Another Adventure of David's . . .

In 1981 I was the head of the rare books and manuscripts department of the venerable Philadelphia bookselling firm of William H. Allen, founded by William H. and his wife Anna Detweiler Allen in Mrs. Allen's home town of Temple, Pennsylvania, in 1918. (The opportunity to move the business to Philadelphia occurred in 1925 and the young couple did not hesitate.) Allen's has specialized in used scholarly books from the very start, with a strong subspecialty in the Greek and Roman classics. Scholars' libraries in the period to ca. 1975 usually encompassed some early printed books as well, so it was never uncommon to find rarities among the Allen stock.

Mr. Allen died in 1935 and Mrs. Allen continued on alone until 1940, when her son George R. graduated from college and joined the enterprise. George's only absence from the firm before his death in 1998 was during World War II, when he served with exceptional distinction in the 101st Airborne Division. George worked for his mother until a stroke felled Anna in 1975, then he assumed control of the business and came into sole ownership upon her death in 1977.

I first walked into Allen's in the Fall of 1961, when I was a sophomore in high school, in search of a copy of The Federalist Papers that was required reading. I returned to the shop many times throughout my high school and college years, and continued to visit during trips home from graduate school in Indiana and later Texas. Then, after a Fulbright year's worth of research in Mexico, I happened to be back in Philadelphia in 1973 and was handed a plum of a job at the Philip H. & A.S.W. Rosenbach Foundation. They needed a curator and cataloguer of manuscripts and I fit the bill. This put me only two and a half blocks away from Allen's, which I passed every day on the way to and from work. Once or twice a week my lunch hour was spent partially roaming Allen's aisles.

In 1979 I was in my last months at the then newly renamed Rosenbach Museum and Library, and wondering what I wanted to do next. Did I want to start my own business? Probably not. H.P. Kraus had just acquired the residue of the fabled Phillipps collection of manuscripts from the Robinsons and was in need of paleographer-cataloguers, and on one of my visits to his shop he felt me out about the possibility of working for him. But George Allen was talking seriously about starting a rare books and manuscripts department and eventually asked me to head it up for him.

The Adventure . . .
One of the advantages of starting up a rare books department in such a long-established business is name recognition and good will. It was the reputation and good will that brought me, two years into my tenure, an invitation to a substantial house in one of this city's wealthy neighborhoods. George and I went together to see what was what. Basically we found that the couple living in this large house was downsizing—moving to a smaller but commodious condo on Logan Square, overlooking the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, in downtown Philadelphia. The husband had inherited from his father a small but choice collection of Joseph Conrad that included first editions, limited editions, signed copies, and inscribed copies.

Father had been a client of the famous Philadelphia bookselling firm of Charles Sessler's, specifically of the firm's redoubtable "rare booklady" Mabel Zahn. During the period when father had been collecting (1930s, `40s, and `50 s), taste and technique in collecting were different than now current. In those days, collectors of modern first editions preferred to discard the dust jackets and, instead, to house their prizes in slipcases with morocco spines. This Conrad collection was fully in that tradition. But because it had been formed under the guidance of Miss Zahn there was great quality.

Mr. Allen and I were able to purchase the collection and as soon as I had it back at the store I began to catalogue and offer items to our customers. But since the world of rare books is a small one, especially in Philadelphia, word of our acquisition soon came to the ears of David Holmes, who at that time was working with Clarence Wolf at the MacManus Company, on Irving Street, behind the Library Company of Philadelphia. David stopped by within a week of the arrival of the Conrad collection. Some of the finest books had already found new homes: For example, The Lilly Library, where I received my introduction to rare books, benefitted nicely from my offers of very scarce materials.

At that time David had a private customer who was building an important collection of Conrad; during his visit he selected a small group of signed and inscribed copies of first editions. The standout item in David's taking was the first American edition of The Arrow of Gold. Conrad had dedicated that edition of that title to Richard Curle, the American collector and Conrad's earliest bibliographer. And the copy I sold David was the dedication copy—that is, the copy that Conrad inscribed and signed and then sent to the dedicatee—i.e., Curle.

In his bibliography Curle writes that shortly after his dedication copy of The Arrow of Gold had arrived from England, it was lying on a desk in his library while workmen were doing some alterations. One of the workers managed to drive a nail through the book, so he was forced to write Conrad and ask for a replacement copy! Since the copy I had catalogued did not have a nail in it or even a nail hole, clearly it was the "replacement dedication copy." Both David and his collector were happy with their purchase, and I and Mr. Allen were happy with the sale.

About a year later I received an inquiry from Colgate University about the possibility of appraising its entire Special Collections Department. An alumnus wanted to give the school an insurance policy for the rare books and manuscripts, so on a beautiful summer's day I headed for upstate New York and Colgate. Arriving at the Special Collections Department, I discovered the school has a fine array of rare and special books: Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Twain as well as Conrad — plus Bibles, colorplate books, and more.

In fact there was virtually an entire case of Conrad manuscripts, letters, and first editions. During the heyday of Conrad collecting in the 1920s and `30s, a member of the Colgate family had acquired and donated this stunning collection. I hadn't seen this much high quality Conrad since my days at the Rosenbach Foundation. (Dr. R. loved Conrad and hoarded unto himself many of the best Conrad manuscripts and letters to come into the Rosenbach Company.) As I worked through the Conrad Collection I was more and more impressed.

Then I was stunned. I took down a morocco-backed slipcase that said it contained the first American edition of The Arrow of Gold. The copy had no dust jacket, fully in keeping with the taste and technique mentioned earlier. When I opened the book, you guessed it, I had another dedication copy. This copy had the identical dedication to Curle as I had seen in the copy I had sold to David Holmes. And this copy had no nail or nail hole! And it had been part of Colgate's collection for more than 50 years!

My illusion of the uniqueness of dedication copies was shattered! Curle had lied in his bibliography and I had been gullible enough to not question my source. I had learned an important lesson. As soon as I returned to Philadelphia I telephoned David, told him of my discovery of a second identical dedication copy, and asked him to inquire of his collector if he wished to return his copy or if he wanted a rebate for a portion of the purchase price. David's collector reported that NO! he wanted to keep his copy and that the discovery of Mr. Curle's shenanigans thoroughly made up for the discovery of its un-uniqueness. A happy if "O. Henry" ending, for all.

Caveat bibliophile. Caveat bibliopole!

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