Bright Young Booksellers: Jennifer Ebrey
What is your role at Bonhams?
I'm a Junior Cataloguer in the Books & Manuscripts Department. I'm still relatively new to the department, so I haven't yet developed a specialist area, but there are so many things I get enthusiastic about: iconic modern firsts, wonderfully quirky limited editions and delightfully curious and charming antiquarian books. I also have a partiality for E.H. Shepard illustrations.
Describe a typical day for you:
It'll depend on where exactly we are in the sale's calendar, but I tend to spend the majority of my day cataloguing and collating and offering valuations. Although, once in a while, I'll receive something that's slightly more unusual that would need a little bit more attention and research. Then I'll spend an enjoyable afternoon reading up on an incredibly niche subject. I've also tried to incorporate social media in to the department, so I try to make time every day to share something (hopefully) witty or interesting on Twitter and Instagram. It's also a really lovely way of showing people what happens behind the scenes.
How did you get started in rare books?
In a very roundabout, meandering sort of way. Although I've loved books ever since I was old enough to read and I chose to study literature at university, I wasn't sure if I would ever have a career that would let me utilise my passion for books. It was only when I began to work for Bonhams that I thought it might be possible. I originally started in the Collections Department at New Bond Street, which was absolutely fascinating - I literally handled everything from Picasso paintings to Tiffany jewellery and imperial Chinese vases - through that I was able to learn, in a very osmotic way, about appraising and valuing. After a while I was invited to join the Books and Manuscripts Department. Since then I've just wanted to learn as much as I possibly can, which is easy when you're lucky enough to be part of a team with the sort of knowledge that Google would envy.
What do you love about working for an auction house?
Working for an auction house is easily the most fascinating and exciting job I've ever had. It's the ultimate combination of handling some of the world's rarest and most remarkable books and meeting wonderful, interesting people. If you've never been to an auction, please, please do - it's an amazing experience... and I promise we don't think you're bidding if you sneeze.
Favorite rare book or ephemera that you've handled?
That's actually a really hard question because I think that most of the things we have in the office are amazingly cool, but I love the curiosities! One of my favourites was a really unassuming little book that my colleague discovered to have an incredibly rare printed fragment sewn in to its binder's waste. It was John Stanbridge's The Longe Accydence and I think it was actually the only located copy in the world. We've also had Coleridge's writing desk, a 'wicked' bible, Howard Carter's archaeological papers, diaries and sketchbooks from pioneering explorers... and who could forget Napoleon's death mask?!
What do you personally collect?
The wonderful thing about working with rare books is that you accumulate a dream bookshelf in your head chockfull of all the amazing things you'd love to fill it with. There are some things that I've always, always wanted - like a first edition of Lord Byron - but now I find myself cataloguing things that I might never have thought of like beautiful botanical plate books and stunning limited editions and I think 'how amazing would it be to own that?' I'd also love to have a copy of the very first book I catalogued, which was Sir Walter Raleigh's The Historie of the World. At the moment though, I just have a few signed books, most of them happily acquired in very long queues in bookstores, but my absolute favourite is a copy of The Midnight Palace signed by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, which was a gift from my sister.
What do you like to do outside of work?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I love reading - especially anything with a hint of mystery. Although in the last year, I've been trying to teach myself Italian, so perhaps one day I'll be able to read Umberto Eco in the original. I'm also a huge fan of the theatre - The Globe's production of Twelfth Night with Mark Rylance is still the best thing I've ever seen.
Thoughts on the future of rare books / auction houses?
I'm still fairly new to the book trade, but I have great faith in its future. I think it is very much its own entity. While other forms of collecting are dependent on contemporary tastes, the variety within rare books means that while certain fields or genres may become unfashionable, other subjects and specialities will continue to be sought after. Working in auctioneering has also made me aware of exactly how global the market has become. Some of our sales have had bidders from over 30 countries and over half of our bidders are now based outside of the UK, which means that we are reaching more and more private buyers directly, regardless of where they are in the world.
Any upcoming auctions you'd like to draw our attention to?
Absolutely! Our next auction is the much-anticipated second part of The Library of the Late Hugh Selbourne, M.D., on 8 March. Dr. Selbourne was a remarkable collector - he collected everything from early medical books to modern firsts, but all with a careful and discerning eye, so his library is like a sweetshop for bibliophiles. This second part will include a first edition of Darwin's The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle and a minute book of a real life radical Pickwick Club.
We also have a fantastic various owner sale coming up on 16 March, which has some beautiful (and wonderfully curious) designer bindings from the collection of the late Denis Collins as well as a beautifully illustrated copy of Gould's Birds of Great Britain, a wonderful John Speed atlas and J.W. Waterhouse's copies of Tennyson and Shelley, which he used to make preliminary sketches for some of his most famous paintings.
There's also something amazing tucked away in the safe for our June sale - but I couldn't possibly tell you what that is. Yet.