In association with objets d’art experts, the 33rd Paris Rare Book Fair promises to whet our curiosity—a welcome antidote to the ongoing health crisis.
Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946), Plaisirs d’hiver (Winter Pleasures), Brussels, Édition de l’Art Décoratif C. Dangotte, Collection du Petit Artiste, [Imprimerie J.-E. Goossens], 1918; one of the book’s 10 lithographs, the first of 100 copies on imperial paper from Japan, numbered 1-100 by the press and signed in ink by the artist. Pierre Coumans, Belgium.
Courtesy Librairie Pierre Coumans, Belgique
For the second consecutive year, Covid-19 has compelled the Paris Rare Book Fair (Salon du Livre Rare) to open in September. This time, it is taking place in the pop-up Grand-Palais structure on the Champ-de-Mars designed by architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte. For three days (September 24 to 26), booksellers from around the world will exhibit the best written, printed and iconographic works of cultural history. Two hundred exhibitors will participate in the event, as well as objet d’art experts and print gallery owners.
The Market Has Held Steady
Synchronized with the art market, the rare book market withstood Covid’s impact throughout 2020. Booksellers, collectors and auction houses took advantage of the online buying boom. “The number of logins rose steadily throughout the lockdown,” says Pascal Chartier, who founded livre-rare-book, a networking platform (400 bookstores and over four million books, from cheap second-hand books to very expensive old ones). “In 2020 the number of orders and sales were higher than in the previous year.” However, he adds, “Some bookstores were not at all technologically prepared to handle the situation.”
The fair continuously updates its digital tools. For example, @amorlibrorum, a new Instagram account of the trade group Syndicat de la librairie, has recently started making e-appointments with bibliophiles on the third day of every month, when each exhibitor presents three books or documents. "With over a million euros in sales, the operation is a success," says the group’s president, Hervé Valentin. What’s more, a "pop-up e-Grand-Palais” will bring the fair to those who cannot travel to Paris. Even if a catalog is professionally documented, touching, seeing, hearing and in-person conversations remain essential.
Mad Bets, Whims and Discoveries
Some monuments of our written heritage never would have seen the light of day without the extraordinary efforts of publishers and printers. One example is the rare Cosmographia by Ptolemy published by Nicolaus Germanus in 1482 and printed by Lienhart Holle in Ulm (Daniel Crouch Rare Books, London). The world’s first illustrated atlas, it was deemed the most beautiful book ever printed. The exceptional paper, large size and precious inks for the woodcuts eventually led Holle to bankruptcy and forced him to leave Ulm, but over 500 years later the work is still here for us to enjoy. Anton Koberger’s printing of a two-volume Bible in Nuremberg (1483) was less risky. Koberger owned 24 presses, had about a hundred employees, and could print three versions of the same work at once. La Jument verte, a bookseller in Strasbourg, will present a complete version including the 109 woodcuts with color highlights. The estimated number of copies is put at between 1,000 and 1,500, but so far only 150 have been identified. Lyon’s Clagahé bookstore will exhibit another technical feat, but in a completely different vein: an 1883 woven book containing a poem by Lamartine, Les Laboureurs (The Plowmen), made by silk manufacturer Joseph-Alphonse Henry. “Most silk-woven books are religious in nature,” says bookseller Jacques Van Eecloot, “but this one is taken from Jocelyn, which the Vatican put on the index in 1836, and the characters are perfectly legible.”
The fair will feature works by outsized figures, authors and artists, including a complete collection of Francisco de Goya’s Caprichos: 85 prints from the first edition, published in Madrid c. 1799, in a beautiful period of Spanish binding (Clavreuil, Paris). If the price is too steep, Barcelona’s Palau Gallery is offering individual plates from the sequel, Buen viaje, which is also a first edition. Print collectors will be able to browse about 15 stands. A set of 800 labels printed by Roger & Gallet from 1865 to 1920 is at the crossroads of the book and the visual arts (Chamonal, Paris). Jacques Desse (Libraires associés, Paris) is presenting “amusing books”, such as an illustrated interactive album to teach children how to tell the time. Lastly, Plaisirs d’hiver (Winter Pleasures), is an astonishing coloring book created by dark-souled Belgian painter Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946) to celebrate his daughter’s birth in 1917. This “bright and smiling work” seems like an appropriate answer to these trying times (Pierre Coumans, Belgium).
Now considered “essential” by the government, bookstores have always beckoned us to explore key issues, like love and war. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry dedicated a copy of Flight to Arras, a book that encouraged the United States to enter the European war and was published in New York in 1942, to his American muse (Peter Harrington Rare Books, United Kingdom). La Basse Fontaine (Vence) is offering a first edition of Stendhal’s De l’Amour (On Love) (1824), in which the author analyzed and appraised that emotion. About 40 copies were sold when it came out. What about friendship? Pierre Castagné (Paris) will present the copy of The Life of Bees that Maurice Maeterlinck gave to Émile Gallé, a precious testimony to their mutual admiration. In the same vein, which could sometimes tend towards adoration, Boris Vian’s exceptional dedication to Jean-Paul Sartre, signed with his anagram “Bison Ravi qui t’adore” on his first novel Vercoquin et le Plancton (Vercoquin and the Plankton, 1946), will delight fans (Alain Brieux, Paris).
Louise Michel, Oscar Wilde, Man Ray and Others
Freedom, a multifaceted prism, has inspired many books and documents. Louise Michel wrote about it from her exile in New Caledonia (signed autograph letter, Passé Présent, Saint-Geniez-d’Olt et d’Aubrac), while Flora Tristan, Paul Gauguin’s grandmother, called out the powerful. A forgotten figure of utopian socialism and feminism, she dedicated her rare 1843 booklet The Worker’s Union to the influential Queen Christina (Vignes, Paris). Kogui (Bayonne) is offering a first edition of Aragon’s 1928 Treatise on Style, in which protest takes a more aesthetic turn. Many solitary voices responded to collective combat, such as the great Irish writer Oscar Wilde, who made his life an art. “We spend our days, each of us, looking for the secret of life,” he wrote. “Well, my friends, the secret of life is in art” (signed autograph aphorism, Autographes des siècles, Lyon). This document is from a prestigious collection focusing on the playwright.
Two Geneva bookstores, Illibrairie and L’Exemplaire, have exceptionally brought together every book published by Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler from 1909 to 1939, a magnificent legacy of the language shared by artists and poets. Sometimes, the text alone is a visual manifesto (of nature), like Paul Éluard’s handwritten 1942 poem "Blason des fleurs et des fruits" ("Blazon of Flowers and Fruits"), illustrated here with an engraved frontispiece by Valentine Hugo (Walden, Orléans). Other times, the artist becomes a poet. An example is Pain peint (Painted Bread), the catalog of a 1973 Man Ray exhibition featuring 10 original abstract color compositions published by the Galerie Alexandre Iolas (Ozanne Rare Books, Paris). Contemporary creation is always well represented at the fair, where this year the artist’s book by Diane de Bournazel (Justin Croft, United Kingdom) seems to contain all the secrets and experiences of life in her collages.