Reminiscences of a Numismatic Bookseller – Part 3

[bsa_pro_ad_space id=4]

by George Kolbe

March 17, 2016 – Over the past thirty plus years, I have attended many numismatic book auctions, a number of them overseas, including London and Düsseldorf in 1981; two Zürich sales in 1982; London in 1985, 1987, and 1988; Zürich in 1989; Frankfurt in 1991; Zürich and Paris in 1993; and so on.

Among more memorable auctions in the 1980s and 90s are the April 1982 Bank Leu sale of the Hans von Aulock library, described anonymously as that of “a Well Known Scholar Lately Deceased.” It was a landmark event. Due in no small part to the robust participation of the J. Paul Getty Museum, the auction produced many world record prices for classic works on ancient Greek coins. Memories of the auction will likely comprise a future article. The Prince Fürstenberg Library sale by Sotheby’s, two months later, was no less remarkable, if entirely different in both content and outcome. Limited to 451 lots devoted largely to works on medieval and modern numismatics issued in the 18th and 19th centuries, it included many rarities in superb condition, typically bound in delightful Germanic leather bindings contemporary to the period of publication. Held during uncertain economic times with content generally outside the compass of the Getty, it produced mixed, generally modest results. It too may be covered in the future.

The 1993 sale in Paris sale noted above was a particularly memorable event and the present article is devoted to it. Entitled Bibliothèque Rollin-Feuardent: Numismatique, Archéologia et Beaux-Arts, the auction was held at the venerable Hôtel Drouot in Paris and conducted under the expertise of Paris coin dealer Alain Weil. The stage may best be set by citing the initial part of “Rollin et Feuardent: A Final Farewell?,” an article I wrote that appeared in the Fall 1993 issue of The Asylum:

Shortly after the turn of the nineteenth century, the firm Rollin entered the coin business. Subsequently it became Rollin et Feuardent, and, throughout the second half of the nineteenth and first decade of the twentieth century, the partnership of Charles Rollin and Félix Feuardent ruled supreme in France and, indeed, perhaps the entire numismatic world. The firm established branches in London in 1868 and in New York in 1876. Though most key European countries had their own major numismatic/antiquarian house, Rollin et Feuardent crossed international boundaries. As the Chapmans were to America, Spink & Son to Great Britain, Rollin et Feuardent was to the world. 

They sold privately; they conducted auctions; they were major numismatic publishers. They were a force everywhere. After over a century of existence, they closed their doors around 1930. Of course they are still widely remembered and respected for their numerous important numismatic auction sales and their role as publishers. Many of the numismatic texts appearing under their aegis still remain standard numismatic reference works. Most of their major publications featured superb phototype plates and were written by the most talented French numismatists of the day.

After six decades, the name of the firm was once again heard in the sales rooms of Paris. On Friday November 26, 1993, the Bibliothèque Rollin-Feuardent: Numismatique, Archéologia et Beaux-Arts, was sold at Drouot-Richelieu. Catalogued by the well-known French coin dealer Alain Weil, 444 lots were offered. Various sources reported that the sale comprised from one third to eighty percent of the original library, Judging from what was not there, the former estimate is probably more accurate. But Voilà!, what was there: rare and desirable numismatic works on many topics, superb works on antiquities, and on and on. Though arranged in fewer than 500 lots, many thousands of volumes were to be sold.

The catalogue featured, under the heading VERY IMPORTANT NOTICE, the following caveat:
The Rollin and Feuardent library has been used by professionals for more than a century where certain of its works are concerned. Since the end of World War II, the books have no longer been consulted and are covered with dust. These factors explain the present state of the books, which show traces of wear and dust. The buyers should therefore know that the lots proposed are only in fair condition. This remark will not be repeated with each description. Given this warning as well as the fact that the books will be on public view before the sale, it will not be possible to take into consideration any complaint concerning the condition of the lots. Nevertheless, when this condition has seemed either very inferior or very superior to the general state of these professional books, this has been noted in the description.

Certainly, many of the books were dusty and dirty. One’s hands needed continual washing and, at the end of the day, a handkerchief would provide a growing medium for most any plant. In truth, however, the wear was mostly minor, often minimal, and the bindings could easily be cleaned. Generally, the volumes were internally in superb state. The bindings were mostly of a quality one comes to expect from the talented French relieurs of the day: polished morocco, gilt-decorated calf, superb marbled endsheets, gilt page edges, et al.

Monsieur Weil spent six months of weekends cataloguing the library. Generally, his estimates were nominal and many lots were comprised of as many as fifty or one hundred volumes. What gems were to be found in these large lots! Given the disclaimer concerning condition, the low estimates and the number of large lots with brief descriptions, it was incumbent for interested parties to attend this sale. And attend they did.

The sale was scheduled to start at 11:00 AM., and the doors of Drouot opened at 11:00 AM. By 10:45 a small crowd had gathered. At 11:00 several hundred people were waiting outside. Fortunately a number of sales were to be held that day and escalators carried sale attendees to upper or lower levels of the cavernous Drouot building. The book auction was held in sale room 11 on a lower level. There were three rows of tables and chairs facing the rostrum followed by several rows of chairs, and at the rear of the room, a large open area. When the sale began, it was Standing Room Only, and perhaps a hundred or more people were in the room.

With centuries of experience, Drouot personnel know how to run an auction. At the head table was an impeccably attired auctioneer with a full complement of clerks, flanked by Alain Weil and a helper. Spotters were stationed at the front of the room, and as each lot was being sold, it was also shown by the Drouot staff. The books thus could be, and were examined, during the course of the sale. The pace was a somewhat leisurely 80–100 lots per hour. For non-Francophiles, the translating of French numbers to English, francs to dollars, and, above all, endeavoring to be correct, took every spare second of time. When the initial lot was purchased, identification and method of payment was immediately requested.”

Please note that the preceding text was copied from an original printout retained by the author, rectifying a number of typographical inaccuracies that appeared in the published article. The balance of The Asylum text was devoted to a list of sale highlights and, while there may be a bit of overlap here, the reminder of the present article will endeavor to record other aspects of an unforgettable trip to Paris.

Digressing briefly, I had been to Paris twice before: both day visits from London to visit Bernard Poindessault and Josiane Vedrines and view their impressive stock of rare and desirable numismatic books, virtually all in an excellent state of preservation and nicely bound. Some of Bernard’s nicest books were sold by Fritz Rudolf Künker in a 2010 auction in Düsseldorf, where I managed to capture several of Bernard’s treasures perhaps missed on my earlier visits. I bought a considerable number of books on the first day trip to Paris, including my first set of Engel and Serrure’s classic bibliography of French numismatics, a work I long held in the highest esteem. Pickings were slim on the second trip not long thereafter, though I still regret not ponying up the hefty price necessary to acquire a set of Loubat’s 1878 The Medallic History of the United States, inscribed by the author to Ulysses S. Grant, shortly after completion of his two terms as President of the United States.

Uncertain where to stay in Paris while attending the sale, Richard Margolis happened to mention, in a telephone conversation about the auction, a place quite near to Drouot, namely the Hotel Vivienne. Though modernized since, its main positive attributes at the time were proximity to Hôtel Drouot and its location on rue Vivienne where, nearby, many of the premier numismatic establishments of Paris were located at the time. Several of the shops and offices stocked small selections of secondhand numismatic publications, some of which found their way to California in 1993 and on later visits. The hotel itself, if a bit dated at the time, was pleasant enough with more than a modicum of faded charm.

To say that books in France are very well cared for by their custodians is a truism. I can remember only one sale in Paris, several years thereafter, where this was not so and I purchased many books at bargain prices. While still desirable in the eyes of most, their generally minor imperfections resulted in lessened competition from local collectors and dealers. It is also fair to say that the French are often not happy to see treasured volumes leave their country. Major book auctions are not always as well publicized internationally as they might be, nor is outside participation universally solicited. In my experience, arranging for the delivery of purchases with the officials at Drouot has always been an onerous process, compounded by excessive wallet lightening. Screed over.

Despite the disclaimer about the condition of the books in the Rollin and Feuardent library, as previously noted they were far less worn than dusty and most of the dust was easily removable. Douglas Saville also attended the sale and, during lot viewing and after, we both bemoaned the fact that we had not allowed an additional day or two for lot viewing. I had arrived in Paris two days before the sale, but too late on the first day to examine the books. A scant one hour thirty minutes of viewing time was allotted on the following morning and, after a two and a half hour bon appétit break, another 90 minutes was granted during an unseasonably warm afternoon. Frantically, I viewed the sale highlights, then dug through as many of the bulk lots as was possible, at first making notes on content and value, soon doing little more than frantically adding up numbers in my head to formulate bids. As unprepared as we both felt, it became apparent at the sale the following day that few others had dirtied their hands and soiled their clothes. Perspiration was about to pay dividends.

Rather than reprise the highlights noted in The Asylum article, a recounting of a few of the items not included there follows, along with added perspective on other aspects of the sale. The low range of estimates totaled some 600,000 francs and the hammer prices came to 1,626,300 francs, or nearly $275,000 at the exchange rate current at the time. That noted, attitude and aptitude resulted in a good deal of money being left on the table. An early lot, 8, was described as “DOCUMENTS DE TRAVAIL. Grand lot de photographies, catalogues, manuscrits de collections et documents divers.” Estimated at 1000 to 1500 francs, I purchased it for 5800 francs but was prepared to bid “15000++.” Subsequently, one manuscript volume on medals present in the lot brought a multiple of the purchase price.

Other amazing opportunities abounded. Lot 44 was described as: “BORRELL, M.J. Manuscrit en anglais d’un traité des monnaies grecques. Onze vol. in-8 luxueusement reliés plein morocco rouge, tranches marbrées.” [Borrell, M.J. Manuscript in English of a treatise on Greek coins. Eleven vols. 8vo, luxuriously bound in full red morocco, marbled edges]. Estimated at 10000 to 15000 francs, it was purchased for 36000 francs on behalf of a client who initially had suggested a bid of 15000 francs if it was essentially an “inventory,” or 30000 francs if it was “informative.” After viewing it I noted: “Ancient authors – [a review of] Numismatic authors, Goltsius up to Madden, [with] historical commentary, detailed listings [including] false coins, etc. Detailed indices. Superbly bound, small handwriting, heavily written [on] one side [of each leaf] throughout, well over 2000 pages of [hand]written manuscript.” I thereupon suggested a limit of at least $10,000, i.e., 60,000 francs.

Several anxious weeks followed as the French government was deciding whether to exercise their legal option to acquire the Borrell manuscript at the sale price for the national library or to relinquish that right. Their decision not to purchase it was good news, enhanced by the fact that Barclay V. Head, in his celebrated Historia Numorum, prominently notes its utility in the preparation of his magnum opus on ancient Greek coins: “MM. Rollin and Feuardent have likewise rendered me an invaluable service by most liberally placing at my disposal the volumes of the late Mr. M. Borrell’s carefully compiled MS. Catalogue of Greek coins.” Had that nugget appeared in the catalogue description, the price would doubtless have been much higher, and the likelihood of the government deciding not to acquire it much lower. A prominent numismatist of the day, Maximilian Borrell has another claim to fame in the eyes of American Numismatists. It was he who, nearly four decades earlier than Dr. George Heath, had issued a monthly publication entitled The Numismatist.

I am doubtless being far too harsh on the cataloguer of the sale. M. Weil was a fine gentleman and was quite helpful and friendly over the years. No one said that cataloguing numismatic libraries is not hard work governed by unyielding deadlines and it must be observed that the sale was well attended by French dealers and collectors and, further, that the many classic and standard works offered in the sale bought prices commensurate with their value. Still… Douglas Saville and I would have given a great deal to have been allotted more time to have gotten down and dirty two decades ago in la Ville lumière.

This text was first published in The Asylum, Vol. 31 No. 4 (Oct.-Dec. 2013).

Please contact George Kolbe with any questions or comments on The Numismatic Bookseller by sending him an email

The Kolbe & Fanning office in Ohio can be reached via email.

This is the website of Kolbe & Fanning.

And here you may find the first part of the Reminiscences series as well as the second part.