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Archives in the Metropolis

London, July 4, 2008. It’s a little before 10 pm. I can hear fireworks out my hotel window. Somewhere in this old metropolis, I would like to think, the loss of empire is ignored while former colonists celebrate independence. And, tonight at the British Museum in the grand room that once housed King George’s library, there were readings from Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The books have moved out to the new British Library building. With minimal intrusion, the room has been converted to exhibition space under the theme ‘Enlightenment.’ Although the trophies of empire are everywhere, from the native goods collected by Sir Hans Sloane to a famous engraved stone labeled ‘captured in Egypt by the British Army 1801,’ modern day labels remind us, in the section regarding eighteenth century overseas exploration, that, in light of the viewpoint of indigenous peoples, ‘discovery is a relative concept.’

Nonetheless, discovery is the reason why I am here. I made the journey in order to answer questions about American rare book collectors of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For them the empire of books led to London and a dealer known in his day as the ‘Napoleon of the Book Trade,’ Bernard Quaritch (NY Times, 19 December 1899). Founded in 1847, and continuously in business down to today, the firm generously made its archives available to me for my research. I couldn’t have been better greeted and treated. All the staff were wonderfully helpful and hospitable.

I got some answers, especially about one of Princeton’s primary donors of rare books to the Library, Junius Spencer Morgan. But I also learned a lot about the context in which Junius Morgan made his purchases from Quaritch both retail and via auction. And, surrounding this story of just one American collector is the much larger story of Quaritch’s overseas expansion, in particular into America. Bernard Alfred Quaritch, son of the founder, made his first sales trip to the United States in 1890 and continued thereafter almost annually until his death in 1913. One letter in the archive sums up the outcome of BAQ’s efforts. From New York, on September 15, 1911, he wrote to his business colleague, E.H. Dring: “America is certainly our best market now.” Yet to be answered in detail is the obvious question about how and why did this come to be so. I picked up some signals this trip, but much more exploration is required. After all, ‘discovery is a relative concept.’

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