Jacques Vellekoop

Antiquarian bookseller


Jacques Leonard Vellekoop, antiquarian bookseller: born The Hague, The Netherlands 5 May 1926; died London 20 August 2007.

For 45 years, Jacques Vellekoop had a distinctive place in the antiquarian book-trade, for almost 40 a commanding one. That is what he will be remembered by, and deservedly. But there were many things about him that made him much more than that to those who knew him. On first sight, he was breathtakingly handsome, so much so that, in his youth, people of both sexes would turn and stare at him as he walked down Bond Street. His vitality that was immediately striking, his speech (with the slightest, not easily defined accent) accentuated by face and hands in constant, vigorous motion.

All this palled beside what he said, which was pungent, exact, penetrating, occasionally prophetic; but always laughter would keep breaking in. Wit is a complex gift. Vellekoop's was as constant and natural as Sydney Smith's, but quicker and more evanescent. Words spoken on the spur of the moment were gone the next second, gone before you could stop laughing and remember them. Those words concealed a great deal of knowledge, not merely about the books that he bought and sold but also about what was in them. This was all the more remarkable as it was knowledge picked up on the job.

Jacques Vellekoop was born at The Hague, but his parents moved to Cape Town when he was five or six. There he was educated at the best school, Jan van Riebeeck. After matriculating he went to Johannesburg, where he got a job as a junior reporter on The Star. In 1947 he moved to The Star's London office. He soon met Anthony Hobson, recently demobilised and working in his father's firm, Sotheby's. Hobson introduced him to Ernst Philipp Goldschmidt, the most learned antiquarian bookseller in London, and in 1948 Vellekoop became Goldschmidt's assistant.

He enjoyed life there at 45 Old Bond Street, and Goldschmidt, almost 40 years older, first lessons over, also came to enjoy his company. By the end of 1949 he could be trusted to write a good catalogue entry as well as with office routine. "I also like to have a distinctly gay and amusing fellow in my office," Goldschmidt wrote to his old friend and former employee Robert Dougan. "I am so often depressed about everything: my own affairs, and the world in general, that the daily encounter with somebody who is thoroughly enjoying himself and 'could not care less' (his favourite expression) is quite good for me."

"Gay" had not then its present connotation, but gaiety, in every sense of the word, was special to Jacques. "Could not care less" only meant refusing to take rebuffs or difficulties to heart. He did care: for his work (Goldschmidt catalogues 101-103 were all by him), for the customers, and above all for Goldschmidt himself, old and already ailing. When he died in 1954 he left the firm to Vellekoop. It was not an easy legacy. Business had been slow, and the rent all but doubled in 1953. Goldschmidt's most famous book, Gothic and Renaissance Bookbindings (1928), had been based on his own collection. What was left now went, his Grolier binding to the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, the rest at Sotheby's in April 1955, all "sold not subject to return".

Vellekoop then nearly brought off the coup of a lifetime in selling the virtually complete archive of Marcel Proust for Proust's niece, first to the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, and when that failed to Harvard University; neither could raise the money. Back in London, he kept up the old rate of two or three catalogues a year. Lists of cheaper books, which once had been duplicated, were now decently printed, and both intellectual and aesthetic taste went into catalogue 106, "Humanist Scholarship", with a cover designed by Jan Tschichold. Catalogue 122, "Illustrated Books", made another new departure.

Catalogue 135 announced another significant move, to 139a New Bond Street, opposite Sotheby's. It was not for the neighbours that he moved, but the lift and the rooftop views; there too he could offer refreshment "appropriate to the time of day". The old Goldschmidt premises had been dark, lined with wooden bookcases. Vellekoop put in the latest Swedish white metal shelves, new abstract carpets, evocative pictures. Goldschmidt's had been all scholarly texts: the new image was of visual taste – emblem and other picture books, architecture, even science, appealed to the eye as well as the mind.

He liked to buy books privately, rather in the auction rooms. He took long credit ("I never had the ambition to be a quick payer," he would say), and preferred to keep his customers to himself. For Theodore Besterman, the first to see books with Vellekoop's eye, he bought art books, for Dorothy Hutton (briefly) calligraphy. Increasingly, he was drawn to the United States, where there were libraries anxious to buy and not short of cash. He made firm friends with Elizabeth Niemyer at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, Karl Kup at the New York Public Library, Roger Stoddard at Harvard and Marjorie Wynne at Yale, but also kept in with the trade, especially Lathrop Harper, with Otto Ranschburg and Douglas Parsonage. Through them he met Franklin Kissner, collector and occasional financier of large purchases

One of these was the enormous Pecci-Blunt collection of books on Rome, some sold to Kissner, others in two large Goldschmidt catalogues. Besterman's art books were bequeathed to the Taylor Library, Oxford, which wanted but few; most came back. Vellekoop sold just over 300 to the nascent Getty Center for the History of Art in Los Angeles, inaugurating another warm relationship, with the centre and its librarian, Anne-Mieke Halbrook. He was never happier than in the unspoilt Art Deco Shangri-La Hotel on Santa Monica Beach, a stone's throw from the Getty Center, then on Wilshire Boulevard. His other great patron was Robert Tobin, for whom he built the large collection of books and designs for the theatre later given to the McNay Art Museum, San Antonio.

Vellekoop had other claims to originality. In 1974 he had left Bond Street for leafy Drayton Gardens in Chelsea, and there, 10 years later, he set up a four-terminal computer network with specially written software, one of the first such in the trade. He was also one of the founders of the Stuttgart Antiquariatsmesse, and for long the only British exhibitor at it. He was not jealous or resentful of others' success. He hired promising beginners, but encouraged them when they left to set up on their own: Lord John Kerr, Paul Breman, Richard von Hünersdorff, E.W.G. Grieb and Robin Halwas were among them. The faithful Mary Thomas stayed with him for 35 years.

In 1993, Vellekoop decided to retire, and the surviving stock and reference books made a memorable sale at Christie's. Before it there was a party, at which he recounted his memoirs, beginning firmly "Lot 1", to an audience in fits of laughter. In 1997 he gave the firm's account books from 1920 to 1980 to the Grolier Club (the rest, we hope, to follow), and sold its catalogues, again at Christie's.

His retirement was complete, but his enjoyment of life continued, and he went on travelling until a stroke incapacitated him. This did not cramp his style at all. Countless friends, from all quarters of his life, came to visit him, to be entertained with good food, drink and gossip charmed, insulted, captivated and, as always, made speechless by his undiminished wit.

Nicolas Barker

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