The best six antique book dealers

Antonio Carnevale

Our selection of six best antique book dealers, spanning different locations, specializations, approaches and histories

“Despite its strengths and weaknesses, and despite its damp spots and small woodworms, once bought and registered, an antique book will always remain mine, even if I have to sell it.” Umberto Pregliasco is the owner of the important antique bookstore in Turin that bears his name. He likes to repeat this aphorism, and probably so do most antique book dealers. Separating from a book by selling it does not cut the bond between the dealer and their object of studies and research. 

As we mentioned in a previous article, the world of the antiquarian books is still plagued by die-hard prejudices. Despite a rising market, many potential collectors and bibliophiles keep a safe distance from this sector because they consider it opaque and difficult to understand. Some recent news did not help to dismantle this preconception. 

We here try to unfold some mysteries by drawing up a list of six top antique book dealers that have shown rigor and passion in their business, making it into a cultural enterprise beyond mere commercial purposes. From Basel to Paris, from New York to Chicago, London, Turin and Milan, here is our selection.

Les Enluminures (Paris, Chicago, New York)

Antique book dealer Les Enluminures was founded in Paris in 1991 by Sandra Hindman along with a branch in Chicago. Their New York gallery and shop were opened in May 2012. Les Enluminures is a regular presence at the most important art and antique fairs, such as the TEFAF in Maastricht, the Winter Antiques Show in New York, Masterpiece and Frieze Masters in London and Fine Arts Paris. Among its many clients it can boast the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum, the National Gallery in Washington and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Les Enluminures focuses on manuscripts and miniatures from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but it also deals with jewellery from the same periods—a rare mix for a dealer specializing in books. It comes with no surprise that Sandra Hindman is one of the leading experts in miniature and medieval manuscripts, but also researches into the so-called “minor art” of goldsmithing. She is professor of art history at Northwestern University and author, co-author and editor of numerous books and articles on the history of illuminated manuscripts and medieval rings.

The Olivetan Gradual
“The Olivetan Gradual”, In Latin, illuminated manuscripts on parchment. Italy, Lombardy [Santa Maria di Baggio?], c. 1430s. With 5 miniatures or historiated initials by the Olivetan Master and the Master of the Lodi Choir Books and eleven decorated initials by the Master of the Lodi Choir Books – Credits: Les Enluminures.

Les Enluminures organizes four or five exhibitions every year, some in collaboration with other dealers and others traveling to other locations. To give an idea of the quality of the books from this antique book dealer in recent years, it would be enough to quote The Olivetan Gradual, a Latin language illuminated manuscript on parchment of Lombard origin from 1430, with five miniatures or historiated initials by the Olivetan Master and the Master of the Choral Books of Lodi, and with eleven decorated initials by the Master of the Choral Books of Lodi. These were both Lombard illuminators whose activities were the focus of the best student of famous art historians such as Roberto Longhi and Mina Gregori. Sold by Les Enluminures, the volume is now at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library in New Haven, CT, which is the section of the Yale University library that collects rare and ancient manuscripts and books.

The Lombard Haggadah
“The Lombard Haggadah”, in Hebrew, profusely illustrated manuscript on parchment. Northern Italy (Lombardy), c. 1390-1400; 75 fine colored drawings by artists in the circle of Giovannino de Grassi – Private collection – Credit and courtesy: Les Enluminures.

Another piece of great historical interest from this antique book dealer is The Lombard Haggadah, an abundantly illustrated manuscript on parchment in Hebrew also from northern Italy (Lombardy), datable between 1390 and 1400. It comprises 75 colored drawings by the circle of Giovannino de Grassi. Another excellent example from Les Enluminures is a work by Giovanni Pietro Birago (active in Brescia, Venice, Milan, c. 1460-1513) from the Hours of Bona Sforza: a tempera and gold leaf on parchment dating back to 1490 and now at the British Library—a piece that the English institution considers “one of the most beautiful illuminated books of our entire collection.”

Giovanni Pietro Birago
Giovanni Pietro Birago (active Brescia, Venice, Milan, c. 1460-1513). Hawking, from the Hours of Bona Sforza, tempera and gold leaf on parchment. Italy, Milan, c. 1490 – British Library, London – Credit and courtesy: Les Enluminures.

Camille Sourget (Paris)

The passion for antique books runs in the family of the Parisian antique book dealer Camille Sourget. Immersed in the world of ancient books since childhood, she decided very early on to pursue a career in the field. After her studies in art history, she moved to London and later went working in the prestigious gallery of her parents. Seeking to broaden her knowledge of the profession, she spent some time with the largest international antique book dealers in New York. In 2005 she finally returned to Paris and opened her gallery store on rue de Seine, the main location still today. Since the beginning, this is where the dealer’s team has welcomed passionate collectors from all over the world.

Camille Sourget Librarie
Camille Sourget Librarie- Parigi, 93 Rue de Seine – Courtesy: Camille Sourget.

Camille Sourget specializes in early editions of literature, travel books and atlases, scientific books, incunabula, as well as seminal illustrated books. Yet more specifically, the gallery focuses on rare antiquarian books that have great origins, rich bindings, or any other particularity that could make them “unique” within a specific period from the 15th to the early 20th centuries.

Over the years, Camille Sourget and her team have been regular appearances at the most prestigious international fairs (TEFAF Maastricht, Biennale Paris, New York Antiquarian Book Fair, Fine Arts Paris, Paris International Antiquarian Book Fair, China in Print in Hong Kong, and others) and have had important clients both among private collectors and institutions. For  example, in 2020 they sold to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, the MFAH in Houston, and the Bibliothèque Mazarine—although their most frequent customers are private collectors from the United States, Canada, South America, Europe and India.

Among the many rare works, this Parisian antique book dealer recently sold the first edition of Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Maior, generally considered by scholars as “the largest and most beautiful atlas ever published”. (Koeman I, p. 201). This atlas is illustrated with 593 fully colored and illuminated maps and views. According to experts, the quality of its pigments, its binding and purity make this specimen one of the most beautiful ever seen on the market. It is a shared opinion that Atlas Maior has been the most ambitious, largest and most refined editorial project of topography, cartography and hydrography in history.

Bleau, Joan. Atlas Major
Bleau, Joan. Atlas Major, Sive Cosmographia Blaviana, Qua Solum, Salum, Coelum, Accuratissime Describuntur. Amsterdam, Joannis Blaeu, 1662-1665. – Courtesy: Camille Sourget.

Camille Sourget also recently sold the luxurious collection of Piranesi’s works in 27 volumes and 1189 surprisingly well preserved engravings. Among the pieces currently on sale there is a rare example of a monumental antiphonary from the 15th century, preserved in its original binding of wooden boards, covered with blind-molded pigskin and decorated with clasps, studs, brass fittings and nails. This work is a sumptuous (88 x 66 cm) manuscript on parchment. The ornament of the manuscript consists of 203 calligraphic initials (red, blue, black, some polychrome) or elaborate capitals with filigree decorations.

Antiphonary. Collection of the antiphons to be sung to go with the prayers for the Dead. 15th century. Contemporary binding of pigskin over massive wooden boards, blindstamped with a roll-tool of a lozenge pattern within a frame, heavy metal cornerpieces, five large metal bosses on each cover with elaborate pierced surrounds, nails, remnants of clasps, contemporary bookmarker. Contemporary binding. Dimensions of the binding: 88 x 66 cm. – Courtesy: Camille Sourget.

Another precious rarity now on sale at this antique book dealer is the Capetian manuscript of the School of Paris, handwritten on parchment leather and illuminated between 1230 and 1250 with 78 miniatures. It is a Bible of perhaps Parisian origin and represents an interesting addition to the production of a workshop that produced, according to the historian Robert Branner, some of the most beautiful and refined Parisian miniatures of the first half of the 13th century.

Interesting to note is how Camille Sourget stresses the importance of catalogs. The dealer sends to its customers around the world four paper catalogs every year, and this is anything but a secondary activity, if nothing else because it involves fundamental tools for bibliographic knowledge and constitutes an activity that unfortunately many antique book dealers are abandoning. Tiring and very difficult, it remains essential.

Bible en latin
Bible in Latin, with the Prologue attributed to St Jerome and the interpretation of the Hebrew names. Northern France, probably Paris, 1230-1250. – Credit and courtesy: Camille Sourget.

Despite everything, Camille Sourget is anything but a traditionalist and refractory to technology, a conservative attitude that otherwise plagues most of the old generation of antique book dealers. She attaches great importance to her online reputation and she is among the most dynamic on social media—she regularly reports his latest discoveries on Instagram, Facebook, Vimeo. Finally, it should be mentioned that Camille Sourget’s young team is all female: a specificity that is truly uncommon in the art market and even more so in the bibliophile environment.

Shapero Rare Books (London)

Shapero Rare Books is an internationally renowned antique book dealer, specialising also in works on paper. Founded in Mayfair in the heart of London by Bernard Shapero some 40 years ago, the business has recently expanded into two new locations: a bookshop and gallery on New Bond Street and a post-war and contemporary art gallery, Shapero Modern, near Maddox Street. Shapero Rare Books specializes in 15th to 20th century illustrated books, travel books, natural history, literature (including early modern editions), children’s books, guides, Hebraica & Judaica and Russian works. Among the antique books dealt by Shapero is the Doria Atlas, which the antiquarian bought at auction for 1.46 million pounds—at the time of its purchase it was the highest price ever paid for an atlas—and a series of books on birds illustrated by John Gould, all with contemporary binding. Among the books currently on the shelves of the New Bond Street shop is a milestone in the history of books with original photographs: Vues en Egypte by Maxine Du Camp, published in Paris in 1852 with 125 original prints. Along the same line, one can also find the King of Sweden’s copy of Piranesi’s Views of Rome and the color plate book by the French painter Louis Dupré: Voyage à Athènes et à Constantinople

Shapero Rare Books Gould Birds
A series of bird books by artist John Gould. – Credit and courtesy: Shapero Rare Books.

Shapero participates in the most important antiques fairs, such as TEFAF, Frieze Masters and Masterpiece, as well as antique fairs specializing in rare books including New York, Paris, London, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Hong Kong. The international and specialist character of this antique book dealer does not exclude attention and care for newbies though. As Bernard Shapero told us: “The bookshop team works with book collectors and institutions from all over the world and at every level, whether it’s a long-term project to build a meaningful collection or to help someone make their first purchase of rare books.”

Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books AG (Basel)

Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books AG is an antique book dealer specialized in museum quality manuscripts, miniatures and rare old printed books from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Founded by Jörn Günther in 1990, the dealer was originally based in Hamburg, but since 2011 it has been located in the medieval heart of Basel. Jörn Günther has been able to count on a diligently composed team of world-renowned researchers and scholars, all ardent bibliophiles, committed both to the research and to accompanying new customers during their journey into collecting and finding their niche. Günther’s academic interests originated in the manuscripts of the German World Chronicle (Weltchronik), but his collection now specializes in a wide variety of works from around the world. In 2015, this antique book dealer acquired nearly 200 of the first printed books from Dr. Otto Schäfer’s private collection; he exhibited the largest known fragment of the Gutenberg Bible, and in 2016 he assisted the J. Paul Getty Museum in the acquisition of a rare century-old Flemish manuscript documenting the adventures of the Burgundian knight Jacques de Lalaing (c.1530-40).

Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books AG
Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books AG – Basilea, Spalenberg 55 – Photo courtesy of Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books AG

Among the objects of particular interest currently on sale is a copy of Theuerdank (Augusta, 1517), illuminated with gold and silver on colored woodcuts. This work was dedicated to the  Emperor Maximilian I, who lived between the 15th and 16th centuries. It was intended as an epic poem celebrating his heroic deeds, and has been among the most coveted objects by bibliophiles over the centuries. The copy available from Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books AG will be included in the catalog of the Antiquariatsmesse Stuttgart 2021, where the Basel bookshop will exhibit from 29 January to 1 February (only online). Also noteworthy is a range of manuals for artists from the Schäfer library focusing on technical elements for drawing with perspective:  the first German edition of Jean Pélerin’s De artificiali perspectiva, an edition from 1509 that was also included in the special Forever collection by Sir Norman Rosenthal for Frieze Masters Viewing Room 2020 on the “eternal qualities of art.”

Libreria Malavasi (Milan)

With over 80 years of activity, Libreria Malavasi in Milan is a true heritage in the field of antique book dealerships in Italy. In 1939 the founder Paride Malavasi opened his shop in Milan in Via S. Tecla, still the location today despite a change of official address. Having survived the bombing during WWII, this shop was able to recover and the dealer experienced the liveliness of the post-war period, marked by growth. Initially Libreria Malavasi would specialize in science books, architecture, art, local Italian history, rare books from the 19th century and out of print editions from the 20th century. In 1975, when the leadership passed to Paride’s sons (first Maurizio, then Sergio and Sandra), the vocation of the Milanese antique book dealer retained its essence but also substantially grew. The heirs expanded to include books from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the main focus of Libreria Malavasi today. Since 1995, the dealers have also managed a website for antique books (maremagnum.com), aggregating the catalogs of over 600 Italian and foreign antique book dealers with over 10 million titles in total. The website is today one of the largest in Europe specializing in rare books.

Pregliasco (Turin)

Undoubtedly one of the most famous antique book dealers in Italy, Pregliasco was founded in 1911 when the very young Lorenzo Pregliasco asked the family to sell a farmhouse in the Cuneo area in order to be able to take over, by pure instinct, a dusty bookshop. Ever since that first intuition, the gallery has seen many illustrious visitors such as Benedetto Croce, Piero Gobetti, Franco Antonicelli, Luigi Einaudi, Giovanni Spadolini, Leonardo Sciascia, Gianni Agnelli and, in more recent years, the assiduous Umberto Eco.

The Pregliasco family has been tightly linked to the Italian Association of Antiquarian Booksellers (ALAI). Lorenzo was one of the founders of the association in 1947. His son Arturo was president from 1970 to 1976 and from 2004 to 2010 the role passed to Umberto, who is now at the helm of the business and who, with Umberto Eco, was the protagonist of a lectio magistralis at Yale University focusing on the dangerous relationships between book collectors and their own “pushers.”

Despite their clear focus on the early 16th century, the Pregliasco family have always dealt with all forms of bibliophilia. Over the various decades, these antique book dealers have proposed rare masterpieces but also indispensable reference books, for example Convivios, newsletters that complemented illustrated and autographed publications.

Biblia Pauperum
“Biblia Pauperum” – Venice, Giovanni Andrea Valvassori, 1511, In 8- (154 x 101 mm) cc 64 unnumbered – Picture from preliber.com.

Among the most important thematic catalogs by Pregliasco, each with hundreds of titles, we should mention Dante and his Time from 1965, those on the mountains (1963 and 2006), on Manzoni (1973, followed by Pascoli, Carducci, Monti), on Gabriele D’Annunzio (1972 and 1996), those on the Italian Risorgimento (1978), on the 20th century, on the Italian Private Presses, and L’idea del Teatro (on The Idea of Theatre, 2005). Catalogs on the Greek classics and Aldus Manutius, on Picasso and one on Dante have been published in collaboration with PrPh Books in New York. Unusual themes such as earthquakes, books printed on blue paper were curated by this Italian antique book dealer.

“Jorge Luis Borges once declared that when writers die, they become the books they have written. Paraphrasing this happy maxim, we could say that antique dealers live on in the catalogs they have published.” Umberto Pregliasco tells us. “Few traces of the books passed over the decades may remain, while the whole of their catalogs constitutes the dealer’s spiritual testament, the story of their life, of how they were able to transmit to the bibliophile, at every sale, their own knowledge and passion.”

After decades with a storefront on Via Accademia Albertina in Turin, Umberto Pregliasco moved the activity to the first floor hall, an open-space that combines old bookcases with some modern design. “The world has changed” explains the antique book dealer. “The social function of bookstores has changed. Even older customers prefer to surf on search engines and shop almost in the dark, without first stroking and smelling the volumes. Sales are mostly made by appointment and via e-mail: the established reputation of the bookstore means that there are requests from otherwise unknown customers from all over the world.” Concludes the antique book dealer: “Luckily the fundamental role of preserving memory and protecting antique books will remain with the dealer, dispersing and restoring libraries.” 

Antique books will still have a long life according to Pregliasco, who explains his vision with this metaphor: “Just like when gases change their state, a reversible process that is but a variation of the internal energy, so is for books. Nothing is lost: book collections change their skin, yes they change in their internal structure, maybe they divide, but just to aggregate in different forms and places. They come back to life, as it has always happened.”

[For more about books and art, here is our selection of best European artist book publishers. Ed.]

January 28, 2021