Bright Young Things: Spencer W. Stuart

Courtesy of the Vancouver Club

Our Bright Young Things series continues today with Spencer W. Stuart, a collections advisor and book historian in Canada.

How did you get started working with rare books?

My experience with rare materials began with two positions I occupied during my dual undergraduate degree in Art History and Film Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. The first was with the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography and the second was with a photograph repatriation project entitled “Views from the North”, which sought to ensure that archival images of Northern communities were returned to community members and properly presented and contextualized by Elders. Both experiences brought about an awareness of the way in which collections are amassed and interpreted. 

But it was really in the Winter of 2014, at the age of 24, when I was hired by Bonhams Auctioneers in their Toronto office that I was able to dedicate my focus to fine books. Having recently graduated from the Courtauld Institute of Art, where I received a Master’s in the History of Art, I began the position as business manager with the thought that I would transition into one of the Visual Arts departments. This thought decisively changed, however, with exposure to a rapid succession of quality book collections in the Greater Toronto Area that had me dealing directly with material related to Modern Irish Literature, Travel and Exploration, and finally the Natural Sciences, including a selection of the books and manuscripts of Charles Darwin.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to handle and examine these rare items and was then that I began developing working relationship with the UK Director of the Book Department, Matthew Haley, and NY Director, Christina Geiger (now with Christie’s). Following a client visit up to Toronto, Christina invited me to work with the Book Department on their up-coming sale in September of 2015 that featured the collection of a prominent figure in the Bay Area Rare Book community, Barbara J. Land. It was there, and with the subsequent two-week visits to work the auctions, that I was introduced to colleagues who have taught me to catalogue and evaluate rare books as well as provide me with opportunities to develop auctions alongside them. (It was during those visits that I would first hear of the Rare Book School as well.)

During my time with Bonhams I was able to work with colleagues on some fine collections such as the Andrew Caren Archive, the Harry E. Gould, Jr. Autograph Collection, and rare books and manuscripts such as first editions of James Joyce, letters of Charles Darwin, and, perhaps most notably, the first known printing of Aristotle’s De animalibus.

Please introduce us to your work as a collections advisor. What does that entail? How did you get started?

In the Summer of 2017, I started Spencer W Stuart, Collections Advisor aiding collectors at various stages acquisition, cataloguing, deaccession, and donation.

The decision to start my own collection advisory business stemmed from continual house visits where I was met with a similar scenario, representatives of a collector’s estate left to divest of collections under duress with little information nor time. In addressing this, I work with active collectors to devise strategies for deaccession.

In tandem, as a younger participant in the industry, I work closely with new collectors. This is a demographic that is more technologically connected to their markets of interest and they are participating in the auction room, albeit mostly remotely. I provide advice on where to look and what to look for when developing a collection.

Please introduce us as well to your Lifecycles program. We understand you also have an upcoming Lifecycles webinar:

I built the Programs based on case study research of collections from the past and my personal experience with collectors and collections. Lifecycles focuses on collecting art (prints, photography, and painting) and building private libraries. It covers the complete timeline of a collector and their collections, discussing the initial attractions that move one to collect through to the steps one must take to ensure a collection’s legacy beyond one’s very personal time and place.

The webinar is a condensed version of the three-part program and is intended for a more general audience of collectors, curator/librarians, appraisal professionals, trusts & estates representatives and dealers. I also do specialized versions of the Program to cater to the specific interests of individual groups mentioned above.

And how about your work as a book historian?

My writing and lecturing about book history developed in parallel with the establishment is my advisory practice and has me contributing to a variety of publications including Amphora, Worthwhile and The Book Collector on subjects of interest to me through travels and research of collections I am working with.

In the Fall of 2018 I was invited to become a monthly guest on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (equivalent to NPR) radio show North By Northwest where I lead conversations relating to publishing histories with a particular focus on raising awareness of the conditions that shape the creation and reception of the written word..

Favorite rare book (or ephemera) that you’ve handled?

Recently, it would be inventorying, cataloguing, and stabilizing a 100-plus poster collection from 1965 to present of the graphic designer Milton Glaser.

How about a favorite collection you've helped curate?

I believe a collection provides a unique, kaleidoscopic view onto a topic, simultaneously it reflects a collector and therefore their story to tell. To that point, I don’t curate collections. I assist in cataloguing, stabilizing and strategizing with collectors to achieve their goals.

A collection I recently aided in inventorying and evaluating was a comprehensive collection of material related to Allen Ginsberg, which was a personal pleasure and joy to work with.

What do you personally collect?

I have built a couple collections over the years. The first were typewriter models favored by authors based on examining photographs and primary documents: Royal Quiet Deluxe (Hemingway), Hermes 3000 (Plath), 1930s Portable Royal Standard (Kerouac) to name a few.

The collection was dispersed among friends as I moved from city to city.

The second was a Hard Bop vinyl collection. Also sold in recent years.

At the moment, my interest and resources are directed toward building my reference library.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I sing in choirs (bass), drum, bike, hike, run and farm.

Where can our readers go to learn more about your work?