Collecting by the Book

I have always enjoyed asking collectors how they began collecting. For me, it was a chance encounter in a college classroom in 1987 when a professor noted in passing that only a small fraction of the great works of classical literature survived into the modern era. We know, for example, that the Greek poet Sophocles wrote over 120 plays, yet just seven exist today. Less than a quarter of the output of the Roman historian Livy survives, and even Aristotle – the best preserved of all ancient authors – is only known through half of the works he wrote. In other words, what we know about the literature and legacy of the ancient world is greatly surpassed by what we have lost. I became fascinated by the story of the transmission of texts: how the literature of Greece and Rome escaped the fragility of the manuscript tradition and made it into the more robust world of print. One Venetian printer stands at the epicenter of that story, and my collection consists of the publications of his press, printed largely between 1495 and 1595.

Collecting by the Book

Aldus Manutius arrived in Venice in 1490 with the goal of applying the relatively new technology of printing with moveable type to the distinctly ancient tradition of classical literature. A single manuscript is easily lost, or damaged by fire, neglect and vermin, whereas multiple copies of a printed book assure the survival of a text. Printed books represented a technological paradigm shift in the ability of humankind to capture, preserve and transmit knowledge. The proliferation of printed books in the late 15th and early 16th centuries fueled the rise of European universities and gave birth to the phenomenon we know as the Renaissance. By the time of his death in 1515, Aldus had printed – for the first time ever – the works of Aristotle, Aristophanes, Herodotus, Thucydides, Euripides, Sophocles, Demosthenes, Plato and others. It is not an exaggeration to credit Aldus with saving Western civilization, or at least the part of it derived from Greek thought.

It is easy to overlook the technological innovation that printing required. In the era of hand printing, printers set type one letter at a time, requiring multiple copies of commonly appearing letters to compose a single page of print. The Latin alphabet consists of 23 letters, which, with upper- and lower-case variants and punctuation marks, adds up to about 60 to 70 different pieces of type. The complexity of Greek, on the other hand, requires as many as 1,700 varieties of type. There is a reason that no one had tried it before Aldus came along, but his persistence paid off. In the Latin language, he introduced a new style of slanted type that mimicked the official court handwriting of his day. Known as “Aldine type” up until the mid-19th century, we know it today as italics.

Aldus also introduced an innovative format for his publications. Manuscripts and printed books prior to Aldus were large, expensive items, usually out of the reach of commoners and students. In 1501, he introduced a smaller version of the printed book – the octavo – which made it more accessible, affordable and portable. Every time you pick up a paperback book on an airplane or the beach, or type something in italics, breathe a quiet word of thanks to Aldus Manutius.

Aldus was a humanist and scholar, but he was also a businessman. Printing was a competitive and capital-intensive business in the late 15th century. Printing presses, type and paper were expensive and had to be acquired before a project could begin. To make matters worse, there was little copyright protection in Aldus’ day. Unscrupulous pressman could rush a new publication across the Venetian border into France (conveniently outside the Venetian Senate’s reach) and have it counterfeited within weeks. My collection includes dozens of these contemporary counterfeits, the proliferation of which speaks to the “brand value” of the Aldine Press. So challenging was the printing business that the average lifespan of one in the late 15th century was a mere 18 months, and more than a few printers were driven into bankruptcy by the expense of a single publication. A comparison to the inflation and collapse of the internet bubble in the late 1990s is apt.

When Aldus died in 1515, his son Paulus inherited the business and went on to print such important works as the first edition of the Greek Bible and the official proceedings of the Council of Trent. In turn, Paulus’ son, Aldus the Younger, carried the press’s operations into a third generation, closing the doors only upon his own death in 1596. In a period when the average durability of a printing operation was measured in months, Aldus Manutius created a business that thrived for more than 100 years.

Aldus and his successors knew their market, developed trade relationships throughout Europe, established patient and supportive capital partners, embraced technological change, insisted on quality productions and established a sustainable competitive advantage. It is not the primary reason that I collect the Aldine Press, but the resonance with Brown Brothers Harriman’s (BBH’s) approach to investing is strong. Had we been around in the late 15th century, we might have easily invested our capital alongside Aldus.

1503 Euripides

Ironically, the best thing that happened to me as a young collector was that I had no money. This sounds counterintuitive, but a lack of funds required me to spend the resource I did have – time – in order to understand the field I chose to collect. Simply put, I did not have the ability to buy books indiscriminately, so I had to learn to discriminate. I was fortunate to establish relationships with several older and wiser collectors and rare book dealers who patiently introduced me to the worlds of antiquarian book fairs and auction houses, as well as a community of fellow collectors. Early in my career at BBH, I was based in our London office, which provided the further benefit of building relationships with antiquarian book dealers throughout Europe. Starting off with little money is certainly not a necessary step toward successful collecting, but developing a discriminating eye – however obtained – is the mark of a good collector in any field.

I think of my books as a working collection. I want to learn what they can tell us about the way in which we as a species capture, preserve and transmit information, and the evidence for that lies not only in the text, but also how the books have been used over time, as shown by annotations, marginalia, provenance, binding and previous ownership. In that sense, every volume in my collection is unique, as it tells a single story of the book’s history. I own books from the libraries of scholars, writers, diplomats, spies, scoundrels, noblemen and kings. Books are portable, and the ways in which they have moved around over the past 500 years tell interesting stories.

In 2015, I had the privilege of mounting an exhibition of my collection at the Grolier Club in New York City to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Aldus Manutius. The exhibition considered his influence on the worlds of printing, book design, editing, typography and scholarship over the past half millennium. We were fortunate to attract the attention of The New York Times, which reviewed the exhibition and even included a teaser on the front page of the February 26, 2015, issue. I believe this to be the first (and possibly last) time that Aldus Manutius ever appears on the front page of The New York Times.

Curiously, I do not think of myself as a value investor in books, although I certainly approach financial markets with that mindset. Value investing requires a distinction between price and economic value, and rare books have no intrinsic economic value other than that which the market creates. Price in the collecting world is a simple function of supply and demand. Of course, every good collector should know her own market and have an opinion about value and price. For me, however, the ultimate return on my investment in the publications of the Aldine Press is measured in cultural, not economic, terms.


The Story of a Patient Collector

By Joann Gilbert-Holmes

At Brown Brothers Harriman (BBH), we hold several principles of investing as the core tenets of our investment strategy. During a recent discussion with a client who is an experienced collector, I was struck by the similarities in our approaches to investing. Illustrated by the personal history and experience of our client, we apply some of our investment principles to art collecting strategies – the perfect primer for the budding collector.

Sarah’s* passion for art was evident in her earliest years; growing up, she was rarely seen without a pencil in hand. That love of art was further encouraged by a formal education at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art. Her postcard collection – the first step toward her becoming a collector – began when, after graduation, her aunt took her on a trip to Europe. They toured the Palace of Versailles, the Louvre Museum and the Musée de l’Orangerie. She was dazzled and brought home as many art postcards as she could, determined to take that beauty back with her.

Sarah continued to collect postcards and posters, never compromising on the quality of what she brought into her home. Eventually, she was able to put her passion into action when she established the corporate art collection for the American Can Company. Her efforts regarding that first foray into collecting were acknowledged by The New York Times and compared to the Chase Bank collection, which was the forerunner of corporate collections and the model for other companies worldwide.

Over time, she diversified her own art collection to include modern and contemporary paintings, sculptures and drawings – taking time to evaluate each piece in which she invested. After years of accumulating a well-curated selection of pieces, Sarah received a collector’s award from a well-respected museum. Her success as a collector was driven by her passion for art, but it was sustained by her skills as an investor.

Following are two of the principles that have helped Sarah over the years.

Investors must know what they own.

One can look at art without actually seeing its meaning, value or significance. It is important that a collector know the difference between looking and seeing. For art, that requires significant research into the artist’s background and history, the provenance of the piece and the socioeconomic and historical context of the work. This information provides meaning and value for the piece.

Price and value are different things.

Sarah understood the difference between price and value, and it became a tenet of her art investing strategy early in her career. She began by purchasing works that she valued for their intrinsic merit, even if they were not fashionable at the time. She favored realistic art – a style that took much confidence to buy at a time when the world cared only about abstract art. However, it was exactly this step that enabled her to buy exceptional pieces at prices that will never be seen again. The first piece she purchased was a drawing by David Hockney – a colored pencil drawing from his camping days in Scotland. Following this, she built the foundation of her personal collection with Royal College of Art artists Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.

Sarah often states that it is not about owning the art – it is about the learning process in acquiring it and the profound fulfillment of seeing it on display. The only role for our collector now is to dust off the gems occasionally and preserve them for others to enjoy.

*Client name has been changed.


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PB-2017-06-28-1515   Expires 07/31/2019