Bookplate (Exlibris) Collecting Basics

March 19th, 2008

Lew Jaffe’s Bookplate Junkie blog is a member of our Collectors Weekly Hall of Fame. For more information on collecting bookplates and an incredible array of beautiful bookplates, visit Bookplate Junkie.

Dragonfly bookplate ex librisBookplate mania in America and England peaked from 1890 to about 1920. That’s when the really great collections were formed. Most of them were either dispersed or absorbed into other collections. These collections are like old friends because they all came from the same gene pool. Perhaps there were 100 collectors who actively exchanged duplicates and many of the same core plates are to be found in all the collections. They were often mounted on 6 inch by 9 inch card stock.

Today, if there are two hundred bookplate collectors in the United States I would be very surprised. What could be more boring then being subjected to watching a neighbor’s home video of a trip to Disneyland with their grandchildren? My assumption is that most people, after five minutes, have similar reactions listening to me go on about bookplates. That’s why it’s so pleasurable to meet with fellow collectors who share your enthusiasm.

Finding Bookplates

People often ask me where to find bookplates so I thought it might a good time to write about building a collection.

eBay: When I started this adventure about 35 years ago there was no Ebay so I built a collection without it. Today Ebay is certainly an excellent way to find bookplates from around the world. It takes time and discipline because there is so much clutter but it is still worth the effort.

Elbert Hubbard Roycroft bookplate ex librisBookplate Societies: When I first got interested in bookplates I joined both The American (www.bookplate.org) and English (www.bookplatesociety.org) bookplate societies .That gave me an opportunity to meet with and obtain bookplates from other collectors. It still makes good sense to join these organizations. I am always interested in exchanging bookplates with other collectors and was very pleased to receive the January, 2008 Directory Of Members from the Bookplate Society. There are about 200+ individual members in the group and about 159 have indicated a willingness to trade. One of the easiest ways to build a collection is to exchange duplicates.

Bookplate engravers and designers are often willing to send you a bookplate in exchange for one of yours. It’s a simple way for them to meet potential customers. Of course, you need a decent bookplate to begin with.

Booksellers: Antiquarian and used booksellers will go out of their way to help you if you make your interest known to them. It gets harder each year as the number of open shops decreases, and the number of pre-1920′s books on the shelves is decreasing. Nevertheless, it is often productive. Start looking in either the poetry or foreign language sections as owners of such books seem to have used bookplates more frequently and there is often less turnover of inventory. Ask the bookseller if he keeps a box of detached boards. I have found some excellent 18th century plates in such boxes.
Bookbinders: In most large communities there is at least one hand bookbinder. Check the Yellow Pages, Google, or ask a book dealer. More often than not they, being pack rats, hold onto old bookplates, and in some instances are more than willing to sell you a cigar box full.
I also buy a number of bookplates from dealers.

Book and Paper Shows: I have always enjoyed going to shows. After a while, dealers will save things for you. It pays to stop at every booth and ask. Here is a link to book shows sorted by state: http://www.bookhunterpress.com/index.cgi/bkfairsbystate.html

Angel of Death letters: I am almost (not quite) embarrassed to admit to the fact that I used to look up the ages of bookplate collectors and wrote to all those over eighty to inquire if they knew of any collections for sale. The point is that it was very productive and I bought two major collections that way. For the record, I am 70, so do not bother me until 2018!

Letters to Famous People: I’ve occasionally gotten some remarkable bookplates by writing to celebrities, but I have not had too much luck in recent years. Too much mail is filtered by clerks and more often than not you get a signed photo or an auto-pened label.

Themes in Bookplate Collecting

Teepee bookplate ex librisMany collectors have specialized topics and themes that they focus on. I tend to spend my time and energy searching for 18th century American exlibris, bookplates from the libraries of famous people from any country and bookplates with Jewish signs or symbols. The list keeps growing. Rabbits are a good case in point. I started with two Rabbit plates and in the dark of night between the covers of their snug album pages they reproduced so now I have a litter of eight. Five are domestic and three came from England.

I know there are collectors out there who focus on dogs, cats, owls, stamps, chess and even chickens.

Dated Bookplates: I have always been partial to dated bookplates. Somehow, knowing precisely when a bookplate was engraved is very orderly and comforting. A strange choice of words perhaps, but that is my gut feeling. Two excellent reference books about dated bookplates are:

Dated Bookplates, A Treatise On Their Origin And Development by Walter Hamilton. There are three volumes. Volume two covers the eighteenth century.

Early Printed Book Labels by Brian North Lee: Anything written by Brian North Lee is carefully and lovingly researched.

How to Remove a Bookplate

Let us assume you purchased a book with significant historical significance, an association copy from the library of a president. It would be a crime against future generations to remove the bookplate. On the other hand, if you went to a library book sale and got a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book with a bookplate you wanted, the removal would be completely acceptable.

It’s all very subjective. Over the years I have in fact removed many bookplates. Sometimes the books are donated to a charity, sometimes they are resold on eBay. Here’s how I remove the bookplates without damaging the book. I would suggest that you start by practicing on distressed items. These instructions should not be used for leather bookplates and those with red dye should be tested first with a moistened Q-Tip, as red tends to bleed:

1) Boil Water

2) Fold a paper towel in quarters and cut it slightly larger than the bookplate

3) Using tongs, immerse the folded towel into the boiling water.

4) Place the steaming towel on top of the bookplate. If the bookplate is on the inside front
cover be sure it is level. You may have to place a saucer under it to keep it level.

5) Wait two minutes and place the point of a knife under a corner of the bookplate. Lift gently
and try to pull off.If you encounter resistance continue to soak another minute.

6) To avoid curling, after removal , place the bookplate betweeen some paper towels ,
place a book on top and let it sit for a day.

Let me know how well this worked for you. From time to time you may be surprised to find a second bookplate under the one you removed.

Leather bookplates were used by many of the wealthiest American bibliophiles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They are without question elegant but as a practical matter the oils in the leather tend to damage the pages they touch. Removal of leather bookplates when required can be done by inserting the tip of an X-acto blade under a corner and gently prying the plate upward. Most glue did not bond well and the plates usually can be removed intact.

For more information about bookplates (and more great bookplate images) visit Lew’s Bookplate Junkie blog.

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5 comments so far

  1. Yosef Halper Says:

    I use Windex for removing bookplates, very possibly my own discovery!
    I spray a fair amount of Windex onto the bookplate and about 1 cm around it, allowing a small “puddle” to form. I let it sit for a 10-20 seconds, then carefully lift a corner with a very thin knife or box-cutter. If there is resistence, I let it sit for another minute or two.
    On rare occaisions the windex can cause the ink to run, but of 100s I’ve used, it may have happened once or twice.
    If the pbacking paper of the book is chrome paper, there could be problems. The softer and pulpier the paper, the easier it is. Windex dries very fast, and dosen’t do much damage to the book, if at all.
    upon removing the plate, I wipe off the melted glue on the back of the plate with liberal Windex sprays.
    I often wash the bookplate off under running water, then dry it using your method to prevent curling.
    This method does not work on rubber-cememt type glue so-often used today.
    I have also experimented with 3-M Office machine cleaning spray, wich is a foam. It often works on stubborn plates, but is stronger and harsher than Windex. the likelyhood of causing ink running is greater.
    Yosef

  2. Libby Singleton Says:

    Hello..could someone explain to me exactly what a bookplate is..I’m finding this an interesting collector field but I not not familar with bookplates. Any information would be helpful and much thanks for your time. Best regards, Libby

  3. Jana Apergis Says:

    I have recently found my bookplate collection from the 1970s. I was 8 at the time and I had placed them on construction paper. I have steamed them off now but how can I attractively and safely store them?
    Thanks!

  4. Dennis Says:

    I have recently purchased a hand-made leather blank journal with an oriental motif of dragons on front/verso. The acid-free pages are hand-made also. I had planned on tipping-in each bookplate per page. Book has 200 pages. This also leaves space on the page for writing important facts regarding each bookplate. The journal has antique “C-locks” to enclose the contents within its designed leather covers. Tipping them in requires the kind of light glue, available at “hobby” shops which adheres just along the edge like a “post-it” note. I would not recommend adhering bookplates to cardboard or using a harsh glue even to mount them on paper.

  5. Jeanne Sullivan Says:

    I’m interested in starting a bookplate collection. I have 5 beautiful plates
    that I have framed and am looking for more. I will follow your advice
    about pre-1920′s books and hope for success. Thanks for the info..


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