“My highest priority is to build up confidence in the professional antiquarian book trade”
An interview with ILAB President Norbert Donhofer, by Bettina Führer
In mid-April the Austrian antiquarian bookseller Norbert Donhofer was elected ILAB President. In an interview with Bettina Führer he talks about recent challenges of the international antiquarian book trade and his plans for the upcoming two years of his presidency.
In your speech at the end of the 41st ILAB Congress in Paris you mentioned two main challenges the antiquarian book trade has to face: the economic world crisis and the digitalization of books.
How will ILAB cope with these challenges?
First of all, you have to analyze both challenges on a different level. Actually, we antiquarian booksellers cannot do anything really substantial against the economic crisis. Even if the market gradually recovers, it will need great efforts by each of us to make good business with our antiquarian bookshops. In economically difficult times like this, one thing is most important: to keep up good and confidential relationships to our customers. Wherever possible, we should try to accommodate our customers, both private collectors and institutions.
The turnover of sales to institutions and libraries has remained static for many years, because the budgets for the purchase of books, manuscripts and other items have been reduced. The increasing costs for the employees are a main reason for these – from our perspective – fatal budget reductions. At the same time, the digitalization of library collections is very expensive. For example: Google pays for the digitalization of the books kept in the Austrian National Library, but the immense costs for the packaging of the books, for their transport to Munich, where the books are digitalized, for their return to Vienna and their reintegration into the library collection must be paid by the Austrian National Library. Again, the amount of money needed is taken from the library’s budget, which means that there is a far lower budget for purchasing books. And there is another negative effect: A great part of our former customers were scholars, scientists and university professors. The texts they need for their lectures and researches, which they used to buy in the antiquarian bookshops, are now digitally available. This is a serious problem for the antiquarian book business, where, in former times, a high percentage of all sales was made with scientific books. As a consequence, the rare book trade is more and more forced to concentrate on private collectors and bibliophiles.
Is there a new generation of young collectors coming up?
Yes, there is a new generation of young book collectors, but it needs a lot of efforts and attention to attract new customers and, most of all, to keep them. This was different in former times. Today, the process of binding new customers, building up confidence and, in the ideal case, a personal relationship between collectors and antiquarian booksellers has become much more difficult. Nevertheless, there are new and younger collectors, even if the average customer in an antiquarian bookshop belongs to elder generations. Another important development is that antiquarian booksellers are exploring and establishing new markets.
Where in the world are the most profitable rare book markets?
The decline of the Soviet Union and the rise of new states around Russia initiated enormous political and economic changes. One result of that development was a huge new market and a new group of customers for rare books, prints and manuscripts in Eastern Europe. Although the collectors in Russia and the neighboring countries also suffer from the present economic crisis, the market there will be very important for the antiquarian book trade in the upcoming years. Dealers will sell many rare books to Eastern Europe, because there is a lack of old books and prints in the libraries, institutions and private collections. China and India will also become important markets. Another interesting region for the future of the rare book trade is Arabia. For some years more and more Arabian collectors have been visiting the international antiquarian book fairs in London or Paris. And there are some colleagues who are already successfully exhibiting at the book fairs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
What is your vision as ILAB President? Are there any projects you are working on during your presidency?
The most important project at the moment is to work on a strategic part-time cooperation with AbeBooks. At the General Meeting in Paris the presidents of ILAB’s member associations voted to continue the negotiations with Abe to establish such a cooperation between ILAB and Abe to promote the professional antiquarian book trade. The aim is that ILAB booksellers listing on AbeBooks are highlighted on the Abe homepage as the world's leading experts. This would be an enormous advantage for all ILAB dealers who offer their books on one of the biggest commercial databases, and it would be a clear sign to all book collectors where to buy high quality books and where they can trust in the authenticity and precise descriptions of the books for sale as well as on adequate prices. The presidents discussed the proposal carefully in Paris and finally decided to allow the Committee to continue the negotiations with AbeBooks to prepare a contract fixing the detailed steps - and the limitations - of this project. As soon as the details of the contract have been worked out, the ILAB Committee will discuss it with the Presidents and the ILAB affiliates. I hope that we can finalize the project within the upcoming two or three months.
Not all ILAB affiliates seem to appreciate the negotiations with Abe. However, it is very important to negotiate good conditions for the ILAB booksellers who are listing on AbeBooks, because no less than 65 per cent of all ILAB affiliates offer their books on this database – and many of them earn their living exclusively through internet sales. It is also often criticized that AbeBooks belongs to Amazon and that ILAB therefore should not agree to a joint project of any kind with AbeBooks.
What are the main arguments against such a cooperation with AbeBooks?
With the rise of the internet there was an absolutely positive attitude towards purchasing and selling books on online databases. Suddenly, it was possible to sell from Austria to Australia, for example, a five-volume standard work on Emperor Maximilian – that had been impossible without the internet. After some time the antiquarian booksellers became acquainted with the negative aspects of the internet trade. Suddenly, for example, it was possible to copy and paste book descriptions written and published by rare book dealers who, in turn, could not do anything against it. And suddenly, the prices of the books, the purchases of rare and valuable items became transparent. Some years ago I offered a very rare book for a six-digit price in a book fair catalogue. The catalogue was sent out via the ILAB mailing list, so it could be immediately found via Google. Everyone could look up the price of the book. Such a transparence is very inconvenient for most collectors. When you are selling books from the high-end, discretion is inevitable. As a consequence, books and manuscripts from the high-end of the market are hardly sold through internet platforms.
Any other projects the ILAB Committee is currently working on?
Further projects on the agenda of the new ILAB Committee are a worldwide "Rare Book Day" in cooperation with the UNESCO World Book and Copyright Day on 23rd April 2015, strategic partnerships with CINOA (Confédération Internationale des Négociants en Oeuvres d'Art) and IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions) as well as several improvements of the ILAB website.
Another important initiative will focus on promoting the numerous rare book schools and antiquarian booksellers’ seminars worldwide through the ILAB website. The Rare Book School and the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar in the United States along with all the lectures, seminars and workshops in France, Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom are very well visited by rare book dealers and newcomers. Here lies the future both of rare book collecting and the antiquarian book trade.
At the beginning of the year 2014 the ILAB Committee signed a remarkable contract with the Bavarian State Library (BSB). The library runs a digital long-term archive in cooperation with the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre. This archive stores websites of scientific relevance. Since January 2014 the ILAB website with over a thousand articles and interviews on every imaginable book-related theme is part of the archive and can be searched through the OPAC catalogue, side by side with millions of books and manuscripts from all centuries. The OPAC catalogue and the website of the Bavarian State Library are linked to websites word wide. The fact, that the ILAB site, with around 35.000 to 39.000 visitors per month, is now part of it, will further raise its visibility.
Our most important task, however, is to rebuild the public image of the international antiquarian book trade. In the past years the reputation of the professional trade has been seriously damaged by spectacular thefts and forgeries. It is our duty to regain the confidence of our customers. This will only be possible, if all ILAB dealers hold up the standards defined in the Code of Usages and Customs of ILAB and its member associations. This is my highest priority as ILAB President: to build up confidence in the professional antiquarian book trade and to communicate the respectability, expertise and professionalism of the ILAB affiliates to our customers and to the public.
Has the number of book thefts and forgeries in fact increased in recent years? Or is there nowadays a higher public awareness concerning rare book crimes, motivated by reports and articles in the media?
There have always been book thefts, and there will always be book thefts. What the world has never seen before is that a library and its historical collection was robbed over years. This happened to the Girolamini Library in Naples (Italy). The stolen books were sold by top dealers to top collectors and institutions who now have to check their past years’ purchases. Such a catastrophe damages the confidence our customers. American libraries, for example, now request a complete history of provenances of any item they wish to buy. In many cases this is difficult or even impossible for an antiquarian bookseller.
The same is true concerning forgeries. We always were and we always will be confronted with forgeries from time to time. But there is a big difference: In former times forgeries were amateurish and therefore easily to detect. In the past twenty years the technical tools have been brought to perfection so that today even experts do not dare to question the authenticity of forged books or manuscripts. Very often the forgery is only detected, because the forgers failed to find the right paper. A widely known example is Nikolai Lobachevsky’s study „O natchalak geometrie“, worth several hundred thousand euros and was first published in a newspaper. Two forgeries of Lobachevsky’s work were only detected, because the paper did not come from Kasan around the year of its publication, in 1830, but from Moscow and St. Petersburg in later years.
In recent years there have been few spectacular forgeries. Compared to the millions of books and manuscripts offered and sold by antiquarian booksellers worldwide the number of forgeries could be regarded as insignificant, but this is not true. The forged books were offered for millions of euros or dollars, which, of course, raised public interest in those forgeries – and caused a considerable damage to the image of the antiquarian book trade.
What can ILAB do against these developments?
We do not have to reinvent the wheel, because the rules for the professional rare book trade have long been fixed in the ILAB Code of Usages and Customs. Of course, every antiquarian bookseller strives to have the “purchase of a lifetime”, to have “the big shot”. To work hard to achieve this personal aim does not necessarily mean to forget certain ethical, moral, and professional principles. On the contrary: A really successful antiquarian bookseller will always show his expertise and respectability by abiding to the principles laid down in the ILAB Code of Usages and Customs.
Furthermore, ILAB has intensified its cooperation with IFLA, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. When the libraries announce a book theft from their collections this announcement is immediately added to the ILAB Stolen Book Database, published online on www.stolen-book.org, and a security message is sent out to all affiliates who, in turn, get immediately into contact with the libraries, when one of the stolen items is offered to them. In this way ILAB could already help to detect many thefts, and we will certainly work on further improving this early warning system. Besides this, ILAB’s cooperation with CINOA, the international art dealers’ association, is very helpful to exchange experiences and information concerning forgeries.
Published in German by Bettina Führer on the website of the Austrian Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association (VAO), translated by Barbara van Benthem. Picture: ILAB.