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How I started Collecting Bookplates

Collecting seems to be in my genes. When I was nine years old, it was customary among my peers to collect fragments of shells or bombs after the raids that hit my hometown Mainz. The raids did not worry me much as we had a safe shelter in the wine cellars under our house. So whenever planes had roared above our houses we roamed the streets to search for new treasures which we took to school in shoe boxes the next day and showed around.

Also, of course, I collected stamps. The joy of finding a new precious item to add to the collection that is familiar to each collector took on strange forms when, once after a raid, I passed a damaged house. Among the debris, lying in the street, I found an envelope with three Vatican stamps. Today I wonder at the ignorance of a boy who seemed more interested in his find than in the question of what might have happened to the people that letter was sent to.

Inkwell circa 1900, zinc sheet with porcelain insert

As a young teacher I was thinking of something new to collect. Old inkwells seemed to be suitable for a teacher who spent lots of ink on marking papers. And so when taking a class on a trip to Paris, I went across the Marché aux Puces, the famous flea market. A little donkey inkstand, possibly for a child, struck me and I bought it with the help of a colleague who spoke better French than I did.

What has all this got to do with collecting bookplates, you ask? Well, after I had more than 300 inkwells and inkstands I needed more and more space, which I simply didn’t have. In those days I had come across some bookplates at an antique fair. Small graphics didn’t need much space. This looked promising and since with inkwells I had learned a lot about materials and styles and what kind of people used what kind of inkstand, I expected to learn from bookplates too. And I did. I learned more about art in general than I had known before.

In the beginning I naturally paid far too much for the plates I bought. My first one was an etching by Walter Helfenbein, acquired in an art gallery. I liked particularly its atmosphere: the white facades of a typical Spanish town in the background, the black-haired Spanish woman in her rich dress, the two men fighting fiercely at her feet. Questions came to mind: Who is this proud beauty? Does she live in this town? Who are the two fighters? Is she the cause of their fight? The perspective in the picture underlines the drama presented. The woman dominates against the foil of the scenic white town in the background. She seems to look down unemotionally upon the two tiny fighters, who try hard to kill one another with their daggers.

I was fascinated by this plate and I wanted more. And long after already having amassed a sizeable collection I realized that there was a German Exlibris Society and if I wanted to become a member it would be useful to have a bookplate in my own name. Many members did not have duplicates of old plates like me but wanted to exchange ex libris recently made for them by contemporary artists.

My wife took the initiative and commissioned an exlibris from a graphic artist we had come to know. Prof. Leonhard, a painter and graphic artist, taught at an art college and had had quite a few personal exhibitions of his work, yet had never made a bookplate. But he was intrigued by the idea and found a witty solution to render the theme of death and the maiden. In reference to the well known German children’s book Struwwelpeter where Santa as a punishment puts juvenile culprits into an inkpot, he inverted this idea and had the female nude put the skeleton into the ink. Remembering that in the old days bookplates often reflected the owner’s hobbies or profession, my wife had told Leonhard that I liked writing, collecting inkwells and playing chess. So apart from the inkwell he included a chess horse and a quill.

I liked the outcome and gladly included it in the catalogue Memento Mori  which I wrote together with my wife for Josef Burch’s exhibition that was shown in Switzerland in 2010.

When you look at the two bookplates that are seventy years apart you realize that styles may change, but human nature does not: Woman is still playing with man.


Ex Libris Chronicle
Director: James P. Keenan