"Paris is number one in the world"

"Paris is number one in the world"
Stéphane Clavreuil tells BT Wolfe how his home city has overtaken London as the place to go for the best choice of dealers. Stéphane Clavreuil and his father Bernard are the fourth and third generations respectively of the leading antiquarian book firm Librairie Thomas-Scheler.

Stéphane Clavreuil and his father Bernard are the fourth and third generations respectively of the leading antiquarian book firm Librairie Thomas-Scheler. Despite their different tastes in wine, Stéphane preferring Côtes du Rhône and Bernard Burgundy, this remarkable partnership has earned an international reputation as respected dealers in fine books and manuscripts, with special mention going to their series of science and medicine catalogues Précurseurs et novateurs. A fifth generation of Clavreuils was recently inaugurated with the birth of Stéphane’s son, Jules.


Librairie Thomas-Scheler was established in 1932 by two family names, Thomas and Scheler, in the shop at 19 rue de Tournon. The shop was run by Mr Scheler, who was very famous; he was a poet as well and a friend of the surrealists – Eluard, Picasso, people like that in the 30s and 40s. My father went to work for him in 1962, and he bought the company in 1977, and has been running the shop ever since. I’ve been working with my father since 1990. The funny story about this shop is that around 1910 it was already a bookshop – and it was owned by my great grandfather. When he went off to the First World War, my great grandmother couldn’t keep it, so she sold it to Mrs Thomas. So the Clavreuils started in this shop in 1900. I am the fourth generation, and the only generation that has not worked in these premises is my grandfather, who established another shop in the neighbourhood.


I was about seventeen or eighteen, studying art history at Oxford, but not working much. I was going to London twice a week, viewing at Sotheby’s and Christie’s and acting as my father’s agent in England. That’s how I started doing business and became really interested in books. When I came back from Oxford I studied for one year on my own, going to Quaritch, Maggs and the other main bookshops, and when I returned to France I decided to work with my father.


When I was a little child I wanted to be a vet until I was 14 and then I discovered I would have to work too much at school to become qualified. I never thought about doing anything else.


I have four really big markets. France would be number one, of course, and then Switzerland, the US and Italy. Those are the four countries where I do a lot of business (I’m talking just about private customers). I do business with dealers in England or Germany but I don’t have any private customers.


I used to sell to the Sheikh Saud [al Thani]; he was a very good customer of mine. But since he stopped I don’t do any business with the Middle East. He was at the Paris book fair, but I don’t know if he bought anything. I’m still on very good terms with the woman who is in charge of his business in France but he hasn’t bought anything from me since he stopped. Still, we all cross our fingers.


The greatest book I’ve handled was the most famous copy of the first edition of Polifilo, which is known as the Esmerian Polifilo after the collector. It was the most wonderful copy, bound in the 16th century with rich gilt decoration on the sides and gilt powder on the binding and it is the most famous copy of the most famous book in the world. That is the nicest book I’ve ever had.


Grolier was the most famous sixteenth-century collector, and last month I was lucky enough to buy five bindings, all of them in mint condition. That was a great coup because I don’t think a dealer has had the chance to buy five Grolier bindings in one go like that, at least not in the last century. It was four of five years of work and competition, as always, which included letters from certain leading international auction houses saying that the owner shouldn’t work with me!


There is one book that I really regret getting away: the 1482 edition of the Ptolemy printed in Ulm. It was a special copy printed on vellum and coloured. Mr Getty bought it against me at the Bradley Martin sale ten or fifteen years ago.


Every morning I wake up and I’m really excited because I’m going to do what thrills me the most. But in a way I don’t know what I’m going to do because I don’t know if someone is going to come into the shop and show me a wonderful book that I have never seen or heard of before. That’s the best thing about this business; there are always books that you don’t know and the great moment is when someone comes in with a wonderful book and you have no idea what it is but you feel its quality. Also in the general book trade I think booksellers are quite nice people and there is a friendly relationship between all of us, which is also very important. We learn from each other and we learn from our customers.


I’m reluctant to name names but I would say that there are fifteen or twenty great dealers in the world, not more than that, and we all know them. More interestingly there is the question of the great dealers from the past, like Rahir or George Heilbrun or Quaritch – the really big names. Of all of the people now, Berès is someone who, I can’t say I admire, but is still alive and did something incredible in his life as a bookseller.


Over the years the Paris trade has become more international. Before it was very, very French and only selling French books, so the scope has become a lot wider. I’m not talking about auction trade, but the stock owned by booksellers and I think Paris is number one in the world now because if you are a book collector of anything from the 15th to the 20th century, there are so many shops with so many great books. It used to be like that in London but now there are only four or five dealers who can show you great books while in and around Paris there are 15 dealers with big inventories. One of the reasons for this is that because auction houses are so present and strong in England the English booksellers get fewer private collections. We still do get a lot of private collections in France.


Christie’s and Sotheby’s haven’t really affected the booksellers’ business in Paris but they have really had an impact on the old fashioned French auctioneers’ business, because they’re taking all of the great collections. From the booksellers’ point of view, great collections have always been sold at auction, and because Sotheby’s and Christie’s don’t have really great auctions on a regular basis they have hardly affected the trade for the booksellers in Paris; for me nothing has changed. The people who are really suffering because of Christie’s and Sotheby’s are the French auction houses.


Be very picky and never buy a book because it’s cheap (unless it’s very, very cheap!). Just buy it because you love it, you like it, you think it’s a great book. Always buy the best copy; if you see a wonderful but very expensive copy at a great price or a not very nice copy at a cheaper price, always buy the expensive one because that’s the way to make your way. Everybody has average copies and it’s very difficult to have the top copies. Of course it depends on the money you have, but if you have the money then be very picky with the copy and buy almost as a collector. There will always be another collector who will share your love so you’ll always sell the book. That’s what I tell anyone wanting to become a dealer. Quality over quantity.


I have a few books for sale on the internet but I don’t think putting very expensive books up is a good idea. For example, if you put a first edition of Vesalius or Copernicus on the net and in your description you say it’s a very rare book but maybe you have two or three copies then the customers don’t understand what’s going on. I’m selling maybe 1% or 2% of my annual turnover on the net, so I hardly use it and it hasn’t changed my life. But I’m lucky from a buying point of view, same as Christie’s and Sotheby’s, because I buy 70% of my books privately. I buy collections that were made by my grandfather or my great grandfather and the heirs come back to me and sell me the books. That’s why my replies may shock some people but that’s the way I deal. It is true that the young booksellers go for the internet because they have to make themselves known, but I have 110 years of bookselling!