The greatest bookseller ever? Our vote goes to the doctor.
If writers dream of becoming Jane Austen and artists dream of becoming Vincent Van Gogh, booksellers dream of becoming ASW Rosenbach. A century ago, Rosenbach stood at the pinnacle of the rare book pyramid, dominating auctions in the US and Europe and buying and selling items virtually unobtainable today: Gutenberg Bibles (he bought eight of the 50-some still in existence), 30 Shakespeare first folios (of the 233 known to exist), an original printing of the Declaration of Independence, and Grant's handwritten note announcing Lee's surrender. While he bought most of these treasures at auction and from private libraries, he also was blessed with remarkable luck: He found a first edition of "Moby Dick" in a New England antique shop for $1.50.
Rosenbach was a brilliant scholar who had a Ph.D. in literature. He taught briefly but left academia for the "excitement and anxiety of the chase" and "to unearth unpublished documents." He was a master of the intellectual content and historical importance of rare books and manuscripts in many fields -- knowledge that allowed him to pounce on treasures that others missed. He had an uncanny ability to recognize the connections that linked apparently unrelated books, and an almost occult talent at discovering Shakespeare material. He loved rubbing elbows with the captains of industry and enjoyed the splendors of their world, counting among his customers J.P. Morgan (library shown below), Harry Henry Huntington and Henry Folger -- all of whose collections are now in libraries bearing their names. With these people, he was charming and professorial.
But he had another side as well. To those he considered lesser beings he could be imperious, rude, bullying and condescending. He ignored colleagues whom he dismissed as unworthy of his time, and scorned collectors whose resources did not equal the first rank of American bibliophiles. He had an American brashness that offended his British peers. He craved publicity, and he thrilled at placing exorbitant and unprecedented prices on the choicest items: In 1947, he bought a copy of "The Bay Psalm Book" for $151,000 ($1.7 million today), then a record price. The total of his purchases are estimated at more than $75 million. He bragged about record prices he received, even though some of his clients preferred to keep their purchases private.
Rosenbach popularized the collecting of American literature at a time when only European literature was considered collectible. He also advanced the idea of book collecting as a means of investment.
Rosenbach died in 1952. He left a collection of children's literature -- which he inherited from an uncle and expanded himself -- to the Free Library of Philadelphia. His former shop is now a museum.
Sources: The Brittanica, "The Millionaire and the Bard" by Andrea Mays.