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OBITUARY : Hans Fellner

Nicolas Barker
Tuesday 23 July 1996 23:02 BST

Hans Fellner was a bookseller of remarkable scope and versatility, who spent the last 20 years of his life in Christie's book department in London, where his integrity, his wide range of intellectual interests, and his warm nature made him new friends, not only at King Street but all over the world.

He was, in fact, by birth and upbringing, one of the last (youngest in years, that is) of the great wave of emigre booksellers and scholars who, driven from middle Europe by the Nazis, settled in Britain and America, and enormously enriched the heritage that came with and to them in exile.

Fellner was born in Vienna in 1925, the son of a banker turned diplomat with French nationality. His parents separated when he was a child, and it was his grandmother who saw to his education at the Gymnasium. After the Anschluss she realised the danger and arranged for her grandson, aged 13, to leave by the "children's train" for London. Places were only available to those who had a British family to go to; this had been duly arranged, but when the boy arrived in Birmingham he found that his family had moved.

His school years - he went to Smethwick Grammar School - were thus mainly spent in a hostel: it may have there that he acquired his gentle tolerance of all sorts of other human beings, and also the universal curiosity that never deserted him. He went on to Birmingham University to read, improbable as it seems now, Engineering. After that he wandered about taking various jobs, one with Standard Cable, trying to repay some of his university fees.

In the early Fifties, however, he went to work with David Nutt, the West End booksellers, and found his metier. The original David Nutt in the 19th century had married a German wife, a strong-minded woman of considerable charm and ability, and the firm had strong traditional links with the world that Fellner had left in 1938 and now lay in ruins. He travelled and learnt more and more about that world, whose accent he never lost. He also contentedly learnt a great deal about selling books, English as well as foreign, old as well as new.

In 1956 he decided to set up on his own and rented a first-floor office at 28 Museum Street, in an area still full of bookshops, rather run-down and dilapidated, especially no 28. The smell of old books mixed oddly with the blood and sawdust from the butchers below. Prices were still low and books plentiful, customers less so. But the catalogues he wrote, replete with recondite learning, found ready buyers and more readers. Self-employment, however, was an exacting business, and after 20 years and a slight heart attack he was advised to give it up; he was never strong, and it was thought that a more sedentary, salaried life would be better for him.

Christie's, recently bereft of Dudley Massey, who had for many years provided the expertise in the Book Department, were able to give him the latter, but no one could describe his life there as sedentary. He was immediately plunged into the preparations for the Evelyn sale.

The break-up of the library of John Evelyn, the great 17th-century diarist and virtuoso, was one of the tragedies of the 1970s, all the more sad because the creation of the National Heritage Memorial Fund shortly after provided the means of averting such disasters. But now there was a need to catalogue over a thousand books, some in Evelyn's special and beautiful bindings, others of great intellectual importance augmented by Evelyn's own notes. The like of these had not been seen before; it required new expertise and, since the sales had to be prepared in a hurry, there was no time to waste on exploring the books as fully as they deserved. But he got the work done, on time if against the clock. It was a remarkable achievement, made more so by the help he provided to the British Library's campaign to retrieve the annotated books. Not for the last time Fellner's natural sympathy and commercial judgement were vindicated.

Cataloguing against time, not a weakling's job, proved one of his great strengths. He was, despite his frail appearance, able to work at high pressure for long periods at a stretch. Soon after came the Chatsworth and Houghton sales, the one of rare, mostly continental, scholarly books, the other of early English printed books with some manuscripts, all outstanding. This double challenge Fellner faced with his usual skill and calmness. He throve on emergencies, whatever the doctors said. He dealt with the Wagner manuscripts of the Curtis Institute at Philadelphia with equal address.

In recent times he had taken a major part in cataloguing the Bute early English literature and liturgical books; these too stretched his experience and imagination to the full. The papers of Sir Frank Whittle, the pioneer of jet propulsion, came to Christie's this year, and everyone was surprised when Fellner picked them up with enthusiasm. No one asked what he knew about the subject, nor had he told anyone about his Engineering degree; but he knew enough to give a dramatic but careful account of the material.

Fellner was not tall but slightly built: latterly, balding and with his beaky nose, he looked like an infinitely benevolent Mr Punch. He had a way of engaging you in any problem that came his way with an air of joyful conspiracy that was irresistible. He would profess his own ignorance disarmingly; generally you would find that he already knew more than most about it. Everybody, particularly other booksellers, liked to ask his advice, because they knew that he would give it scrupulously and with a sure sense of their needs. His voice was gentle, its charm accentuated by a residual Viennese lilt. He had an engaging smile, easily induced by his sense of the absurd. His extraordinary diverse learning was put without reserve to the use of anyone who needed it. He had no secrets, yet was infinitely discreet. All who knew him liked him; he had no enemies.

The survivors of the great diaspora of the Thirties are few now, and Hans Fellner's death has taken one whose special grace and learning were at once typical and unique.

Nicolas Barker

Hans Fellner, bookseller: born Vienna 13 June 1925; married 1943 Jessica Thompson (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1981 Sheila Ramage (one daughter); died London 18 July 1996.

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