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2015 Bookseller Resource Guide
Fine Books Interview

French Kiss

This is not to suggest that Strauss lacked savoir faire when he embarked upon this endeavor. As the founder and president of the Pilgrim Press, a printing company based in New York, he knew some things about books and fine arts. Through his company, which he sold five years ago, he regularly worked on art gallery catalogs and album cover art (including the first U.S. album released by the Beatles as well as the first album by the Doors).

According to bookseller Leonard Fox, Strauss’s experience in the printing business gave him a unique point of view when it came to collecting livres d’artistes. “Peter understood right away the level of sophistication and skill involved in these books, the whole way they’re engineered as works of art,” Fox told me during a recent telephone conversation. “As a printer, he has an incredibly keen eye when it comes to assessing production values for things like illustration, graphic design, and paper quality.”

Strauss also was fortunate in that livres d’artistes were not yet in heavy demand. As Fox explained it to me, back in the 1970s and 1980s people overlooked these books because they didn’t understand what to do with them: “If I sold you three framed Picassos at a certain price, your friends would congratulate you on getting such a deal off of me. But if I sold you the same prints, bound into in a beautiful book, for the same amount of money, your friends would have said, ‘What’s with this guy? He’s got problems.’” Prevailing wisdom at the time held that if you couldn’t hang the prints on a wall, there wasn’t much point owning them.

Strauss, Fox says, was forward-thinking. “Peter had the foresight to understand the innate value” of livres d’artistes. “He knew there were no other books done so well as the ones by Chagall or Picasso and the other great masters. He was so far ahead of the curve.”

Strauss says the best deal he ever got was on a copy of Yvette Guilbert illustrated by Toulouse Lautrec. “The day of the auction, there was terrible weather. Very few people were in the room. I got it on the first bid.” Although he won’t talk dollars and cents, he says it was a terrific buy. He recalled with a chuckle that the writer Arthur Cohen was in the room that day: “He was so excited he jumped up and shouted out, ‘Yeah, Peter!’”

Deals on livres d’artistes by master artists are less common today. In the last decade, the art world has woken up to the value of these remarkable books. Libraries, museums, and private collectors are all looking to build collections. Though he was lucky to have discovered these unsung treasures before the pack, Strauss can’t help wishing that he’d found his calling sooner: “Twenty years before I got started, these books sold for virtually nothing.” Strauss has no real regrets, though. Having found most of what he set out to acquire, he’s no longer actively buying books. “The collecting has been a very good part of my life,” he said. “This just happened to me unexpectedly, and I am glad I experienced it.”

These days Strauss’s focus has shifted from acquiring books to sharing his knowledge about them. “So many people are not aware that all these great artists produced books,” he told me. “They don’t know that books like this will never be made again.” He gives talks about livres d’artistes whenever he has the chance, which is how he came to speak at the Grolier Club last year. He recently gave a lecture at Sotheby’s and will soon be speaking to the Library Council of the Museum of Modern Art. According to Fox, Strauss has become so well known in the field that dealers seek out his advice.

Fox characterizes Strauss as a consummate collector, someone who has gone beyond his own personal interest, to make an impact on the world of collecting. “Peter wants to spread the joy of what it’s like to collect these books and to learn about them.” Fox says his friend “never sounds like a salesman.” Rather, Strauss “wants to share the mystery and the excitement of it all. And he’s very good at it.”

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Nicholas A. BasbanesEllen F. Brown is a freelance writer who specializes in stories about antiquarian books and the fine arts. Her forthcoming book is called Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller’s Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood.