Another Fish Off the Hook

The last quarter of 2008 had been an unusual time for book quotes for the Mosher collection. Several quotes received were for sub-standard material at exorbitant prices. By sub-standard I mean that I had received offers of books without their covers; a couple offers of rather plain bindings that were soiled and otherwise marred; several of the Mosher Books which were the common variety, and letters only making faint mention of Mosher–and all for rather high prices. The upside of this was that people were quoting; the downside was that the material wasn’t worth the time and was certainly pointing to a dearth of material available on the market just now (notice to how close the word dearth is to death for the collector). I kept passing by stuff so much so that I became afraid that people soon wouldn’t quote me anything anymore. Then again how in the heck was I going to pay for it anyway (read slow sales, poor economy, etc). This wasn’t business as usual.

At the end of 2008 another unusual occurrence reared its head. I got an e-mail from Chicago. A Japan vellum copy of the quarto Tristram of Lyonesse in Donnelley binding was coming up at some sort of fund raiser function at the Caxton Club. Usually I’d spring for such, but I already have representative Donnelley bindings on the quartos: two Rossetti volumes, Pater’s The Renaissance, and Swinburne’s Songs before Sunrise. I have evidence showing these were all done for a lawyer collector, Sydney Sanner, and the volumes were color-coded by author: the Rossetti volumes in red, the Swinburnes in blue, and the Paters in green. They’re relatively plain covers but with nicely decorated spines and overall make a very high class appearance. From this set I once even had the two-volume Marius the Epicurean and one of the Swinburne Ballades (there were two), but I sold them–the first to a dealer who, in turn sold them to an institution, and the latter to a Donnelley aficionado. Why? I was reasonably sure that I’d have little chance to re-unite all ten volumes that were apparently widely dispersed after Sanner died. I reasoned that if I couldn’t have all the volumes, I’d at least have a good representation from Rossetti, Pater, and Swinburne–the only three authors Mosher put into the Quarto Series. They were all in special enclosed slipcases and, like the color, the tooling was different for each author’s books but the same through all the volumes for each author.

So now here was a bookseller who said he’d be willing to bid for me at the benefit auction. Trouble was that IF his report confirmed that this was yet another volume from the Sanner collection, then I wouldn’t be willing to bid high on it. Whatever I would bid, if indeed I would bid, would add to my overall debt which isn’t good. This wasn’t the time to be out there spending and using one’s credit card. So, my guess was that this would be yet another instance this year that I’d have to pass by yet another Mosher item. Damn, not fun at all.

Well it was official. Yet another Mosher item was turned down so to speak. Actually it was somewhat embarrassing and my apprehension extended over the long term repercussions: might such “turn-offs” cause dealers to say yes, they know that Mosher collector but he doesn’t pay anything so we won’t bother to quote him anymore. Was this the new era we’ve embarked upon? I’m usually OK with this but didn’t feel as assured as I customarily do following this yet another “fish off the hook.” I waited for the evening call the dealer said he’d make after the auction. No call. Then came the next day. No call. So the following letter was written to the Chicago rare book dealer at the end of the second day:

December 11, 2008

Hi ———:

I presume that my low bid was unsuccessful or else I probably would have heard from you last night. As you know I’ve already rationalized in my mind what to do about these volumes if and when they come up. Since I was relatively sure I’d never be able to reassemble the complete set of ten volumes of these bindings done for Sydney Sanner, I comforted myself with having already acquired the two Rossetti volumes bound in red, one of the Pater volumes bound in green, and one of the Swinburne volumes bound in blue which is a good representation of what Sanner had the Donnelley bindery do. If I had added another Swinburne to the collection, that would have been fine but not crucial; hence, my low bid.

More importantly, I GREATLY appreciated your informing me about the Caxton sale and the opportunity to acquire the Swinburne. Probably if it had been a different time–like not in this miserable economy and not this close to Christmas–I would have given you a stronger bid. I’ve operated on the dealer side of things long enough to know that it’s somewhat deflating to have a lack luster customer on the other end, so all that I can say–and know such is usually dismissive–is that your intervention was, as I said, greatly appreciated. In fact, so much so that this event will enter my memoirs recording your kindness to see to it that the Swinburne “should go to a good home.” It would have if it came here, but I’m sure others will treasure it as much as I would have treasured it.

On the other side, if it had been a different Donnelley binding with more decoration, it would have certainly been a different story. For those items which I don’t have or which I feel would well supplement the collection, I go the extra measure. With such a large Mosher collection I choose my battles.

Again, my thanks to you and may the holiday season be a happy one for you and may sales be good.

Best wishes,


Sure, I’d love to keep buying and buying, but times have radically changed and I shouldn’t mind changing with them. I went back and looked at a few things in the collection and was amazed to find some items I had forgotten about, like W. Irving Way’s (of Way & Williams, publisher) inscription in a little copy of Mosher’s production of George Meredith by J. M. Barrie (1912), this copy bearing the bookplate of A. Gaylord Beaman:

Dear A.G.B.

It looks a trifle–but what a trifle! and what a Tribute!

And it has the Barrie touch, and is being reprinted over

and over by various publishers–with brother T.B.M.

heading the processions in America.


W. Irving Way


Really now, these are such sweet and meaningful things and I’m so utterly pleased to have them and scores of others which cheerfully grace the shelves of the Mosher collection. I know, part of the fun is in the chase of these acquisitions, but for now I vicariously content myself with offering some Mosher items to a couple customers which will enhance their own collections. Heck, if not me then best it be them. We’re such a little convivial fraternity, and to see them happy to have acquired yet another Mosher book is the next best thing to my getting one.

I actually sat down and reworked things in my head. It now seemed to me that in the long run I was wrong and my long held decision not to try to complete the Sanner set was wrong–but that’s all in hindsight. Yes, if you take out the Laus Veneris as one of the ten volumes Sanner would have had bound (I say to take it out of the list because the Poems & Ballads–1st Series actually included all the poetry of that first Quarto Series volume of Swinburne’s Laus Veneris, so Sanner may have just had the set excluding Laus Veneris and it still would have been complete as far as the texts go) that would have left nine volumes to find. I already have the two Rossetti volumes, plus Swinburne’s Songs before Sunrise, plus Pater’s The Renaissance. That’s four. Then I had at one time the two-volume Marius the Epicurean and Swinburne’s Poems & Ballads–2nd & Third Series. That would have been three more volumes for a total of seven. Then if I had gotten that copy of Tristram of Lyoness that would have made it eight. The only one that I would have lacked as Swinburne’s Poems & Ballads-1st Series and that would have been conceivably possibly to find. But who knows, I may have ended up with the set being incomplete after all. So still, maybe my decision to have a representation of what was in the set was sound after all. Then again, if that Poems & Ballads-1st Series ever shows up for sale I have reason to further lament my initial decision. But one thing IS for certain: at least I have the representative red, green and blue volumes I set out to get, and I’m particularly pleased to have the two gorgeous Rossetti volumes which, of all those in the set, I was most interested in having.

But when your down you’re not necessarily out. Just when you think you’re defeated up pops something miraculous. A day after I sent my e-mail to the Chicago dealer an e-mail came with the subject line “You won!” and in the beginning of the e-mail’s text it made some sort of excuse that this is not a Nigerian scam. I got ready to delete it off the screen when I saw the following words:

Phil, we won the fight at exactly your low bid.  If you would send me a cheque for that amount made payable to The Caxton Club,  and put a ten dollar bill inside for the shipping, I will meanwhile pack it up and ship it to you, insured.  You should get it next week, if I can get to the UPS office on Friday. Glad I could be here for you…

Amazing! I got the book after all. When it was received I didn’t open it, but instead gave it to my wife and suggested “here, you might want to wrap it up and give it to me as a Christmas gift.” Actually she’d been looking all year for something “Mosher” to give to me and agreed to pay 1/3 of the price of the book as her contribution. How’s that for a wife’s interest in seeing to it that a Merry Christmas be had! I opened it up on Christmas morning and it was a real beauty. So OK, it’s another volume from the Sanner collection, and yes, I already have several, but this is one that made it’s way here under unusual circumstances. I also had not remembered my facts correctly. The title of the Swinburne I previously sold to a Chicago collector wasn’t Swinburne’s Ballades in Donnelley binding. Indeed, it was this very book which I just received, Swinburne’s Tristram of Lyonesse. I had even included it in my bibliography of the Mosher Press as an “exact mate” to my copy of Songs before Sunrise and noted it was in a “private collection.” I didn’t remember this was the very book I previously sold and, shame on me, I didn’t even consult my own Mosher bibliography. It came home to roost here on the shelf beside its “exact mate.” Talk about a long term boomerang.

Happy collecting to all, and to all a good night.

© Phil Bishop
January 5, 2009

This essay is Copyright © by Philip R. Bishop. Permission to reproduce the above article has been granted by Gordon Pfeiffer, president of the Delaware Bibliophiles and editor of that organization’s newsletter, Endpapers, in which the article appeared in the March 2009 issue. No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without expressed written permission from both parties.