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Home > 2023 > The Art of Collecting Priceless Books | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 15, April 8, 2023

The Art of Collecting Priceless Books | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 8 April 2023


The Book Beautiful:
A Memoir of Collecting Rare and Fine Books

by Pradeep Sebastian

Hachette India
Pages: 306; Price: Rs 699

Bengaluru-based Pradeep Sebastian would have remained a simple bibliophile who venerated bookshops all his life until he began came across books the likes of which he had never seen or handled earlier. And so was born, around 2015, a no-doubt costly but immensely satisfying hobby of chasing and collecting rare and fine books in a serious way.

These were books printed on a hand press from beautiful metal type immaculately pressed into dampened handmade papers, books where the illustrations were hand-coloured or wood-engraved, and manuscripts that were calligraphically written out (not printed) in an exquisite scribal hand. There were also illuminated manuscripts — medieval and modern — that were hand-painted in burnished gold and colours. Everything was ravishing.

Sebastian was hooked. He could not just see but feel the craftsmanship in fine bookmaking. “Until you’ve known the sensual, typographic beauty of a finely printed letterpress book, you’ve never really handled or owned a real book,” he asserts with an air of self-gained authority.

It wasn’t a cheap hobby. But for his savings, there was no way Sebastian could have afforded the numerous rare books and manuscripts he bought online from Western dealers. Of course, some came cheap, either due to an oversight by the dealer or because most collectors had overlooked it for some reason. A vast majority of whatever he bought, often in auction, cost hundreds of US dollars, at times more. Occasionally, he overpaid too. He doesn’t claim but it can be perhaps safely deduced that Sebastian must be owning the largest collection of rare and fine books in individual collection in India.

Since he didn’t have the kind of funds he would have loved to, Sebastian would trawl through the listings of dealers daily, spending several hours each day going through dozens of newly listed acquisitions on the Internet, using sharply honed keyword searches. Early finds emboldened him to continue the hunt more vigorously, spurring him to look for more rarities at bargain prices. Once he discovered the treasures he could explore on the net, Sebastian gave up on his first love: bookshops.

Sebastian introduces us to the world of publishers who pioneered the art of bringing out rare and fine books.

Sir John Hornby’s Ashendene Press remains one of the most sought-after private presses by collectors for the sheer beautify of its impeccably printed books. The man began in 1895 as a hobby, printing on a hand press from a garden shed, using the finest handmade papers and a proprietary typeface. At first, he printed for friends and family and simply gave the books away. His books were distinctive for the use of hand-flourished calligraphic initials in red, green, blue and gold. Most books had a small run printed on pure vellum.

Sebastian’s greatest private press heroes are Victor and Carolyn Hammer. The first book of theirs which he saw astonished him. The metal type felt not just deeply pressed into the dampened handmade paper but looked carved. Their finest production, Samson Agonistes, is expensive. A copy is presently listed for $5,720. Sebastian did acquire some of their best books.

A book printed in 1478 in Verona may be the earliest appearance of printers’ flowers in a book, says Sebastian. By the 16th century, many metal ornaments in the form of a type unit were cut and recut. Some books came out in just 25 copies, making them priceless. These included a 19th century masterpiece of illumination and hand-colouring of Joseph Strutt’s The Regal and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of England, first published in 1793. Strutt’s A Complete View of the Dress and Habits of the People of England in two volumes also had a deluxe edition limited to 25 copies.

Bruce Rogers, known as the greatest artificer of books who ever lived, retouched the weaker or lighter letters in such minute details and yet with such delicacy in each copy that he would develop severe headaches which would not go away. Hermann Zapf, whose story begins in 1935, was the greatest type designer the modern world has known, and an equally elegant calligrapher and book designer.

In his hobby, Sebastian suffered regrets too. He badly wanted to acquire a 19th century hand-illuminated manuscript, done as a Book of Hours, on vellum, with eight full page miniatures in gold and several illuminated initials, and all 40 parchment pages written out in a black gothic script, the margins with lushly decorated borders in blue, green, pink and red. Sebastian was ready to pay 1,750 euros but the book was auctioned for 2,432 euros. “Now looking back, I think even that was low. It really was more a 5,000-7,000 euros book... I should have put in a bid of 3,500 euros.”

Sebastian also went for original illuminated manuscripts, the miniature often costing thousands of dollars. One of his proudest possessions is an original 19th century Indian illuminated manuscript — a history of the Mughal kings, 219 leaves calligraphically written out in nastaliq in black and red ink, several other gilt-ruled leaves, five pretty miniatures and three richly illuminated polychrome panels. He doesn’t say for how much it cost him. Sebastian did pay, after some bargaining, 500 euros for an alluring purchase: a little Persian manuscript from the late 18th century.

Sebastian has advice for book collectors: “I’m so glad I took the plunge and threw myself into collecting; and to everyone who loves and cares for books, I want to say — don’t miss out on the many layered, intoxicating pleasures of book collecting... The intimacy you experience with books when you go from being a bibliophile to a book collector is heady and gratifying.”

This is indeed a beautiful book — and on its own, a rare book. Do read it if you are in love with books. Sebastian must hold an exhibition of his rich collection.

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