Ever wonder what all those Civil War books granddad collected for 50 years would be worth on the rare-book market? Or the letters your father sent back from Europe during World War II? Or maybe you inherited a cache of photographs that look like they should be in some archive.
Tomorrow could be your lucky day. The Rosenbach Museum and Library will take over the nearby Academy of Vocal Arts, 1920 Spruce St., to sponsor a free four-hour seminar about evaluating and protecting our family treasures. This is the museum’s way of calling attention to its exhibition, “Rosenbach Redux: Further Book Adventures in England and Ireland,” which will, after one more week, move on to the Folger Library in Washington.
Not only is the professional counseling free, but those who attend get a free pass for the final week of the exhibition.
Glen Ruzicka, of the Conservation Center for Art and Historical Artifacts, will lead off the seminar with a 20-minute talk about how to recognize what’s worthwhile and what’s not. Rosenbach’s Leslie A. Morris will follow with suggestions on how to care for family treasures.
Then, for three hours, a task force of several conservators and appraisers will scrutinize the heirlooms you bring in (limited to books, manuscripts and photos) and give you a suggested value based on similar items already marketed, and tell you where to get a firm, official appraisal.
Your participation will honor the memory of the legendary Dr. Abraham Simon Wolf Rosenbach (1876-1952), known officially as A.S.W. Rosenbach, known to his intimates in Philly as “Rosey,” and known worldwide—among those with rare books and manuscripts to sell—as Dr. R. He turned the sale of rare books in the ‘20s into a sort of high-adventure detective story. In the little Fort Knoxes of stately homes in England and Ireland he found treasures, then sold them to freshly-minted American millionaires who wanted some trappings of culture now that they had the cash.
More than once, he endured the controversies his acquisitions stirred in Britain, particularly when the British Museum had turned down treasures he swooped up to buy, and when the British Museum had turned down treasures he swooped in to buy, and when the British accused him of plunder.
Rosenbach got his Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania in 1901 with an old-style dissertation—the influence of Spanish literature on Elizabethan English. Anti-Semitism in Penn’s English Department at the time made it impossible for him to lead the life of the teaching scholar. So he went for an alternative: He became the wiliest, most financially successful buyer and seller of rare books and manuscripts in America.
He and his brother Philip had inherited an antiques business. Philip concentrated on the old furniture and paintings (not too successfully, by all accounts), freeing up Dr. R. to deal books. Dr. R. flashed that doctorate in the way a detective investigating a crime would wave his badge. His first super-sortie in 1928 to England and Ireland is the subject of the current exhibition at the Rosenbach.
What rocketed Dr. R. into orbit was his sly maneuvering to the manuscript of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Underground at Sotheby’s in 1928. A snooty critic, one I.A. Williams, wrote condescendingly in the London Mercury about the manuscript before the sale, huffing that “its value is largely sentimental, and … there is little doubt that the sum could be spent more profitably on books and manuscripts of a far higher importance to scholarship.”
What Williams didn’t comprehend was Dr. R.’s business acumen. Dr. R. knew that buying the marginally important Alice’s Adventures Underground (for 15,400 pounds, when a pound was worth $4.80), would be worth literally millions in the publicity that would secure his fame as a well-heeled American who gave good, new U.S. bucks for old, unread U.K. books.
In spirited bidding, the British Museum dropped out early, and Rosenbach went head to head with an English book-dealer before winning the prize at what was, for the time, an astonishingly high amount. The purchase raised a storm of protest in Britain, even though Rosenbach immediately offered to turn the manuscript over to Britain for the price he had paid for it.
No wealthy Briton stepped forward to reclaim Alice, and Rosenbach sold it to Eldridge R. Johnson, president of the Victor Talking Machine Co. (Years later, Rosenbach bought the manuscript back from Johnson’s heirs for $50,000, then agreed with a proposal by Philadelphian Lessing Rosenwald to raise money to return it to Britain as an American gesture of good will. It’s now in the British Museum.)
The Mercury reporter, capturing the Sotheby event, wrote afterward that when the sale was finished “and the auctioneer announced the buyer’s name as ‘Rosenbach,’ an innocent gentleman standing next to me remarked: ‘Who is Rosenbach? Is he a dealer?’”
Make that wheeler-dealer. No one with books to “get rid of” in the United Kingdom would ever again ask, “Dr. Who?” The drawing rooms of the stately houses in Ireland buzzed with Dr. R. talk. Tougher inheritance taxes and a failing agricultural economy were turning the Irish gentry into financially strapped ghosts of their former selves. Dr. R. gave them a respectable way out of the fiscal pits recent history had dug for them.
A stroke of serendipity was Dr. R.’s linkup with a minor Irish writer and Catholic apologist named Shane Leslie. Nowadays, no one remembers what Leslie wrote. But in the ‘20s he knew everyone worth knowing in Ireland. After the Sotheby sensation, Leslie and Dr. R. made a beeline for the overnight Belfast boat. (Leslie created a crisis by losing the first-class tickets Dr. R. had purchased ahead of time. Dr. R. was unflappable, as he was said to be, always.)
At the first stately house they visited in Ireland, Dr. R.’s eyes bugged at treasures he knew his best customer, Henry A. Folger, would go ga-ga over. He telegraphed the wealthy American back in the States, and before you could say Western Union twice, Folger wired back a buy-order.
Dr. R. made the traditional 10 percent markup on the Alice manuscript. But he made millions of dollars on the follow-up sales—what the European gentry called “private treaty” purchases, with no public aspect—just hard, quiet bargaining. No one knew what Dr. R. had paid for these mostly mint copies of very old books, so nobody could complain about what he charged. It was a perfect formula for turning Rosey into a millionaire.
You can get the whole story of Rosenbach’s adventures in a 112-page catalogue ($15 for visitors, $12 for Rosenbach members) printed with a grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and put together with money from the Pew Charitable Trust. Sotheby’s—ironically or aptly, depending on how you look at it—contributed money to expedite the show.
After he and his 13-year-old brother, Philip, died, Dr. R.’s own collection of early American children’s books was donated to the Free Library of Philadelphia and his collection of American Judaica to the American Jewish Historical Society. His and his brother’s estates, including the family home and its contents, are now the Rosenbach Museum and Library—whose collection reflects the Doctor’s interests in Americana, British and American literature, and illustrated books.
And who knows? Maybe your dusty old books and curled-up letters will turn into a minor inheritance, if not the sort of money the Doctor envisioned when he was eyeing Rosey days ahead for him and his books.
Reprinted from The Philadelphia Inquirer, Friday, Jan. 19, 1990