RARE BOOK GUIDE - THE RUNNERS, THE RIDERS & THE ODDS
11 May 2007
Billionaire's Book Club
BILLIONAIRE BOOK COLLECTORS
Seeing lists of billionaires in magazines, I speculate about how many of these men (they usually are men) collect books. Andrew Carnegie ('Man of Steel') who appears to have been worth today's equivalent of $100 billion gave away a large part of this fortune to build public libraries. But did he collect books? Alot of wealthy men endow libraries and colleges and may have a 100 yards of fine leather bindings but do not actually collect books or care very much for them. The only recent moguls I have heard of that collect books are Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Fred Koch and the late Paul Getty, Malcolm Forbes and James Goldsmith. Hopefully there are a few more.
Forbes ('who dies with the most books wins') was a collector of many things but books were a passion. Gates is, apparently, well read and collects manuscripts (eg the Leonardo Codex.) In an interview he refers to Scott Fitzgeralds' lines at the end of 'The Great Gatsby' about the green light*--an apposite image for him. He is so keen on Fitzgerald that he is known in some circles as 'The Great Gatesby.' 'Tender is the Night' is his favourite.
Getty was, of course, a fabulous collector and photos of his temperature-controlled English Country house library can be found in a 1990s glossy book about celebs and their book collections (Keith Richards, Nicholas Barker and other intellos.). He is said to have bought the $7 million Caxton Chaucer incunable that was auctioned a few years back, possibly to go next to his Kelmscott Chaucer (vellum, 1 of 3 copies.) At one time he was a considerable buyer of Pre Raphaelite books and manuscripts, with a taste also for William Blake. Such books are now beyond the grasp of mere millionaires. Fred Koch (oil) was always mentioned in the salerooms when any Nineties highspot came up--Wilde letters, Dowson holograph poems etc.,. He was also, reputedly, a heavy collector of livres d'artistes, a category he may have tired of, as many of these appeared to come back to auction in the mid 1990s. He is also a keen collector of original photos (see our piece below on the El Morocco album.)
James Goldsmith was reported as having upwards of 50,000 books at his mansion near Acapulco. He collected, among other things, travel books. Paul Allen collects Science Fiction (known to collectors as SF not Sci-Fi) especially artefacts. He probably has a set of Daleks. Andrew Lloyd Webber, probably a dollar billionaire, collects PRB -obviously a rich man's tatste. Jimmy Page, just a millionaire, but with more fans than all the billionaires put together collects Aleister Crowley, alchemy and the occult. I once met an old party at a book fair who told me he was a 'Huntingdonaire' - he bought some T.E. Lawrence and indeed his cheque went through. Some research on the net revelaed that his family were at one point very serious book collectors buying up several vast Country House libraries from England and shipping them to the California sun - billionaires of yesteryear.
Some of the Russian billionaire oligarchs are said to collect books and they, or their gofers. occasionally turn up at auctions, especially house sales, and cause a nuisance by outbidding everybody for finely bound, mostly illustrated, books. The fictional billionaire book collector and occultist Boris Balkan in the biblio-movie 'The Ninth Gate' pays seedy book runner Dean Corso (Depp) to track down an ancient text called "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows" which is supposed to be able to summon the Devil himself.
My favourite wealthy collector was the late Maundy Gregory (pictured above.) He was not a billionaire but had in the 1920s what amounted to a licence to print money. He sold honours, a profession that has made a comeback in the Blair years. For £10,000 (about $1 million now) he could get you an earldom; knighthoods were a bit cheaper. You could, in fact, sign a cheque to him in your expected new name--only cashable when you assumed the title. He liked rare books, especially the works of the fantastical Frederick Rolfe (Baron Corvo.) In some cases (according to AJA Symons in 'Quest for Corvo') he would pay his agents to track down supposedly unfindable books, money no object. In the case of one particularly difficult book his agents hunted down the original printer, long defunct, and found four mint copies in a cellar. One wonders how much money it would take to track down a copy of James Joyce's first book 'Et tu Healy' (no copies known) or 'Questions at the Well' (Ford Madox Ford under the name Fenil Haig--only copy known was in the British Museum but has been stolen.)
I expect we will hear more of Maundy Gregory, at one point suspected of murder, in the coming months as the new 'cash for honours' scandal unfurls. On that subject - Blair, the poodle, is the only Prime Minister ever to have his collar felt while in office. As they say in France - 'Je m'en fous.'
* 'Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter-tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther....And one fine morning - So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.'