Galileo Dialogo 1632 etched title-page

Galileo Galilei, Dialogo
(1632), etching by
Stefano della Bella

The Academic as Collector


When Naomi and Jay Pasachoff walked into my New York office at Lathrop Harper one afternoon twenty-one years ago, they had never bought an expensive rare book but appeared determined to acquire the first edition of an important astronomical work. The recent success of one of Jay’s textbooks enabled him to start a historical collection in this field and, applying analysis to this idiosyncratic pursuit as well as to his science, he decided that he must set off on the right foot and if possible avoid beginner’s mistakes.

Given Professor Pasachoff’s connections with Williams College and the Chapin Library, it was entirely fitting that he should make his first bibliophile steps in Harper’s stock, as Alfred Clark Chapin (1848–1936) had to a very large extent relied on Lathrop Harper (1867–1950) to form the great collections of incunabula and Americana that have made Williamstown an inevitable stop on most bibliographical tours in New England.

It is the antiquarian bookseller’s perennial challenge to explain to clients his ideas of what constitutes good or desirable condition, the relative rarity of the same book in different bindings, the importance of provenance, and especially the effect all this can have – but does not always have – on prices. Not long before Jay’s visit to Harper’s, I had bought one of the four Honeyman copies of the 1632 first edition of Galileo Galilei’s Dialogo, the celebrated defense of the Copernican theory and one of the most discussed books in the history of science. This is of course far from being a truly rare book, but it has never been easy to find a copy in fine condition with Stefano della Bella’s etched frontispiece in sharp impression, its paper not too browned, and in its first unrestored binding. I had paid Sotheby’s £2,600 ($6,100 including the buyer’s premium) for this copy, while Robert Honeyman’s other copies of the original edition had fetched £750, £800, and £1,400 respectively. I therefore silently resigned myself to having to expound at length – and perhaps fruitlessly – why an astronomy professor should prefer to pay $8,000 for the copy I put in front of him rather than not much more than a quarter of that price for other copies that were available elsewhere. I need not have worried; the professor was a quick student and did not take long to make up his mind and buy the book. Today this copy in its contemporary vellum binding is much more valuable.

Since that first confident stride, Jay Pasachoff has acquired some three dozen important books from specialist dealers and other sources in the United States and Europe, all landmarks in the history of astronomy including some that are much rarer than the Galileo. Apart from their related subjects, another common thread binds these books with hardly any exceptions: they are in excellent condition. The collector has consistently aimed high, with particular success in obtaining Jakob Pflaum’s very rare illustrated Calendarium (Ulm, 1478) with added manuscript tables, the first edition of Newton’s Principia Mathematica (1687) in contemporary Continental vellum, and a monastic (!) copy of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus (1543). Perhaps his finest purchase was made at auction in 1984 when he secured the first edition of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius, bound together with three related works in contemporary vellum boards.

Scholars and scientists are rarely the most perceptive bibliophiles; the connoisseurship and sensitivity of the experienced amateur are often greater assets in collecting than erudition. Guglielmo Libri, the 19th-century Florentine mathematician and pioneering historian of science, is the obvious exception, although his fame is based on his infamy. The exhibition of Jay Pasachoff’s library clearly stamps him, too, as a rare academic with the instincts and taste of a real book collector.

Felix de Marez Oyens is the former president of the antiquarian booksellers Lathrop C. Harper, Inc., and has also been associated with the auction firm Christie’s. He wrote this essay in May 2003.

Next section: Jay Pasachoff at Harvard

Copyright © 2010 by Felix de Marez Oyens
This page was last updated on 23 November 2010