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2001-03, 329, Meetings, Richard Overell, Victorian Branch

Book Collectors’ Society of Australia (Victorian Branch) Recent AGM’s

The Victorian branch of the Book Collectors’ Society holds its meetings to a regular pattern. Usually the first meeting every year is a “Members‟ Night” at which people bring along books and discuss them. This is usually on the last Friday of January, in the supper room of the Royal Society building. In March we have our annual dinner and AGM in University House at the University of Melbourne. There is always an after-dinner speaker. Then, in May, July, September, and November we hold meetings on the last Friday, at the Royal Society. At each of these we have a speaker. Often their talks form the basis of articles in Biblionews; however, the talks at the AGM tend to be buried in the minutes of the AGM the following year.

I have been asked to resurrect some of these for publication. I have chosen three initially, because of their interest in showing the history of the antiquarian book trade, especially auctions, and Australiana collecting. They appear here as they appeared in the min-utes. In other words, they are not the verbatim transcripts, rather they are the Secretary‟s summaries.

AGM 29 March 1996.

Guest Speaker: Jonathan Wantrup.

The President, Dr. Travers, introduced Jonathan Wantrup of New Century Books, formerly of Hordern House and Sothebys (Australia). Jonathan is the author of Australian Rare Books 1788-1900.

Jonathan spoke on his experiences in the antiquarian book trade, “Working my way downwards”.

Four days ago a copy of Lewin‟s Birds sold for half its 1989 auction price. We should not measure the stature of a bookseller by the amount of money he turns per annum, partly because at the top end of the market the prices are subject to large fluctuations depending on who is collecting what at a particular time. The assumption is that the more expensive the books, the better the dealer. The better dealer is one who knows books and the market well enough to be able to look at an undervalued book and realise its true value. James Dally is an example of this. Referring to his book on collecting, Jonathan remarked that the books described therein were now the dinosaurs of Australian book collecting. Even into the 1980s there was the feeling that the gold rush was where serious Australiana ended. Rodney Davidson’s collection is in fact a series of cabinet collections, but even cabinet collections of classic Australiana are too expensive for most buyers.

The market is thin in Australiana. There are not many people involved. The cost of the books is beyond ordinary collectors. This has led to new areas in Australiana collecting, e.g. collecting 20th century Australian travel books. There is perhaps a misconception that such books will always be around.

Modern collectors are looking to the 20th century for their col-lecting interests. Modern literature, such as Kay Craddock is famous for, is a typical area. One characteristic of contemporary collecting is that there is no longer a limited number of books thought to be worth collecting. People are spreading out in their tastes. It is an exciting time in Australian book collecting.

Tastes change in book collecting and dealers can influence the new paths people take. In the 1960s the emphasis was not on fine condition, but this was the time when Ron Maria began to collect and he bought only items in fine condition. It took almost twenty years for that to become the general attitude, and for the market to reflect this.

The most influential collectors donate their collections to public institutions, exhibit their books, or produce a bibliography. The dealer has a great opportunity to mould taste; he is in a privileged position, and is able to show the possibility of the century we are living in. This is Jonathan’s current philosophy, and his stock has an emphasis on books from 1880 onwards.


The questions began with an observation from the floor that institutions are to blame for the scarcity of books and for the prices being asked. This can be seen for example in the field of novels in fine condition. Since institutions began to collect these there has been a noticeable diminution of supply.

John Chapman asked Jonathan’s opinion on collecting modern paperbacks, to which he replied that there are many collecting areas where the medium is fragile, but that we should still collect them. Penguins are a prime example where there is a large collecting interest.

Mick Stone commented that in the comics field the early examples are on the worst paper but they are the most valuable, and that in general there are fantastic opportunities for collectors all the time. There is still a lot of material out there. To which Jonathan added that this does not apply to the classic areas, but to new areas of collecting.

The advisability of collecting facsimiles was raised. Jonathan replied that it is important to identify what it is that is prompting a person to collect. If their interest is not in rare books, but rather in the information on a topic, facsimiles are perfectly suitable, but they should also be encouraged to appreciate the books themselves. If a collector has an impetus the dealer can direct this, warning them for example that facsimiles will never make a worthwhile collection.

Vote of Thanks.

Des Cowley proposed the vote of thanks. He mentioned that he had spent time with Jonathan while the Moir Collection in the State Library was being valued and was impressed by his knowledge. He commented that the shift into 20th century interests was quite noticeable, and that Jonathan’s observations were accurate. The vote of thanks was carried by acclamation.

AGM, 21 March 1997.

Guest Speaker: Jonathan Wantrup on behalf of Rodney Davidson.

The president, Dr. Travers, explained that Rodney Davidson had had to cancel his engagement to speak as he was required in Japan on family business. Rodney had arranged for Jonathan Wantrup to speak about his collection, on his behalf. The President introduced Jonathan Wantrup of New Century Books.

Jonathan began by describing Rodney as unquestionably the greatest living Australiana collector in Australia, and his collection as being outstanding, some of the individual items being better than Mitchell‟s. He paid tribute to Ken Hince and Gaston Renard as being the dealers who contributed largely to developing the col-lection.

Rodney is now in his 50th year of collecting. He began through buying copies of the Illustrated London News from Mrs. Gill’s antique shop in Toorak. When he was at University he began to buy Australiana. He bought his copy of Phillip from Hall’s Book Shop.

It seems from the beginning he knew what he was doing and developed clear and consistent themes. However, even then it was difficult to achieve a Mitchell style comprehensiveness. Tom Ramsay attempted, but Rodney was a cabinet collector. The fields in which he specialised were, Australian discovery and explora-tion; early settlement, particularly of Melbourne, to the end of the gold-rush; topographical plate books, but not natural history (at least not comprehensively).

These were the clear lines upon which he built his collection. He bought courageously, e.g. spending $2000 for a pamphlet on Botany Bay now worth $20,000. He bought many items at the Coles sale. In fact during the first fifteen to twenty years he had a high acquisition rate. When Gaston went to London after the Coles sale and ran his business only by catalogue, Rodney bought many items from Ken Hince.

By the mid 1970s Rodney’s collection was almost complete, except for some notable rarities. He has managed to acquire most of these since. He was daring, being always willing to pay top prices. Money was important, but taste, persistence and knowledge was also important.

Rodney’s book, A Book Collector’s Notes (1970) broke new ground. Mackaness usually talked about himself and how cheaply he had acquired his treasures, but Rodney tells why the books were important. His was the first book to deal extensively with Australian travel books. His chapter on imaginary voyages may now reflect a taste some may feel to be out-moded, but he showed how significant these books were.

The collection falls into four broad areas:-

  1. 1. Discovery and exploration
  2. 2. Early Settlement. This is one of the most extensive areas of the collection. The cut-off point of 1850 was the one Rodney followed here. This was partly shaped by Ferguson’s early volumes; for Ferguson, books published in 1860 say, were not old.
  3. 3. Topographical books. There is probably not even an institution which is as complete. Three or four items are unique. These are difficult books to find as they are usually cut up by the print dealers.
  4. 4. Early Melbourne and Victorian material. This includes manuscript material from the Port Phillip Association and material on William Buckley. Rodney also has the earliest recorded painting of Melbourne. He makes his material available for research and for exhibitions.

His Discovery and Exploration section begins with the imaginary voyages, then the Dutch, e.g. Pelsart and the Batavia. He has Vlamingh’s account of his voyage (1703) often found bound with imaginary voyages. Looking at Cook, he has all of the obvious items as well as the surreptitious accounts, and the pamphlets on the Forster controversy, only one of which he lacks. The situation with Bligh is similar: Rodney lacks only one pamphlet. Flinders Observations: Rodney has one, Tom Ramsay had one.

Coming to the inland exploration, he has Blaxland’s Crossing of the Blue Mountains, and Bland’s first edition of Hume and Hovell. Twelve proof copies were all that were permitted of this. Freycinet had one. This was found in France, and is now in Rodney’s collection. Rodney has a copy of Lhotsky. This was found by Ken Hince in Maggs’ cellar. It was incomplete, but there is no complete copy. Rodney’s copy and the copy in the British Library are the most complete known.

He seeks completeness, and has e.g. one of the best collections of Bonwick.

Rodney‟s collection is an extraordinary achievement. He has shown persistence and courage, being able to face the vast in-creases in price and still buy rarities in the 1990s.

AGM, 27 April 2000.

Guest Speaker: Barbara Hince of Kenneth Hince Books.

Vice-President, John Chapman, introduced the prominent Melbourne bookseller Barbara Hince. Barbara, in partnership with Nick Dawes of Grants, and Jonathan Wantrup of New Century, now runs Australian Book Auctions.

Barbara spoke about book auctions in Australia, particularly Melbourne, over the past 50 years. Leonard Joel was the major auctioneer. They still auction books, but usually through their weekly personal effects sales. In the 1950s books were often sold as a single lot in the dispersal of the contents of a house. Significant libraries were disposed of in this way. Sometimes sets of Cook would be sold separately. This was the case still in the mid-1950s. Possibly the first sale to break this pattern at that time was the auction of Hurst’s library. He was the editor of the Argus. Mrs. Bird did the catalogue as individual lots. Renard bought Charles Barrett‟s library and auctioned it as items. At this time, Joel would typically be the auctioneer and Gaston Renard would do the cata-logue. He introduced professional cataloguing standards into Melbourne. The Coles sale of 1965 was a good example, but although Gaston’s catalogue was estimated to have brought the family about 50% more than would normally have been the case, they still complained about the extravagance of the publication. The Joel/Renard alliance still survives with Julian.

In 1970 the Glover sale run by Theodore Bruce at the Melbourne Showgrounds was held over five days, with about 3000 items being sold. The length of such a sale underlined the tensions inherent in following the proceedings at an auction over such a long period. Auctions were often at this time very social affairs, with the coming together of national and international dealers and collectors.

In 1977 Tom Ramsay bought back many of his books as he was not satisfied with the prices they were fetching. In 1978 a set of Eyre fetched $1100, the first occasion on which any of the two volume explorers went above the hundreds.

Probably the most famous recent incident to demonstrate the importance of paying close attention at an auction was at the Bremer sale when the most expensive book, Lewin’s 1813 Birds of New South Wales, was knocked down to Peter Arnold for $220,000 against Anne McCormack. She held that the auctioneer had ignored her bid, and brought a case against Joel’s in the Su-preme Court. Justice Gobbo, however, ruled that the auctioneer’s decision was final. This copy was originally the duplicate copy from US collector Martin Bradley’s library. His better copy came up 7 or 8 months later and went for $300,000.

Kenneth Hince began to run auctions in 1978 and held two per year for the next 14 years. Many significant personal collections went through these including Eric Bonython, Marguerita Webber, Ivo Hammet in 1982, Irving Benson in 1983, Tom Ramsay’s newspapers, periodicals and photos in 1988.

At the 1985 auction at the Windsor Hotel Gould’s Birds set a world record. It is interesting to look at the names of the purchasers, Chapman, Buesst, McLaren, Ramsay, then to see the books re-appear at their own sales.

Barbara spoke briefly about her own venture, which began in September 1999. Australian Book Auctions intend to continue to hold at least two auctions per year, usually centred on personal collections.

The latest development is the “on-line auction”, where an item is set up on the Internet for a certain time and knocked down to the highest bidder. Sotheby’s have become involved in this. Barbara does not think that this will seriously threaten the traditional form of book auction. They cannot provide the buzz of being in the room, the dynamics of watching the items fall and rise, the opportunity of exchanging opinions with colleagues. The printed catalogues are also important, as they chart the contents of a library, raise the anticipation in the bidders and provide a record for the future.

Vote of Thanks.

Jonathan Wantrup proposed the vote of thanks. He pointed out the importance of tradition in the history of book auctions and that Barbara was carrying on this tradition from her father just as Julian was from his. He also spoke of the furore of the Bremer sale, stressing that David Bremer was not buying back his books and has not re-entered the book scene. Jonathan has long been a student of book auctions. He owns Tom Ramsay’s copy of the catalogue of his sale showing the items he bought in, probably be-cause he did not really want to sell. He also pointed out that many 19th century catalogues are in fact quite detailed, e.g. a study of Quaine‟s volume of Gemmell and Tuckett’s catalogues shows this. Orion Horne’s library was among these. Gaston re-introduced this level of detail when he revived the book auction trade in Melbourne.

Richard Overell



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