Way

via Sotheby's

via Sotheby’s

There is a vast difference between collecting books and merely accumulating books. Accumulation is the enemy of the collection. The accumulator merely grabs what strikes his fancy at the moment, perhaps with an emphasis in certain areas. The book collector has a very narrow focus. He rejects more than he buys. His commitment to the exactly right volume is paramount.

The ever interesting Prufrock email newsletter edited by Micah Mattix (you should subscribe) linked a Telegraph article about an upcoming Sotheby’s auction of what has been dubbed the finest exploration library assembled in a century. It is a true collection in the purest sense.

Built volume by volume over five decades by Franklin Brooke-Hitching, the parameters were set very specifically: “each book had to be about a British explorer, and it had to be in mint condition: ‘God’s copy,’ in his words. So, most are centuries old, but their covers gleam.” He buys nothing published after 1939 because exploring had simply become travel.

He became so devoted to his self-appointed task, Brooke-Hitching quit his job with an investment firm and became a rare book dealer. Now he is selling his 1,400 volume collection at Sotheby’s. It’s is expected to realize over £5 million. You can view his collection on the Sotheby’s website.

As an aside, I was in full agreement with this from the Telegraph article: “he does not want them to end up in museums, which he fears would not keep them in good condition.” I think this is on the whole, correct. This is particularly dangerous if one has rare books that you donate to a library. They are likely to end up in a fundraising book sale, scattered to the wind for pennies. I write this as one who has purchased some of those donated books over the years. Before you donate to an institution make very sure they really want what you have.

As someone who both collects and accumulates books, the discipline shown by Brooke-Hitching is impressive. I am curious what other books he owns. Does he ever accumulate rather than collect?

For many who are serious about books at least some part of what you buy becomes a collection. A particular topic or author interests you, and you may start with hardcovers, then perhaps first printings. Soon one becomes aware of condition, and the prices increase. The danger is trying to buy too widely. You simply cannot do it. There is too much. Success as a book collector begins with as narrow a focus as possible.

Do you collect or accumulate?

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