Perhaps there is something noble in the hobby of gathering and preserving words from the past in physical form—even if you never mean to read them.
Books are like people. They have human characteristics. A book has a spine, as we know, and according to antiquarian booksellers, it also has joints (where the covers meet the spine) and a crown (the top of the spine). We are able to grasp a book in more senses than one, to hold it as we might hold another person’s hand. The sale of an old, rare book is not simply a matter of exchanging pages for money, trading one set of dry leaves for another. Besides the narrative told in its pages, there is the history of the book’s time in the world, the people who have touched it and the lives it has touched.
A case in point is a 400-year-old copy of Don Quixote, considered the first novel in western literature. It’s a second edition, from 1605, and is expected to fetch £500,000 when it goes under the hammer in Paris on December 14. Cervantes’ romance about a man’s adventures in pursuit of noble ends finds an echo in the fortunes of the bundle of wood pulp and calfskin in which it is bound.
Our story begins in the 1930s, with the tinkling of a doorbell at Maggs Bros., a London book dealer. A young gentleman from South America asks if he may purchase a copy of Cervantes’ masterpiece. He is indulging a serious book-collecting habit earlier than most, but he certainly has the means for it. He is Jorges Ortiz Limones, en route from Bolivia to become that country’s ambassador to Paris, and he is the son-in-law of the so-called King of Tin, the “Rockefeller of the Andes,” Simón I. Patiño, who has vast metal interests in Latin America. The choice of the novel is apt. A cornerstone of Spanish literature—Cervantes is to his homeland what Shakespeare is to Britain and Dante to Italy—it is also full of the New World, and the conquest, exploration and colonization of the Indies by the Spanish.
Alas, the bookseller cannot fulfill Ortiz’s wishes. But the customer is assured that his name will go on the waiting list for a fine copy of Don Quixote.
A few years later, the phone rings in the ambassador’s residence at 34 Rue Foch in Paris. It’s Maggs Bros., with the good news that a copy of the book His Excellency ordered has become available. Ortiz sends a cable to say he’s on his way and catches a plane to London. It is December 1936.
Maggs Bros. have sourced the Cervantes from Yorkshire. They have the 1605 edition, and two other two volumes, from 1608 and 1615, which were bound in England at the end of the 17th century. They were all in the collection of a man called Beilby Thompson, an 18th-century MP and landowner. The books stayed in his family until his estate was sold off in the 1930s.
The volumes of Cervantes become the centerpiece of Ortiz’s collection in Paris, alongside French literature of the Grand Siècle including handsome editions of Rabelais, Montaigne, Descartes, Pascal, Racine, Molière, La Fontaine and La Rochefoucauld. During the tenure of Ambassador Ortiz and his wife, Graciela Patiño, Rue Foch is a salon of the arts. Even after the Nazis occupy Paris in 1940, this outpost of Bolivia continues to be a tiny redoubt of free speech and civilization. After the war, Ortiz is awarded the Legion d’Honneur by the French and has full military honors at his funeral in Paris in 1965.
Ahead of their auction at Sotheby’s of Paris on December 14, the Ortiz books were returned to Maggs Bros., which occupies a splendid 18th-century town house in Bedford Square, Bloomsbury, the original home of the London book trade. There was a lunch to celebrate the forthcoming sale. A fire burned in a grate. Maggs Bros., founded in 1853 by Uriah Maggs, is a collector’s item in itself, a piece of Dickensian London in the high-stakes cosmopolitan milieu of rare books. Elegant Parisian booksellers and their British counterparts in slightly foxed suits stood around a pedestal table, admiring the volumes of the late ambassador.
Jean-Baptiste de Proyart, a consultant on the sale, said that the 1605 edition of Don Quixote was noted for its errors. The author made revisions for the 1608 print run. “That’s the last one that’s checked and revised by Cervantes himself,” said de Proyart. “It’s the good version of the text. It’s something like a miracle to find a very precious book like this that hasn’t been on the market for over 70 years.”
The books were looking good for their age. One was in a faded binding decorated with arabesques, as if it had been covered in swatches of furniture fabric. Documents from Maggs Bros. files were laid out beside the books, including the cable from Ortiz in 1936: “SHALL BE IN LONDON NEXT MONDAY PLEASE KEEP BOOKS AND CASES ORTIZ LINARES.” Nothing seemed to tickle the old boys from the book trade as much as a bill of sale as thin as an onion skin in the sum of £850: a nice bit of business in its day (the equivalent of £71,000 in 2022). That’s what Ortiz paid for Don Quixote. He also spent £750 on Cervantes’ Novelas. Altogether, these books could fetch £800,000 in Paris.
I suggested to one dealer that it didn’t look as though the Bolivian—or anyone else—had ever cracked open one of his rare volumes, let alone read it from cover to faded cover. “People tend to keep two copies of a book they like, one of them to read. After all, the Cervantes is still in print, isn’t it?” he replied.
As we ate lunch beneath the serried morocco spines of Maggs Bros. stock, I thought about the long odyssey of the Ortiz library. The books may have been largely unread, but they have been admired by many. They’re to be weighed in the palm for a moment or two, as if in a symbolic act of making a connection with those who’ve held them in the past and traced the arabesques on their faded covers with a fingertip. (They’ve become unlikely fetish items, palimpsests of epidermis and perspiration.)
The volumes of Cervantes have been through so much history, good and bad, and had a bond to so many, that they’re like a totem of the value that culture has in the world, its power to transcend barriers and bring people together. In the dying days of another year that hasn’t been entirely hospitable to these ideas, I hope that’s not a quixotic thought.