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The ABA and the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers

The ABA and ILAB look back at a long history. The ABA is relaunching its flagship fair in London this year, the oldest antiquarian book fair in the world, under the auspices of ILAB.
This text by the late Anthony Rota, ABA bookseller and ILAB President of Honour, was published in 2008 in the ABA Directory.
Published on 27 March 2018

What is the League? How does it work? What is its significance for book buyers and those who are not themselves dealers, but who have a book to sell? When the ABA was founded back in 1906, the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers did not exist and many dealers outside the United Kingdom who wanted to publicise their standing and to foster contacts which would be useful to them in developing an international business applied to join the ABA. To reflect this situation the ABA added the word 'international' to its title. 

That is how things were until the end of the 2nd World War when trade across national boundaries, particularly in Europe, was struggling to renew itself. War-time divisions (e.g. between France and Germany) had still to be healed. In an attempt to bring order out of chaos and to replace resentment with goodwill, booksellers in various national associations held a 'Preliminary Conference' in Amsterdam in 1947 under the chairmanship of the ABA President Percy Muir. At a congress in Copenhagen just a year later, attended by 24 delegates, the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers was founded. The members were not individual booksellers but national associations. The dealers who belonged to those associations were said to be 'affiliated to the League'. Initially they came from Denmark, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland. 

The ILAB's objectives were declared to be 'The Co-ordination of all efforts and projects having in view the development and growth of the trade of antiquarian bookselling, thereby creating friendly relations between antiquarian booksellers throughout the world.' ...

The founding fathers proceeded to draw up a Code of Usages and Customs defining the 'usual rules of the trade'. National associations seeking membership of the League are still required to certify that their own members are aware of the Code and will observe its provisions. It was a sign of the passions that still simmered just below the surface in those post-war days that it was found necessary to include in the League's rules the statement that "The League is free from either political or religious commitments of any kind.' It is important to note that the League is a loose federation of autonomous associations and has no power, statutory or otherwise, to interfere in the internal affairs of the national associations. The League works for the easing of trade across national boundaries, campaigning against unduly onerous customs restrictions and against taxes on books. It works to promote the highest ethical standards... 

In areas of public policy, the ILAB has taken strong stands on such issues as the obligations of dealers in regard to forgeries; the duty of care which booksellers need to observe in order to avoid buying books of dubious, not to say false, provenance; and the warranty for buyers which it causes to be displayed at all book fairs, national and international, held under its aegis. There is close co-operation between the member associations where exchange of information about stolen books is concerned. This is very necessary in an age when a book stolen in, say, London can be offered for sale in New York only 24 hours later. The overall policy-making body of the League is the General Assembly of National Associations meetings in Congress. Congresses were initially held every twelve months but now take place every second year, a meeting of the presidents of national associations being the last court of appeal in the alternate years. By contrast to the attendance in 1948, it is now not unusual for as many as 400 booksellers to gather together at today's congresses to meet colleagues, to discuss matters of common concern and to gain an understanding of one another's problems. Topics discussed over the years have included the training of apprentices, the need for full collation of all books offered for sale; the standards of bibliographical description, valuation charges, credit terms, and the conditions attaching to sales by auction. 

The day-to-day business of the League is conducted by an elected President with seven officers and committee members to help. As long ago as 1951, Percy Muir wrote in his presidential report, 'I do not exaggerate one iota when I say that between us (the president and vice-president) we compose, dictate and sign and despatch some five thousand sheets of typewritten matter in the course of a year.' Since then, the number of national associations affiliated to the League has more than doubled and the fact that agendas, minutes and publications such as the newsletter all have to be published in two languages, adds to the load. ..

The League sponsors a Bibliographical Prize. Originally a triennial affair, the competition is now held every four years and attracts entries from around the globe. The prize is currently worth $10,000 to the winner, apart from the prestige and the extra sales the prize engenders. Its future has recently been assured by a generous donation by the Breslauer Foundation. ... 

The badge of the League, with its motto "amor librorum nos unit", means that, whether displayed in the premises and on the writing paper and catalogues of ILAB dealers, emblazoned on publicity material for book fairs sponsored by the League, whether at home or abroad, whether in person, at a book fair or in a dealer's shop, whether by letter or over the internet, whether in response to a catalogue or a special quotation, collectors can buy with confidence. Equally the League enjoins its affiliates to exercise the highest standards of expertise and ethical behaviour, particularly when making appraisals or offering to purchase books or manuscripts. It has been stated that the League has no authority to interfere in matters normally left to national associations, but the moral persuasion that can be brought to bear should there be a rare case of recalcitrance is truly formidable. 

The ILAB is in good heart as is still expanding. It will continue to maintain high profile where ethical matters are concerned and will give a lead to national associations where, as in matters of security, export regulations, taxes and training, it is appropriate to do so. Long may the ILAB and its ideals flourish. 

Anthony Rota
Anthony Rota, ILAB President of Honour (†2009)

President of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association from 1971-1972
President of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers from 1988-1991





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