An unexpected but extremely appreciated meeting with Arturo Pregliasco
Image : Norbert and Matthias Donhofer traveling Italy in Summer 2017
No, this time: no excuses! For decades I had promised to see the „Pregliasco’s“ and other Turin-based booksellers, but, and I simply don’t know why, it didn’t happen for so many years. Although quite strange, as I had not only exhibited for many years at the Milan Fair, and, this would probably count more, had spent more than 20 years of skiing in the „Mont Blanc” area – in France, Italy, and Switzerland. Turin was never that far away, but as you all know: the next fair ahead, having to prepare a catalogue, an important customer wants to see me tomorrow…
All that said: on our – me and my son ‘s – way to southern France this summer we had announced ourselves to meet with my close friend Umberto „Umbi“ Pregliasco, and his partner Carlotta. We arrived on time on Thursday, July 13, of 2017, around 7 p.m. and were welcomed by Umberto in the fabulous bookstore of the „Pregliasco’s“ at Via Accademia Albertina 3bis. I must confess that I had not been to Turin for over 35 years, and I could not even remember if I had ever been at „Pregliasco’s“. Umberto welcomed in such warm and friendly manner, it felt like „coming home “.
Well, Umberto and myself have both served as presidents of our national associations as well as officers of the League for many years. You could even say that “Umbi” and I grew up together or better, became adults (and old) in the antiquarian book business! Unnecessary to mention that we had a great evening in a fabulous restaurant at „Monte dei Cappuccini“, overlooking the city of Turin, and watching the Alp mountains in the background during sunset. Yes, we had a great evening with all what booksellers used to have when meeting each other: fruitful talks about books, collections, collectors, libraries and librarians, plenty of „Piemontese-Style” food and drinks – simply nothing to complain about. And for sure, with Umberto and Carlotta at your side, a guarantee that the evening would be most pleasant.
Image : Historical photograph of Libreria Pregliasco
But, the highlight of the day, at least for me, happened hours before when visiting the first floor at „Pregliasco’s“, Via Accademia Albertina.
Umberto had asked us to follow him into the „secret rooms” on the first floor, where one can find so many outstanding books – not only Italian ones.
And there he was: Arturo Pregliasco, doubtlessly one of the greatest booksellers of the last 70 years, and one of these, well, yes, „teachers“ of my generation.
I found him sitting on his desk, studying a catalogue – in front of him many other catalogues waiting to be studied by Arturo. As soon as Umberto had announced me, he got up from his chair to welcome me and my son. No, he is no longer the tall man he was 30 years ago, and, yes, Arturo has severe problems with his eyesight, but he is still an impressive personality with his sonorous voice, and his extraordinary behaviour and politeness. Umberto also introduced my son, Matthias, to Arturo, and, as soon as Arturo had learned that my son was on his way to attend a French language course at Cannes for the next two weeks, he started to „overload“ him with questions (about the school, his language skills, his first girlfriend, would he be the next generation of bookseller, etc.). Umberto and myself watched this unequal couple, chatting to each other as old friends from the bar next door; here a 86 years old unrivalled bookseller, there a fifteen year old boy/young man, still uncertain in which direction he wants to move in a few year’s time – a film started in my head, a film portraying my long relationship with this great bookseller, Arturo Pregliasco.
Image : Arturio Pregliasco at a book fair with client
It was back in 1986 when I attended my first ILAB-Congress in Venice. I had started working some years before at the old Viennese book-store of Deuticke’s, and the first couple of years had been quite successful. I had also started to exhibit at the Paris Book Fair, then in the marvellous building of the „Conciergerie“, and the next step was to show up on an international stage. Venice was the right place, not that far away from Vienna, well known to me, and here I was. The ILAB-Congress of 1986 had been organized mainly by two persons: Vittorio Soave, and Arturo Pregliasco, both from Turin, and they did it so well! This was a different Venice for me: receptions in medieval cloisters, dinners in palaces, and a book fair with so many outstanding items, it felt as if I had landed on another planet. I will never forget Arturo at the opening of the fair: He was standing on a table giving a speech, thanking everyone for coming and exhibiting – not an easy task back in 1986, especially for Heribert Tenschert who had brought the very first dated Italian imprint to the fair, a magnificent copy of Lucius Coelius Firmianus Lactantius, Opera, printed in 1465 at Subiaco, by Sweynheym and Pannartz.
It was Michael Reiss who introduced me to Arturo but I was sure that he would forget me in a minute, as there were so many attendees in these old times, and remarkably many young booksellers like myself. What a mistake!
It was only a year or maybe two years afterwards that I nearly managed to turn two of the most important booksellers into enemies. I had just displayed in my showcase during the Paris Fair the only printed book of Vercelli – Nicolaus de Ausmo, Supplementum Summae Pisanellae, Vercelli, Jacob Suigus, October 1485 - when a very old and small person showed up.
He had a good look on the label of my stand, a hard look on me, and then started conversation with „When did your company start to deal with old books? “
“Good question”, I said, “well, just a few years ago. You know, Sir, we have taken over this company, Sir, and we try to deal in old and valuable books, Sir!”
“Well”, said the old man, “let me have a look at your books!”
“With pleasure. If I can be of any help, let me know.”
“Yes.”, said the old man, “This incunabula from Vercelli, how many copies are listed in Goff?”
“In Goff!” he repeated, “or have you never heard of Goff?”
“No, Sir, not at all." I repeated "I am sorry, Sir.”
“Well”, said the old man, “Keep that for me for a couple of days. As soon as I will be back in New York, I will send you a message.”
“Yes, Sir, thank you, Sir, by the way, Sir, what’s your name, Sir?”
“You don’t know the name of the most important Viennese bookseller of any times, said the old man?”
“Ahem, well, I am sorry, but: no.”
He was kind enough to tell me his name: Hans Peter Kraus. When I had arrived back in Vienna just a couple of days later I found two things on my desk: a copy of the „Goff“ inscribed by HPK, and an order for the incunabula.
Shocking! But this was not the end of the day yet. I had hardly handed over a description of this very rare imprint (I wish I had a copy nowadays) to HPK, when, yes, Arturo Pregliasco examined my showcase. „May I see this Vercelli-imprint?“ said he.
“Well, yes, Mr. Pregliasco, you may see it but it’s reserved.”
“So, why is it still in the showcase?”
“I have not had the time to remove it!”
“Ah, was it this old Austria-born New York bookseller?”
“Yes." I repeated. "Yes, that’s right.”
“All right, young friend” (that’s what he said), “if he does not take it, I will take it, and for the future: if you have any rare Italian books, simply offer those to me!”
“Yes Sir, thank you, Sir!
Since then, our relationship became fairly „normal“. I bought books from Arturo (and, of course, Umberto), and Arturo bought books from me, but not always without minor discussions. It was during a Stuttgart book fair, when Arturo suddenly showed up (which he only did occasionally). As always, he was walking around, one booth after the other, examining virtually every single book, making decisions, talking to colleagues, well, just what a bookseller has to do! I was glad that Arturo found some books I had displayed, and after some negotiations both of us agreed into that deal. I remember clearly that I had asked Arturo to take the books with him (these old days!!!), which he did, and I clearly remember that I told Arturo that I would send him an invoice soon.
“Yes”, said Arturo, “but I will be back tomorrow, and we will talk about the invoice later.”
The other day Arturo showed up, and asked me to have a cup of coffee with him (at my expenses, of course). Why not having a coffee, and a chat? There was nothing wrong in doing so, right, but when we had finished with our coffee it was Arturo who had handed over to me a pack of money – French Francs, Spanish Pesetas, Italian Lira, German Marks, US Dollars, probably even Austrian Schilling – and he told me: this is exactly the amount we had agreed in. Well, what would you have said? This was back in the late 1990ies, long before the Euro, and all those different currencies in Europe! It all went well and my invoice, which I sent a few days later, was very well appreciated.
Image: View of Libreria Pregliasco, Turin, Italy
I had started exhibiting at the Milan Antiquarian Book Fairs around 2007, and for the next couple of years this was a quite successful fair with distinguished collectors like Umberto Eco and others. Sure, the hospitality of the Italian colleagues, fine dining, excellent wines, early spring with warm temperatures and blossoming trees made it easy to come back year by year.
I don’t remember which year it was but I had already finished to decorate my stand, and was therefore wandering around, checking the other stands, books, and prints. Suddenly I detected a book at the stand of Pregliasco’s, small oblong-folio, full red morocco, and with the coat-of-arms of Prince Eugene of Savoy. When the Prince had died, it was Emperor Charles VI. who had purchased this fabulous library, then consisting of some 10.000 volumes, and up to now an important part of the Austrian National Library. Later on, some duplicates were sold but it is not easy to find one of these items in the trade.
I was thrilled and asked Umberto to show the book to me. The condition was perfect and I decided to purchase this item. There was a label in front of the book which indicated the price, and although the price seemed to be absolutely reasonable I asked Umberto for a discount. He answered that we had to wait for Arturo to negotiate about the price. “Why not”, I thought to myself, but what happened afterwards was stuff for one of these fabulous fiction stories by Umberto Eco! When Arturo showed up, he was told by Umberto that I wanted to purchase this book and had asked for a discount. Arturo’s reaction was remarkable: “No!”, said Arturo, “This book is from my private collection and not for sale!”
“Ah, yes, was my response, sure, but the book was on display in this showcase, a description was added, and it was priced, so what?”
“A mistake”, Arturo replied, “A mistake, I am sorry.”
I suddenly felt quite furious. Here I was, in my hands such a great item that I had detected and I had never had any other item of this great collection before, and in front of me was a bookseller - no, a friend - who simply didn’t want to sell it to me! It took us quite some time to finish the deal: I received the book, but at no discount. It did not matter: the book is still part of my small private collection and will remain there until the end of my days.
It’s not always about books amongst booksellers! Back in 1998, I was one of the organizers of the ILAB-Congress and Bookfair in Vienna, which was, by all means, a truly remarkable event. However, Michael Reiss, the German bookseller and auctioneer and a close friend of mine, had simply ignored that I had already enough to do with 220 attendees of the Congress and 110 exhibitors at the Fair in Vienna’s Imperial Palace – the „Hofburg“. It was only a few weeks before the event was about to start when Michael called me and asked me to do him a favour. He wanted me to organize a sort of a „pre-Congress“, two days of showing him and his friends some collections, books and having some nice lunches and/or dinners. My schedule was really tight at that time but, I do not recall how and why, I managed to organize some excursions and visits to some very rarely seen libraries. The circle of friends was quite an exquisite one: Bernard Clavreuil (Thomas-Scheler, Paris) with his wife, Paul Haas (Bedburg-Hau), Michael Reiss with his wife, and, sure, Arturo Pregliasco with his most charming wife Marisa. All went well: a couple of fine Museums, especially prepared exhibitions, totally unknown inside views of Vienna and surroundings, but the goal was lunch in a small countryside restaurant about an hour outside of Vienna. The restaurant is about five kilometers of the former border to Hungary, and the food is totally different to the food you are being served in the City of Vienna: no Piccata Viennese, etc. I had not told Michael Reiss about the menu – this should be a surprise, and: it was! Starting with Austrian ham stuffed with „chevre“ , switching over to a traditional Hungarian Fish-Soup „Hàlàszle“ – this was the moment when Bernard Clavreuil shouted loudly „magnifique et incroyable“ – and afterwards lamb, pork, fish, and beef – but all done in a very traditional, and partly Hungarian style. We had, of course, served only local wines, and as soon as the first „red“ had been served it was Bernard Clavreuil who stated: this is a French wine, while Arturo believed it to be Italian wine! It was not, of course, and we had even a sort of wine-tasting: Bernard and Arturo had learned a lot about Austrian cuisine and wine this afternoon.
These are only few recollections, I could easily tell many more out of those thirtyone years of friendship with Arturo Pregliasco. However, Umberto and myself awoke from our memories this afternoon, as Arturo’s wife Marisa was to pick Arturo up. Day by day she drives him to Via Accademia Albertina 3bis in the early afternoon, where he spends some two or three hours at his desk. Day by day she picks him up to bring him home – a loving wife, no, a loving partner for all the time being to Arturo.
Arturo goodbyed us by embracing the two of us – I think that he had hugged my son longer than me – and I was deeply moved when he left not without saying „a la prossima anno“. I will do all what I can to visit Arturo, Marisa, Carlotta, and Umbi, as soon as possible again, and in the meantime Matthias and I are sending our very best regards to the Pregliasco’s!
Matthias and Norbert
Norbert Donhofer of Donhofer Antiquariat in Vienna, Austria has served on the ILAB Committee for many years and held the position of ILAB President from 2014 - 2016.
He was instrumental in organising the large, worldwide ILAB campaign on UNESCO World Book & Copyright Day (23rd April) in 2015 and 2016, setting up an ILAB internship programme and motivating for a Library subcommittee consisting of members of the ILAB Executive Committee and IFLA.
Norbert Donhofer entered the antiquarian book trade in 1980 when starting to work for the old Viennese Bookshop of V.A. Heck and shortly after that changed to the antiquarian section of Franz Deuticke, Vienna. In 2003 he left Deuticke to set up his own business with partner Andreas Moser and since 2007 he operates as a sole business with premises in the Viennese Palais Schönborn-Batthyány, open by appointment only.
Libreria Pregliasco, run by Arturio Pregliasco and his son Umberto, is one of the leading antiquarian and most distinguished bookdealers worldwide, based in Turin, Italy. In 2011, the libreria celebrated their 100th anniversary.