“You’ve got to keep rolling the dice”
London dealer Sam Fogg tells Beatie Wolfe the secrets of his success
Sam Fogg is probably the most glamorous and successful of the new generation of British dealers, dominating the market for manuscripts. He is renowned for his ‘eye’ and has brought to his field a fine appreciation of the arts of illumination and calligraphy, both Western and Asian. He has enlarged the traditional repertoire by dealing in various art objects and antiquities, from mediaeval reliquaries to beautiful Islamic bowls decorated with Kufic script – not to mention the occasional Old Master painting. His gallery on the corner of Cork and Clifford Street in London is a treasure trove, where you will often find dazzling, scholarly, museum-quality exhibitions.
The art of bookselling
I didn’t decide to become a bookseller; I fell into it by accident. In my early 20s I was determined to be an artist and that’s what I was until I reached about 25. Then I started helping a friend with a stall outdoors on the Portobello Road on Saturdays and, after a while, I got my own pitch. I happened to do better with the stall than I was doing at painting and I enjoyed it more than painting to a point. Then I started having children and so needed money, and I realised that I was doing more bookselling and less painting and I was actually enjoying it. The day I realised that, I stopped painting and just started focusing on bookselling.
How it began
I had my stall on the Portobello Road under the bridge for about 18 months. Then I was a runner for two or three years, running all kinds of books to people like Ian Hodgkins, Francis Edwards, Sims and Reed. I would go all over the Home Counties on buses visiting secondhand bookshops and then selling to people in London. I think that was the time I most enjoyed as a dealer. I went into partnership with Max Reed and John Sims in the early 80s and did art reference books for four years. And then I started on my own and began specialising in mediaeval manuscripts, although I’ve always tried to cover all kinds of books if possible, like most booksellers, just to have a crack at anything.
I dealt for two or three years in post war artists’ books, documentation of contemporary artists, multiples, etc, and I loved that. But it has always seemed obvious to me that the greatest books are mediaeval manuscripts. I think they are the most thrilling, beautiful and wonderful books. I like to cover what other people haven’t got. I don’t enjoy looking over my shoulder, thinking, ‘What does he have?’ ‘How much is he charging for that copy?’ ‘Is my copy worse or better?’ ‘What did this copy make in the last auction?’ With manuscripts you can make up your own mind whether they should be cheap or expensive. I do printed books as well, but mostly Asian printed books, Chinese printed books, and they are so rare that they’re like manuscripts. What one can rarely say about a European book, that it’s the only known copy or surviving text, can be said more often than not for a Chinese book.
Catalogue of eras
I’ve tried creating new customers for books and manuscripts by finding clients for paintings and other works of art and then moving them onto manuscripts. But that’s quite difficult actually, as people who buy books are mostly not the same people who buy other works of art. I think the key to successful dealing is to try and become the best or one of the best for a particular kind of item so then the clients will find you. We put a lot of effort into our catalogues; we produce two or three a year and make them look as beautiful as we can. We get the best scholars we can find to write them and either focus on an area where people aren’t dealing or try and present it in a new way. This can bring us new clients but amazingly sometimes it doesn’t.
The one that got away
For ten years I besieged one of the great stately homes of England to get a collection of books. Every year I put several days of time into chasing down this collection; I made many trips and each year I got closer and closer. I thought it was mine but just at the moment when the hand goes to the mouth, it was snatched from my fingers by an English collector acting through a major London bookseller. That hurt. It took the wind out of my sails. So I made a little note to myself that I would never again invest ten years in trying to get something out of the English aristocracy because it hurts too much if you fail.
Five years ago I bought a page of a manuscript from a continental dealer. I was offered it at a very large price with seconds to make up my mind. It turned out to be a leaf that had gone missing from the Turin-Milan Hours, sometime in the 17th century. If you’re interested in mediaeval manuscripts, the Turin-Milan Hours is very important because it’s many people’s idea of the greatest mediaeval manuscript of all. Of course it’s a matter of taste, some people would choose the Trés Riches or the Golden Gospels, but the majority would choose the Turin-Milan. The artist who was in charge of producing the paintings was Jan van Eyck so it is one of the greatest manuscripts in the world and you would not count on finding a missing page. Of course it was only a page from a book but a page from a book that is far greater than most books.
They do forge manuscripts, they always have, but I think they’re easier to spot than other kinds of forgeries. There are so many things you have to get right: the paper, ink, appearance, patina, not to mention what is written on the manuscript, and that is very difficult. I don’t think I have ever been caught by a fake except perhaps one Chinese printed book, but they’ve been faking Chinese printed books for two thousand years so they’re just as good to have as the real ones. I did come very close to getting caught by a fake miniature once, though.
Knowledge was power
The amount of information, literature and published knowledge people have easy access to for buying and selling has increased so vastly, not just with the internet. When I started it was a case of instinct and what you had personally learned through talking to people and viewing books. That used to be very important and now obviously it is much less so. In the past you didn’t just need to know the necessary information, you needed to have it in your head or else it wasn’t much use to you.
The appliance of clients
As always the trade should be led by what people want. I think that the art market and the book trade tend to be full of sellers who deal in what they like or what they know about, which may indeed be what the public wants, but it may not be. Dealers can guide and modify what people want but it’s the clients who decide what’s desirable and so, in the end, it’s going to be led by them.
I’ve noticed from dealing in other areas that there is a particular vice that booksellers seem to have, which is to hang on to their mistakes, books that perhaps they shouldn’t have bought. What I’d say to a novice bookseller is if you can’t sell a book reasonably quickly then ditch it even if it means you lose money. As long as you have an open mind you can use the money to buy something else and make money on that. I see so many booksellers surrounded by stock that they are unable to sell and I ask myself why have they still got it, unless they have limitless capital of course. You’ve got to keep rolling the dice.
The interview was published in Shelf Fullfillment, the new ABA Blog. It is presented here by permission of ABA President Laurence Worms.