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Curiosity Hunting

What will people not collect in this curious age, and what prices will they not pay for things apparently valueless? Few objects can seem less desirable than an old postage-stamp, yet our Paris correspondent informs us that postage-stamps are at a premium in the capital of taste and of pleasure. A well-known dealer offers 4 pounds 15s. for every Tuscan stamp earlier than 1860, and 16 pounds for particularly fine examples. Mauritius stamps of 1847 are estimated--by the purchaser, mind--at two thousand francs, and post-marks of British Guiana of 1836, from five hundred to a thousand francs. Eighty pounds for a soiled bit of paper, that has no beauty to recommend it! Probably no drawing of equal size from the very hand of Raffaelle or Leonardo would be priced nearly so high as these grubby old stamps. Yet the drawing would be not only a thing of art, beautiful in itself, but also a personal relic of the famous artist whose pencil touched it, while a stamp is a relic of nothing but some forgotten postal arrangement with a colony. We do not know, moreover, how much the dealer will ask for these stamps when once he gets hold of them and has rich collectors at his mercy. In no trade do the buyer's price and the seller's price differ with such wide margins as in the commerce of curiosities, especially, perhaps, in the book-trade. People find that they possess books highly priced in dealers' catalogues, and, if they want money, they carry their treasures to the dealers. But "advantage seldom comes of it." The dealer has a different price, very often, when he is a purchaser. This is intelligible, but, to many persons who are not amateurs, the mania for rare postage-stamps passes all understanding. Yet it is capable of being explained. Like many other oddities and puzzling features in the ways of collectors, the high price of certain stamps is the consequence of the passion for perfection. Any one can collect stamps--little boys and schoolgirls often do. But there comes a point at which foreign stamps and old stamps grow rare, and more rare, and, finally, next to impossible to procure. Here it is that the heart of the mature collector begins to beat. He is determined to have a perfect collection. Nothing shall escape him in the way of printed franks on letters. Now, nineteen-twentieths of his assortment he can buy in the gross, without trouble or great expense; but the last twentieth demands personal care and attention, and the hunting up of old family letters, and the haunting of great dealers' shops, and peeping through dirty windows in shady lanes and alleys. As he gets nearer and nearer a complete collection the spoil grows more and more shy, the excitement faster and more furious, till, finally, the amateur would sell an estate for a square inch of paper, and turn large England to a little stamp, if he had the opportunity. The fury of the pastime is caused by the presence of definite limits. There is only a certain known number of stamps in the world. This limit makes perfection possible.

It is not as if you were collecting really beautiful things like Tanagra terra-cottas, or really rare and quaint and mysterious things like aggery beads. Though Tanagra terra-cottas, and aggery beads, and fine examples of Moorish lustre, or of ancient Nankin, or of gold coins of the Roman Empire, are all rare, yet there is no definite limit to their number. More may turn up any day when the pickaxe breaks into a new Tanagra cemetery, when a fallen palm in Ashanti brings up aggery beads clinging to its earthy roots, when a pot of coins is found by some old Roman way, and so forth. To be sure, perfection may be attained in coin collecting, when a man has specimens of all known sorts, but even then he will pine for better specimens, for the best specimens. In the other branches of the sport we have mentioned the collector may be eager, of course, for good things, but he can never know the passion of the stampomaniac who has all sorts but three, and finds these within his reach. Perfection is within a step of such a man, and that step we fear he will take, even if it involves ever so many breaches of the Decalogue. In one of this month's magazines, in a story called "Mr. Pierrepoint's Repentance," Mr. Grant Allen tells the tale of a coin collector's infamy, and that coin collector a clergyman and fellow of his college. A pope is said to have stolen a rare book from a painter, and it is certain that enthusiastic collectors are apt to have "their moral tone lowered some," as the American gentleman said about the lady whom he had wooed with intentions less than honourable.

A good example of the toils of the collector in pursuit of perfection is given by M. Henri Beraldi in his very amusing catalogue of M. Paillet's library. This book, by the way, is itself scarce, and the bibliomaniac will be rather lucky if he meets with it. M. Beraldi describes M. Paillet's copy of Dorat's "Fables," published in 1773, with illustrations by Marillier. Nobody perhaps ever reads Dorat now, but his book came out in the very palmiest days of the art of illustration in France. There were no photogravures then, nor hideous, scratchy, and seamy "processes," such as almost make one despair of progress and of the future of humanity. The people that takes to "processes" is lost! The illustrations of the "Fables" were duly engraved on copper. There were ninety-nine vignettes, and as many tail-pieces. The bibliographical history of the book is instructive, either to young collectors or to the common herd, not to speak impolitely--the persons who do not understand what collectors want. The "Fables" were originally published on three different sorts of paper, Dutch paper at seventy-two francs, French paper at twenty-nine francs, and on "small paper" at twenty-four francs. In 1853 the original drawings were bought by one of the Rothschilds for about 60 pounds; they would now, probably, be worth at least 1,000 pounds. The ordinary copies of the book itself bring about 6 pounds, the large paper copies about 30 pounds, and a copy in old morocco can hardly be estimated--you may pay anything for it, as a copy in old calf has sold for 240 pounds.

Such is the natural history of a book pretty valueless as literature, the "Fables" of Dorat. In the early edition of "Brunet's Manual," published in 1821, the large paper copies of the work, with the engravings in the earliest state, are priced at from fifteen to eighteen francs. These vignettes had gone out of fashion; they have come in again with a vengeance. The high prices, eighty or a hundred pounds, are merely the beginning of what the great collectors are ready to pay, and to do, and to suffer in the cause of Dorat. In M. Cohen's catalogue of all these old illustrated books special mention is made of M. Paillet's copy of the "Fables." It is "a superb example, with all the engravings printed separately." But M. Paillet describes this specimen far more lovingly. All the designs are separately printed, and, oh joy! all have all their margins uncut. The book is "all that man can dream of" in the way of perfection. Cuzin did the binding, in yellow morocco, tooled with roses and butterflies. "Reader," cries M. Beraldi, "if you are not a collector you cannot imagine the difficulty of getting such a copy. It is the thirteenth labour of Hercules." First you buy your text, then you must have the separately printed fleurons. These can only be picked up here and there, in sales and stalls. Perhaps you purchase half of them in one lucky investment. With no great difficulty you secure another lot. Then begins the hunt--you buy assortments at the price of bank notes, merely for the sake of two or three out of the mass. You offer to barter twenty- five for one you have not got. Then you have all but three, which you demand from the universe at large: then all but two; then all but one. What you pay for that one you keep a profound secret, lest your family should have you put under control. Even then you are not safe, for some of your engravings have false margins, and must be changed for entire examples. Such are the joys of the collector, for shadows we are and engravings a toutes marges we pursue.


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Andrew Lang