A Letter from America XIX: The End of H.P. Kraus (November)

From the Antiquarian Book Review

The closing of the firm of H.P. Kraus ends one of the greatest stories in rare book dealing in modern times. Founded by Hans P. Kraus in Vienna in 1932, and established in New York in 1939, the business was continued after Kraus’ death in 1988 by his widow Hanni and their daughter Mary Ann Folter, with her husband Roland Folter. The entire stock and legendary reference library have been bought by Sotheby’s, who will sell them in a series of auctions beginning in late October.

Hans P. Kraus (or HPK, as he was referred to by much of the rare book world) was without doubt the most successful and dominant rare book dealer in the world in the second half of the 20th century. In the history of American antiquarian bookselling his only peer was Dr. Rosenbach, who similarly bestrode the first half. Like the Doctor, Kraus wanted to have great books not only in his own personal fields of expertise, but in all fields; in the heyday of each firm their stocks were as broad as they were deep, the opposite of the specialization typical of the present day. What set Kraus apart was his ability as a businessman, his propulsive drive to build a firm, and his persistence in following through on the advantages he created for himself. Where Rosenbach faltered, undermined by drink, the Depression, and his brother Philip, Kraus seized the opportunities of the post-War world to build an empire than spanned rare books, a major reprint operation, and the world’s largest photographic archive. "Readers may understandably get the impression that I am interested only in making money," he wrote in his 1978 autobiography, A Rare Book Saga. He certainly didn’t deny that business came first. There is a wonderful story which, whether true or not, catches this spirit. On the first Grolier Club trip to Italy, in 1962, the group visited the Vatican Library. The solicitous librarian asked, "Well, Mr. Kraus, what can I show you?" To which HPK is said to have responded, "Your duplicates!"

A Rare Book Saga is a fascinating read, but hard going unless the reader is already well informed about the rare book world. It assumes a high level of knowledge, and the Kraus prose style is not easy. It can quickly seem like a chronicle of deals – I paid this, I sold it for five times as much. A clever English bookseller neatly lampooned the tone with a little ditty: "It was another wonderful day/ In the life of HPK." Get beyond this, though, and it is what its editor, former Beinecke Library director Fritz Liebert, claimed: "the most extraordinary story of dealing in rare books and manuscripts that I have ever read." It is the asides, more than the main narrative, that reveal Kraus’ spirit. One of my favorites is his remark about the Rochambeau Papers; that if he had to he would have walked twenty miles in the rain in the middle of the night to get them. But there are many anecdotes which can be appreciated on any level, and it is a necessary read for anyone interested in the rare book market from 1945 to 1975.

Kraus loved winning, and he appreciated the value of the grandstand moment. His courage in the auction rooms was legendary, sometimes even foolhardy. The classic setpiece of the HPK saga is him bidding on recklessly, with the devoted Hanni plucking at his sleeve, trying to get him to stop. But these things almost always worked out in the end, if only because the overwhelming rising tide of rare book prices across the prime years of his career made bets on the very best an unlosable proposition. This is to easy to say in retrospect, but at the time he took breathtaking chances, confident in his ability to convince a customer that the items were as great as the prices. He also understood the value of publicity, which brought him many great private opportunities. I was sitting next to the Krauses at one of the Robinson dispersal sales at Sotheby’s in London, in 1986, when he made his last such bid, paying a record price for the Phillipps copy of one of the first major New World imprints, Molina’s Vocabulario, published in Mexico by the printer Juan Pablos in 1555. HPK kept his hand resolutely in the air, Hanni plucked in vain, and finally the prize was his. Alas, it was a bridge too far, and the book remained in Kraus stock.

Kraus was always a friend of scholarship, exemplified by the firm’s magnificent run of catalogues. If one can find them, look at such classics as catalogue 90, from 1959, great fun for the prices (a set of the Audubon Double Elephant Folio for $45,000), catalogue 100 in 1962 (35 unpriced manuscripts of the if-you-have-to-ask-you-can’t-afford-it class, and a pictorial insert of the premises on 46th Street), or the stunning 165 from 1984, modestly titled Cimelia ("beautiful things"). He also demonstrated his support of learning in his gifts to libraries, particularly the donation of his Sir Francis Drake collection to the Library of Congress and his many benefactions to the Yale Library.

After HPK’s death the firm has continued to be a major force in rare bookselling until now. The death of Hanni Kraus in January 2003 led her heirs to decide to liquidate the firm rather than sell the name. In July a deal was struck with Sotheby’s and the firm closed its doors. At the time of writing firm dates have not been set for the auctions, but they will probably begin in late October with the reference books, the stock following in December (check Sotheby’s web site for details). Mary Ann and Roland Folter will retain the name, and can still be reached at the same e.mail: hpkraus@hpkraus.com. Every success to them in their new endeavors.

– William S. Reese