Back in the frame: collecting rare art books

The quest for rare catalogues and texts by artists, from Miró to Warhol, is gaining new cool

Le Courtisan Grotesque, 1974, illustrated by Joan Miró, sold at Christie’s for €56,250
Le Courtisan Grotesque, 1974, illustrated by Joan Miró, sold at Christie’s for €56,250 | Image: Christie’s Images Ltd 2020

Doug Flamm has a singular career. The rare-book specialist for Gagosian galleries sources vintage printed material for the Gagosian Shop in New York; curates themed pop-ups on Picasso or Cy Twombly; and hunts down difficult-to-find publications for collectors across the globe. “Some people are interested in post-world war two through to today, others start at pop or minimalism,” he says. “Then there are those after a whole library on Picasso.” 

An installation of Yves Klein books at the Gagosian gallery in Paris in 2018
An installation of Yves Klein books at the Gagosian gallery in Paris in 2018 | Image: © Succession Yves Klein c/o ADAGP, Paris 2018. Courtesy Gagosian
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For Flamm, the focus of a collection is always “strong reference books, in excellent condition. Some are quite elusive. The Yves Klein catalogue raisonné, which was issued with a beautiful blue dust jacket and a gold slip case, is a notoriously tough book to find.” Just 1,000 copies of this 1969 work were published, and while a copy can currently be found at M + R Fricke in Berlin for €2,200, it comes with a torn jacket.

Gagosian’s Cy Twombly pop-up installation
Gagosian’s Cy Twombly pop-up installation | Image: Artwork © Cy Twombly Foundation. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates. Courtesy Gagosian
The front cover of Babycakes, 1970, by Ed Ruscha
The front cover of Babycakes, 1970, by Ed Ruscha | Image: © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy Gagosian

Other sought-after originals include “the set of Zervos”, a 33-volume publication on Picasso compiled by art critic Christian Zervos (“It’s been reprinted recently, but some still want a vintage set,” says Flamm); and early Warhol catalogues from his 1965 and 1968 shows in Philadelphia and Stockholm. “People want these Warhol books because of their historical significance, but they are very cool too.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat Catalogue Raisonné, £3,000, from Peter Harrington Rare Books
Jean-Michel Basquiat Catalogue Raisonné, £3,000, from Peter Harrington Rare Books | Image: Peter Harrington Rare Books, London
Jean Debuffet and Pierre André Benoît’s Oreilles Gardées, 1962, sold at Christie’s for €1,500
Jean Debuffet and Pierre André Benoît’s Oreilles Gardées, 1962, sold at Christie’s for €1,500 | Image: Christie’s Images Ltd 2020

The cool factor is also high for the books of pop-art painter Ed Ruscha, whose 1960s combinations of photography and photo-collage were at the forefront of the artists’ book movement. “These are not books that reference artworks. These books are artworks,” explains Ben Houston, sales director at London’s Peter Harrington Rare Books, which currently stocks a first edition of Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip (£4,500), alongside multi-volume catalogues raisonnés on Basquiat (£3,000) and Chagall lithographs (£4,500).

Picasso Température, by Jacqueline Roque, sold at Christie’s for €16,250
Picasso Température, by Jacqueline Roque, sold at Christie’s for €16,250 | Image: Christie’s Images Ltd 2020
Marc Chagall’s Lithographs (1960-1986), £4,500, from Peter Harrington Rare Books
Marc Chagall’s Lithographs (1960-1986), £4,500, from Peter Harrington Rare Books | Image: Peter Harrington Rare Books, London

“Ruscha wanted his books to be accessible and he priced them cheaply,” says Max Schumann, executive director of New York artists’ book specialist Printed Matter. “His first book, 1963’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations, was a limited edition of 400 – a decision Ruscha later admitted was a mistake, as it made them more like sought-after artworks, so he printed further editions.” Not that this has kept prices low; Printed Matter currently has a signed second edition for $3,000, as well as work by photographer Francesca Woodman; the Xerox Book produced in 1968 by artists including Sol LeWitt; and the pamphlets of multimedia artist Athena Tacha.

Man Ray’s Champs Délicieux, 1922, sold at Christie’s for €346,000
Man Ray’s Champs Délicieux, 1922, sold at Christie’s for €346,000 | Image: Christie’s Images Ltd 2020
De Moment en Moment, by René Char and Joan Miró, sold at Christie’s for €25,000
De Moment en Moment, by René Char and Joan Miró, sold at Christie’s for €25,000 | Image: Christie’s Images Ltd 2020

But long before these artists’ books came the livre d’artiste, a term coined in the late 19th century, when art dealer Ambroise Vollard began commissioning the likes of Pierre Bonnard and Picasso to illustrate works of literature. “We have a Picasso book in which he does not even attempt to illustrate Balzac’s text,” says Houston of Vollard’s 1931 version of Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu, “but it’s very beautiful.”  

André Breton’s Second Manifeste du Surréalisme, 1930, sold at Christie’s for €442,000
André Breton’s Second Manifeste du Surréalisme, 1930, sold at Christie’s for €442,000 | Image: Christie’s Images Ltd 2020
Some Disordered Interior Geometries, 1981, by Francesca Woodman, $9,500, from Printed Matter
Some Disordered Interior Geometries, 1981, by Francesca Woodman, $9,500, from Printed Matter

Such books – whether classed as art, literature or somewhere in between – also feature in the three Christie’s sales dedicated to the vast collection of Paul Destribats (the third will be held in Paris in June). The late Parisian bibliophile’s cache of avant-garde, 20th-century books included André Breton’s Second Manifeste du Surréalisme from 1930, one of 60 examples with a frontispiece by Salvador Dalí, and a first edition of Man Ray’s Champs Délicieux (1922) featuring 12 signed rayograms – which sold for €442,000 and €346,000 respectively last July.

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The second sale in February focused on works by surrealist publishers Pierre André Benoît (PAB) and Ilia Zdanevitch (Iliazd). “PAB was a very small-scale, artisan publisher, yet he worked with the most important artists of the day,” says Adrien Legendre, head of books and manuscripts at Christie’s Paris. “Most of what he produced was handmade on a small press. One book is just 19mm by 39mm, containing the smallest Picasso prints ever made.” The minuscule object sold for €16,250, alongside examples by Jean Dubuffet and Joan Miró – who also created 16 engravings for Adrian de Monluc’s text Le Courtisan Grotesque, published by Iliazd in 1974 (sold for €56,250).

“Sometimes collectors take prints out of the book to frame them,” says Legendre. For internet entrepreneur Mark Ghuneim, however, his “archive” of artists’ books – focused on “surveillance and the arts” – is displayed on shelving commissioned by beaux-arts architect Stanford White for libraries and national archives. As Houston concludes: “Books furnish a room – and a wall of art books looks fantastic.” 

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