Bernard Breslauer

Bookdealer and collector across two continents

Bernd Hartmut Breslauer, antiquarian bookseller: born Berlin 1 July 1918; died New York 14 August 2004.


The great bookselling business that Bernard Breslauer built up across two continents and ran single-handedly traded not under his own name but that of his father, Martin Breslauer. It was one of the most admirable of his many qualities (some were less admirable) that he was devoted to his parents; his whole career was a tribute to his father's name, once equally famous. His own success was a deliberate retribution for the tragedy that brought Martin Breslauer's business, and ultimately his life, to an end.

Bernd Hartmut Breslauer, antiquarian bookseller: born Berlin 1 July 1918; died New York 14 August 2004.

The great bookselling business that Bernard Breslauer built up across two continents and ran single-handedly traded not under his own name but that of his father, Martin Breslauer. It was one of the most admirable of his many qualities (some were less admirable) that he was devoted to his parents; his whole career was a tribute to his father's name, once equally famous. His own success was a deliberate retribution for the tragedy that brought Martin Breslauer's business, and ultimately his life, to an end.

Martin Breslauer had had a cosmopolitan experience in the trade, latterly as joint manager at Leo Olschki's bookshop in Florence, when he set up on his own in his native Berlin in 1898. He was 47 when his son was born, just before the end of the First World War, and named Bernd Hartmut.

The young Breslauer thus grew up in the years of privation that followed, but his parents were comfortably off, and his schooldays at the Humanistisches Gymnasium were unclouded. He learned Latin and Greek, French and Italian, but his main love, then and thereafter, was for German poetry. "The greatest bookseller," he used to say, "is not even the smallest Goethe"; he knew much of Faust by heart, and had a special reverence for any relics of the great man that came his way.

He wrote poetry himself, some of it published while he was still at school; it attracted the attention and praise from Stefan Zweig, no mean critic, another sufferer from the war. But in his 17th year, after a brief apprenticeship at Olschki's, he joined his father, improving his education "on the job", with the aid of his father's wonderful reference library. This happy existence came to an end only two years later, when the anti-Semitic persecution forced the family to leave Germany. As the movement of money was already restricted, Martin Breslauer was forced to sell part of the Empress Marie-Louise's library which he had bought, and, still worse, part of his reference library.

The buyer of the latter was Martin Bodmer, whose international standing as President of the Swiss Red Cross made this possible. He subsequently became one of Bernard Breslauer's best customers, and his collection (in which another exile, the New York bookseller H.P. Kraus, also had an important part) has recently been opened to the public as the Fondation Bodmer at Cologny. But to Bernard it was, then and later, "a tremendous loss, both emotional and material", hence his determination to retrieve, not the books themselves, but what they already meant to him.

The family moved to London, where Martin Breslauer re-established his business in Bedford Court Mansions, conveniently near the British Museum. It took all his courage to do so; he was not young, and of all European languages he was least familiar with English. His son, not yet 20, adapted more easily, but all too soon war broke out, and he was interned on the Isle of Man, an experience of which he did not willingly speak. Worse followed; in October 1940, the same bombs that fell on the British Museum destroyed the Breslauers' flat; Martin Breslauer died of the shock a few days later.

So Bernd Breslauer, now released, found himself in a country still foreign, whose hospitality he was determined to repay, determined also to rebuild what was now his business so that it should be a proper monument to his father. It was not an easy task. As a start, he joined the Pioneer Corps, where he became "Bernard" and in which he served until 1945, spending his leave with his mother, now established in a flat in the relative security of Chiswick.

This became the new business's first address, and the proceeds of what books he could catalogue and sell by post, mainly to America, went first to his mother, more books bought only with what was left.

But he did make some friends. One was his former neighbour in Great Russell Street, Arthur Probsthain, who specialised in Oriental books and now helped financially as well as practically. Another was his mother's neighbour Wilfred Merton, who had rescued the once famous Chiswick Press and was a discriminating collector of books and manuscripts. Through Merton, he met Eric Millar, soon to become Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum, and another neighbour, Sydney Cockerell, former Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum and an even greater collector, in Kew.

"Look at them properly, you aren't looking at them closely enough," Cockerell admonished him, as he gingerly inspected the great man's manuscripts. It was a lesson he never forgot, and one that underlay his success in the years that followed. His gift for finding unsuspected merit in an old book, some quality that would entice a customer, known or unknown, to buy it, came from seeing what others looked at and did not see. By 1947, he had done well enough to risk opening a shop, back where he had started, at 23 Museum Street.

Old friends came to greet him there, and new ones, too. Among the collectors who appreciated his eye for fine book-bindings were Albert Ehrman, Major Abbey and Henry Davis; medieval and Renaissance manuscripts went to Chester-Beatty and to Philip Hofer, one of the first American collectors to visit Museum Street and appreciate Breslauer's eye for graphic art. The catalogues continued, among them one on literary forgeries, collected by his father; another on music manuscripts, from which Sir Robert Mayer bought, inaugurated another close friendship.

He delighted in such contacts, as well as the books that came and went with them. You never knew whom you might meet with him. It might be Francis Wormald, recently become Professor of Palaeography at King's College London, or Otto Schäfer, the ballbearing king, forming his matchless collection of early printing. There was, too, a young German student with relations in England, who said, "If they learn one has been in England and not looked them up, they get cross - but the food is so poor at Windsor!" The contacts and the books grew, in quality as well as quantity, and he moved to more elegant quarters in Hallam Street.

But, with both friends and books now copious and available, Breslauer never really felt at home. He loved his adopted country, prided himself on his English and derided those less able to express themselves than he, but, for one who had given up all to serve in the British army, there were other aspects of British life less attractive, its exorbitant tax system for one, another the reluctance of auction houses to accept his (to him) modest demands for credit. So one day in 1977 he sailed away to the United States, to set up house and shop again in a palatial apartment (once Grace Kelly's) at 988 Fifth Avenue.

It was indeed a sea-change. His books, his surroundings, even his appearance, became somehow larger than life. His catalogues, always scholarly and accurate, blossomed into large monographs with lovely colour plates. He took to New York, its society and restaurants, with even greater gusto. He gave up the least vestige of hair on top of his head, his nose, always luminous, outshone that of Federigo da Montefeltro, and his ties and his big black hat (worn at a rakish angle) grew even more flamboyant.

Next year he celebrated his move with two notable purchases that made the headlines. At Christie's auction of books from the General Theological Seminary he bought the Gutenberg Bible on behalf of the Württenberg Landesbibliothek for the record price of $2.2m, and later the same year the Philadelphia Curtis Institute of Music collection of Wagner manuscripts (originally formed by the composer's biographer Mary Burrell) for Bayreuth. Two years later he bought the best of the Furstenberg collection of book-bindings, which furnished subsequent catalogues, along with those by modern French masters who he delighted in patronising.

He found time for other activities. In 1981 he and Roland Folter put on an exhibition on the history of bibliography at the Grolier Club, based partly on the club's collection, but also on his own collection, the "Bibliotheca Bibliographica Breslaueriana", not as copious as his father's but richer in special copies - the catalogue of a library annotated by its collector or bound for presentation to another. His other collection, of leaves from medieval manuscripts (begun when his customers, with whom he would not compete, did not buy fragments), was exhibited in 1992 at the Pierpont Morgan Library, which made him a Fellow of the library. The catalogues of both have become reference books in their own right.

He was devoted to the great family library of the Earls of Crawford, cataloguing it for the 28th Earl (an occasional customer), and in 1998 editing a facsimile of Il Quadriregio, a beautiful Italian Renaissance illustrated book, for the 29th Earl to present to the Roxburghe Club. He published his own monograph, Count Heinrich IV zu Castell: a German Renaissance book collector and the bindings made for him during his student years in Orléans, Paris, and Bologna (1987), numerous articles in journals (notably The Book Collector), and a wicked parody of the German poetry of his colleague H.P. Kraus. He gave the Martin Breslauer archive to the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, and in 1997 the Freie Universität of his native city gave him an honorary doctorate.

Like the cat in The Just So Stories, Bernard Breslauer always walked by himself. He was never an easy colleague, and quickly took offence. An idle remark would provoke a crushing rejoinder: "You have" (short pause) "the sense of humour of an elephant." If he enjoyed his Almanach de Gotha acquaintance, he was clear-sighted about himself. Comparing the Ritzes in London and Madrid, "and Paris?", he was asked: "Oh, no, I go to the Georges V - I know my place." But he had a great well of affection for those he admired, his sadly short-lived business partner Hardy Grieb, the Baron de Redé, who died just before him, and Philip Langaigne, who looked after him in old age, unperturbed by an occasional flare of bad temper.

He was a great gossip, and an even greater source of gossip among those who admired him, his wit, his fantasies, his outbursts, and, first and last, his passionate love of books.

Nicolas Barker

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