Bookplates and Provenance

Bookplates are small printed papers tipped into the front of books that indicate ownership. Historically, they are designed by artist to the specifications of a library or book collector and produced using fine art printing methods such as engraving. Bookplates are works of art in their own right and highly collectable. Private collections, as well as library collections exist. Academic and public libraries may commission designs for bookplates for their general or special collections, or may something as simple as a rubber stamp. Bookplates from private libraries add special provenance to a book. These plates can be designed not only by famous artists, but prove the ownership of the book to a special person thus making that copy highly collectable. Society of bookplate collectors in the United States and across the world regularly hold exhibitions and exchange plates to share with other collectors as well as find special plates needed to complete their collections.

Other types of provenance cannot only raise the interest of a particular copy of a book, but its value as well. Aside from a bookplate, also referred to as ex-libris, simple penciled words from a previous owner can relate a most interesting history. Provenance can include heraldic marks painted into medieval books, booksellers’ codes, book labels and stamps, special binding features, and items inserted within the book. Auction catalogs and book dealer’s catalog descriptions are valuable tools for researching provenance. May I also suggest David Pearson’s book, Provenance Research in Book History: A Handbook, published by the British Library and Oak Knoll Press. Researching a book’s provenance can put us into the heart of solving an intoxicating mystery with fascinating discoveries.

 

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Bookplates at Yale
“Particularly in the late 19th and early 20th century, bookplates were prized for their aesthetic value as miniature prints. With no intention of affixing them to books, individuals began to commission bookplates solely as a means to collect, organize, exhibit, and exchange them as works of art.”

[Your Name Here]: The Ex-Libris and Image Making
An exhibition held in the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library

 

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Bookplates at the Pratt Institute
The Ex Libris Collection consists of nineteenth- and twentieth-century bookplates from private and institutional libraries. The plates feature finely detailed engraving and etching, and serve as outstanding examples of period book art and typography.

 

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Bookplates at the New York Public Library
“Born in 1879, Sanger came of age during the heyday of the Comstock Act, a federal statute that criminalized contraceptives. Margaret Sanger believed that the only way to change the law was to break it.” (PBS)

 

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Bookplates at The Victoria and Albert Museum
“This plate was designed by Charles William Sherborn, who was a founding member and vice-president of the Ex Libris Society. This group of enthusiastic bookplate collectors was a precursor of The Bookplate Society, which still holds regular meetings in London. A portrait of Mr. Ashbee can be seen between an image of an ash tree and an actual bee – a clever visual reference to his name.”

 

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Bookplates at The Houghton Library
“The bookplate collection at Houghton Library comprises over 20,000 individual plates, from book collectors and libraries all over the world.”

Bookplates and Provenance