Endpaper Pradeep Sebastian

Inky the incunabulist

The Antiquarian Book Trade has embraced a parade of memorable characters, none to my mind more delightful than the book collector Solomon Pottesman, the incunabulist and self-taught bibliographer, known to the trade as Potty or Inky for his love of incunables (a book, pamphlet or document printed, and not handwritten, before the 16th century). He haunted every auction house in London every day of the year. He knew every auction price and record going back decades; with such a retentive memory many felt he would have made a formidable antiquarian dealer himself. But while Potty sold some books now and then, his passion was his own amazing library of incunables, which meant he bought more than he sold.

I’ve delighted in his sharp, even severe, collecting focus that made him disdain anything printed after 1700. Whether or not he bought anything, he was often in auction houses (seated in his own favourite chair right up front) and was forced to hear and see what others were buying. Once — and this really breaks me up — someone bought the Kelmscott Chaucer. Potty whispered to him, “Well, I suppose it’s okay, if you get rid of it quickly.”

Alan G. Thomas — in his marvellous and affectionate portrait of Solomon Pottesman in The Book Collector (Winter 1979) — says Potty could not only tell you which reference book you needed to consult but also the shelf number it was on in the British Museum Reading Room. But once he had finished telling you about the book, there was no need for research. He could tell you prices and provenance without looking at a catalogue. He knew the bibliographical importance of most books.

The other (less-known) portrait of Solomon Pottesman is by Fred Snelling. His book, Rare Books and Rarer People, is largely uncharitable, viewing Pottesman as an annoying, persistent figure in the auction rooms. Snelling worked as a clerk at Hodgson’s Auction House and frequently dealt with Pottesman at the end of an auction when winners queued up to pay for their bids and collect the goods. Pottesman, Snelling writes, took forever to write out a cheque, slowing down the process of winding up sales. If Snelling asked him to hurry up, Pottesman would mumble something about not wanting to make any errors in writing the cheque. Then, Pottesman would proceed to pack and parcel the books himself. He always had on him brown paper and string. He would painstakingly wrap them, unwilling to be hurried, and finally ask to see the cheque again to make sure it had been made out correctly. One day, Snelling says, he got fed up with Pottesman holding up his work and began shouting at him. Shocked and hurt, the incunabulist left saying he wouldn’t stand to be treated that way. Snelling adds that he felt terrible later and, for the rest of his Pottesman sketch, tries to make up by telling us why Inky was a truly great bookman.

Pottesman could often be seen at book fairs with various brown paper parcels dangling from his hands, tied to his wrists with a string. He was terrified he would leave them behind in a taxi, and attached the parcels to himself. His most valuable books were in bank vaults because he feared flooding in his house. To protect the books in the house from possible over-flooding from the bathroom, he had the water pipe to his toilet disconnected, using a bucket to flush instead.

What remains with you is Thomas’ gentle, skilful portrait, taking you to the very end of his friend’s life, as he lay in hospital with Thomas making visits to cheer him with catalogues and choice early printed books. Pottesman remained a bachelor and on most national holidays when everything was closed — especially the one day in the year when even his beloved British Museum (where his string-tied parcels held up the line at security) was shut — he found himself alone. On such days Thomas would invite him to have supper with his family, but Potty would always back away, making excuses.

He was a gifted pianist but very few people knew that, writes Thomas. He loved the cinema and sometimes saw the same film every night for a week. He was relentless in his book quests and on any given day could be found in one bookshop or the other, hoping to turn up more incunabulum. Once, during those last days, Thomas went to the hospital taking with him the catalogue of the auction he had just been to, and pointed out the book (printed in 1459 by Fust and Schoeffer) he had just bought. Potty asked him if he knew why it was so important and Thomas, thinking to himself that he wouldn’t pay £12000 for it if he didn’t know why, pretended not to know. “You ignoramus,” said Potty and held forth with his old bibliographical finesse; perhaps for the last time. He died not long after.

“With the death of Solomon Pottesman…the world of antiquarian books has lost one of its most learned and eccentric figures,” wrote Thomas, “…it is a tribute to the warmth of his unforgettable character… to his almost childlike sincerity and integrity… that those who knew him best, those who suffered the most frequently, are those who miss him most and mourn him most deeply today.”

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