The Greatest Antiquarian Bookseller the World Has Seen

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A. S. W. Rosenbach sold antiquarian books from his Philadelphia and New York bookshops. Considered the Napoleon of the auction room, he helped instill in America the importance of a rare book library.

Abraham Simon Wolf Rosenbach (18761952) was known respectfully as the Doctor or Dr. R, and familiarly as Rosy. He lived at 20082010 Delancey Place, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, and maintained a second bookshop at 15 East 51st Street in New York City. Fundamental to Rosenbach’s success was his intellectual training at the University of Pennsylvania. With a PhD in English, he could discuss literature toe-to-toe with the greatest bibliophiles. Many considered him the greatest antiquarian bookseller the world has seen.

“He [Rosenbach] bought most of the important rare books and manuscripts sold at auction in England and America. His name became synonymous with great books at great prices. It was not just that he paid more money for books than anyone had before, or that he sold more books for more money than anyone before, but that the buying and selling were the manifestations of a faith in the greatness of great books that he persuaded other men to share.” (Wolf & Fleming, Rosenbach, A Biography.) Bibliophile and author A. Edward Newton added that “No other bookseller has been so rich as he, no other bookseller has ever depended so entirely on his own knowledge, and no other bookseller has ever had a personal library so unique and so valuable.”

In his article, “Why America Buys England’s Books,” published in the Atlantic Monthly (October 1927, vol. 140), Rosenbach affirmed that there was nothing new about American interest in buying rare British books. He traced the fad back to 1840. A century later, Rosy stated that the study of English letters in the universities of the U.S. was also responsible for the persistent demand for everything relating to the language and literature of Great Britain. More significantly, he reminded Brits that in the 18th century THEY had been the raiders, preying on artistic gems in Italy, France, and Spain.

Lieutenant-Colonel Sir George Holford of Dorchester House was much more absorbed in his orchid collection than in his late father’s library. In April 1925, he invited the Philadelphia bookseller to pick out 100 books (including all Four Shakespeare Folios in their original bindings) in London to sell in America. The two agreed on a price for the lot and Dr. R. put down a deposit of £110,000. He left Dorchester House with the treasures wrapped in brown paper stuffed into a butcher’s cart. No wonder the Brits labeled Rosenbach “The Invader.” Holford acknowledged to Rosenbach that Englishmen “can see literary treasures they have sold in an American institution far more readily than in the private collections in England.”

Top among Rosenbach’s book customers were two Henrys: Folger and Huntington. Folger’s checks to Rosenbach add up to $1,388,990 ($20 million today) and Huntington’s, $4,333,610 ($60 million today). The rascal bookseller played one collector off the other. He wrote Folger that if he did not purchase a 1579 Thomas Legge manuscript it would be in the doctor’s luggage when he traveled to San Marino, California to see Huntington. Rosenbach wrote Huntington, “Would like to give you first offer of Shakespeare quartos not in your collection” only after he had tried to sell them to Folger, J. P. Morgan, and Joseph Widener. Nevertheless, both collectors recognized how important the erudite and picturesque Rosenbach was in defining and providing core elements of their libraries. They were most tickled that he christened his cabin cruiser yacht “First Folio.”

 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

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Author:Stephen Grant

Independent scholar Stephen H. Grant is the author of the first biography of Henry and Emily Folger, COLLECTING SHAKESPEARE (Johns Hopkins, 2014), which describes how the Brooklyn couple founded and endowed the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC in 1932.

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