The Real Friends of Rare Books – A comment on two excellent articles by Fabrizio Govi and Daniele Danesi
By Umberto Pregliasco
On Sunday, November 9th, Il Sole 24 Ore devoted an entire page to recent problems in the Italian rare book trade, featuring two excellent articles by Daniele Danesi and Fabrizio Govi. These articles moved me to speak a few words prior to the Bloomsbury Rome auction of November 12, with its books “released from confiscation” ("dissequestrati"). Had he not been abroad, I am certain that Fabrizio, who succeeded me as president of the ALAI in 2010, would have done exactly the same. I recognize that in this time of severe economic crisis and in the aftermath of the “Girolamini Affair” and related criminal activities, Fabrizio has demonstrated outstanding leadership in speaking out on behalf of ALAI members, and defending them against irresponsible allegations and harassment by Italian authorities.
The Bloomsbury auction, originally scheduled for June and postponed several times for obvious reasons, finally took place. It is not important whether it was successful: this event should be considered as an excellent sign of the basic strength of the Italian trade. Stronger than the current economic crisis, the “confiscations” dealers have frequently suffered the criminal devastations of underfunded libraries and public institutions, and the vicious slander which has mocked the Italian trade abroad.
All lovers of books, whether collectors or booksellers, may dream that the book in his hands is unique, the only copy in the world. This is a dream: as rare and prized and valuable as they may be, the printed books are by definition a multiple, existing in many copies. Each copy has one or more characteristics which distinguish it from any other: a specific copy may have wider or narrower margins, may be bound in contemporary pigskin or in recent cloth, may contain such internal defects as waterstaining in the front matter or a noticeable inkstain at the back. Indeed, this is precisely the genius of the printed book – that unlike the hand-written manuscripts which preceded it, the book exists in multiple copies, and however rare, a specific copy cannot be identified on the basis of title alone. Indeed, it is a scandal that one of the greatest symbols of democracy, the printed book, should be subject to unjustified and unlawful seizure. In sum, the fact that one copy of a particular title is alleged or known to have been stolen has no bearing on the legal status of other copies.
In his editorial of last Sunday, the esteemed librarian and bibliographer Daniele Danesi raises the essential question of the responsible stewardship of our patrimony in the bluntest of terms: in the current crisis, who are the real friends of rare books? The collectors and dealers concerned with their preservation and lawful exchange, or a convicted fellon and authorities naive enough to 'believe' a pathological liar? Let us hope that the expression of such an opinion on the part of one of Italy’s most distinguished librarians, published on such a newspaper, will signal a change in public opinion and a return to normalcy in the world of rare books.
The Italian version has been published on the website of the Italian Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association (ALAI), presented here by permission of the author.