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News and commentary from the world of the ex libris and books. 25th October 2001
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Ex Libris: a little advice to a novice collector, by Benoît Junod

(Note: This text has been updated on 26th August 2003)

If you are starting to collect ex-libris, I think that the very first need is to be optimistic. You will meet plenty of collectors who say to you - exactly as they said to me thirty years ago, with a slightly superior tone - "Of course, it's a pity that you didn't start earlier - now bookplates are SO expensive!!! And you don't see anything offered on sale of any interest...". Disregard this rubbish. Ex-libris were probably, on average, ten to twenty times more expensive to buy in the 1900s than today, as can be seen from consulting auction catalogues and sales reports of the time.

Whether you decide to collect old bookplates, modern, or contemporary ones, or only from one country, or a single technique, from just one period or of one style or theme (such as famous people), or maybe to collect interesting bookplates of all periods styles and types, to try and build up a representative collection - they are out there, they are available if you know where to look, and they are still a very economical form of collection.
If you try and gather only ex-libris by famous artists (for example Klee, Boucher, Giacometti, Dali, Picasso, Hogarth, Bellmer, Marc, Mucha, etc., etc.) or the early 'Kleinmeister' works by Dürer, Cranach, Jost Ammann, etc., and nothing else, it will be much more expensive and more difficult than if you decide, say, to collect East European contemporary works. But they are not impossible to find, I assure you - you must simply be patient, and tenacious.

So, armed with your optimism, a little money and some patience, go about deciding what want to collect.
In order to do so, you are going to have to do a little initial research - there is nothing more annoying than to spend a great deal of effort collecting butterflies, only to discover that it is really spiders which turn you on. Each and every bookplate collector will tell you that what he collects is the most interesting. So take the time to ask for advice from 'generalists', to consult a wide range of publications, and to look at as many bookplates as possible, even on the web.
Basically, find out what bookplates are and what they offer, and ask yourself a few questions:
1. Do I like heraldry and social history?
2. Am I interested in micro-history, the history of families, individuals, localisms?
3. Am I fascinated by decorative styles throughout the ages, the specificities of periods and countries?
4. Do I love books and find the history of libraries and their owners fascinating?
5. Am I interested in the history of printmaking?
6. Do I have a passion for a specific period of history?
7. Are visual arts a major source of pleasure for me?
8. Am I more interested in who made the bookplate than for whom it was made?
9. Do I find that colour is more interesting than black-and-white?
10. Do I have a pet theme of interest - birds, music, dogs, organs, medicine, cats, poets?
11.Do I like modern trends in art?
12. Do I like the idea of exchanges and of attending meetings of collectors?

What can be deduced? If you say 'yes' to the first six questions and 'no' to 7 to 12, it is likely that you will enjoy collecting old bookplates.
If your answers are, on the contrary, positive for questions 7-12 and negative to the first six, you will probably be happier collecting modern or contemporary ex-libris.
If you are positive in all your answers, go for it and collect all sorts of bookplates!
If your answers are all negative, try collecting matchboxes, milk bottle tops, model cars or something else...

Right. You have taken a tentative decision, and are starting to collect. Friends have told you where you might acquire the sort of material you want, and you have splurged. You spend quite some time looking at your acquisitions, you have decided to mount them on A4 acid-free cards with archival tape (to avoid damage), with pencil annotations on the mount as to each item - who is the owner, who is the artist (if known), when the plate was made, in what technique, how you acquired it - and you have ordered them alphabetically in box-files, by owner if they are pre-1850, and by artist if they are modern or contemporary. If you are both modern and thorough, you might have a database of your treasures on your computer (special programmes are available) and you might even scan them. Do remember, though, that the pleasure of handling the bookplates and seeing the reliefs and dips of inks and paper can never be equalled by looking at a screen - even in a million colours and with the highest of resolutions. And one of the games of collecting is remembering and knowing what one has: the fun is going to a bookshop and seeing a pile of Sherborn bookplates, buy four, return home and upon checking your collection, see that the plates you bought were ones you didn't have, even if you had 280 of the ca. 330 plates he engraved...
Bookplate collecting is a wonderful exercise for memory! It can, however, be useful to have a list of specially desired plates which you take with you on ex-libris hunting trips...

So what next? You will have to start really digging into fields of knowledge relating to the type of bookplates you are interested in. If you are a pre-1850 collector, you must brush up your knowledge of heraldry, of heraldic styles, of decorative styles (to be able to distinguish between a Jacobean and a Chippendale!), of history, of languages (does that look Flemish or German?) and of social history (what is the significance of that coronet or this crown?). If you are more interested in modern plates, you will need to know as much as possible about the artists of our times, especially the printmakers, the techniques they use, their materials, their 'other work' (most artists just make bookplates as a small side-line). You will have also to acquire as many reference books on ex-libris and catalogues as possible, in particular those relating to your specific interests: if you want to collect old German plates, Warnaecke's Die Deutschen Bucheignerzeichen is as indispensible as the 3-volume catalogue of the Franks Collection at the British Museum is for British bookplate collectors. If you are hunting for modern and contemporary plates, plenty of catalogues of ex-libris competitions are available. Two booksellers are listed (as per 26/08/2003) on this site (ELG and C. Wittal ndr), and there are others as well. From here, you will find links and addresses of collector societies, and I suggest that you contact the ones which correspond to your language talents...
The best periodical publications on contemporary Ex Libris, in my opinion, are Graphia, which has German and English summaries, and perhaps the best 'all-rounders' are the Bookplate Journal, the French AFCEL's l'Ex-libris Français, the German Society's Mitteilungen, and Bookplate International.
But there are also many others, often with English summaries. There are a number of bookshop owners and dealers who buy and sell ex-libris literature as well as bookplates themselves, and several are listed on bookplate-related web sites. Also, it is never a waste of time to drop into antiquarian bookshops wherever you travel. You will be sometimes surprised to see that you have to explain what ex-libris are, before the salesman says "Oh those things! Wait... I think my predecessor had an envelope with some inside, I'll go and fetch it..."

If you see something you like, answer your "coup de coeur" and buy it... even if individual plates are usually much more expensive than lots or collections. Later, you can select, exchange, adjust, and limit your collection to what you really like. The fabulous thing about bookplates is that each collector is free to 'do his own thing': there are no fixed prices, and no fixed hierarchy of what is good or bad.

After this initial stage, refine your taste... find other collectors and persecute them into explaining to you why this bookplate is interesting (to them), and why that one is not! Also, don't forget that there are many bookplate collections, world-wide, in museums or public libraries which you can consult (if your hands are clean, you ask politely, and don't look like Jack the Ripper... AND if the librarian or museum director knows where the ex-libris collection is stored...).

As soon as you can, having become a member of maybe two or three collectors' societies, take advantage of their bookplate auctions (usually restricted to members) and try and attend their annual meetings. Take the plunge and go to your first FISAE congress, and build up contacts. If you like contemporary plates, you will probably succumb to "exchange fever", and you will have to order some bookplates to your name by a few artists, to have some material for exchange. Be selective... always go for the best! Don't, however, let the sirens of greed inveigle you into trying to build up a contemporary print collection under the guise of ex-libris: a bookplate is a bookplate is a bookplate. It is made to identify the owner of books and must be made in such a way that it can be pasted into books. If it does, it is the depositary of a 500-year-old tradition, and is worthy of your collecting it. If you just want to collect free graphics, then go and join the free graphics collectors, and don't clog up bookplate societies or try and influence them into believing that ex-libris are just about anything. And if your heart beats faster, as mine does, when you see the voluptuous cartouche of a baroque ex-libris encircling a handsome coat-of-arms, and you find out from your reference library who it belonged to, of what family, living where, at what time, then the best is to start combing the antique book dealers asking if there is an ex-libris collection for sale. You will find one, trust me. It might take a few months, but it is out there, waiting for you. Then you will order it, exchange its duplicates, add to it, and discover all the fascinating microhistories which lie behind each and every plate.

Bon vent, collectionneur! May the gods of chance be with you and make your soul flower in your collection, and your collection flower in your hands! And remember: collecting is not only accumulating, it is also sharing one's knowledge and passion with others...

Benoît Junod

(c) 2001 - 2003 Benoît Junod


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