Photograph by Tessa Spaaij
A wonder-filled gathering place on the world-wide-web for bibliophiles interested in the history of the Middle East is the website of Konstantinopel Rare & Fine Books. Readers may recognize the name, as Konstantinopel has been a loyal supporter of this website for some time.
Robert A. van den Graven, proprietor, recently contacted AXP with a special request. “Konstantinopel,” he wrote, “is interested in purchasing Aramco material: photo albums, manuscript material, diaries, maps, and possibly printed material. Naturally, everything that pertains to the area pre-1970 is of interest. The Buraimi dispute. The Trucial scouts. Handbooks published by the war office, etc.”
Robert with Hakikia. Photograph by Tessa Spaaij.
“Making the impossible possible,” van den Graven wrote.
That is what I love about the antiquarian book trade. Books have had to endure the ravages of time, from mere careless handling to the burning pyres of Savonarola and modern war. Someone may ask me for a 15th-century book on witchcraft or express interest in a biblical manuscript, and I have to seek out these treasures from the flea markets of Paris and alleys of Istanbul to New York Fifth Avenue apartments and the ritzy auction rooms of London.
I started out selling books related to the Middle East, largely because I fell in love with Istanbul as a student, a great city about which I wrote a few books. I am still actively searching for material related to the Arab world and Ottoman Empire. Another main area of interest lies in early printed books and medieval manuscripts and fragments, dating back to the 8th century.
How does someone with such a love of rare books sell them instead of collect them? This is a dilemma that confronts all dealers that hold a true passion for the field. As a child, I remember reselling comic books on the street and a woman walked up to me and said one day I will be sorry that I sold my beautiful books. Now I sell even more beautiful ones! And I have never felt bad about it. After all like in life, one has to practice detachment and I feel satisfaction that I add a link to the chain as books pass through my hands and continue their journey (especially chain bindings).
I studied philosophy and theology. Those subjects provided not only an intellectual springboard for the rare book trade, but also gave me a sense of the larger picture. I love academia but also the excitement of trading. The auction room after all, is a battleground. The modern book trade is not a staid profession, sitting alone with spectacles in some dusty shop. To make exciting discoveries, I am always on the go, making new connections and travelling the world. That energy, persistence, and James Bond-like sense of adventure, has allowed me to dig out such varied treasures as a Dutch prayer book with the earliest and hitherto unknown texts of a Dutch rhetorician, the notebook of a German Renaissance artist, to an exceedingly rare collection of original photographs by the first Arab photographer of Mecca.
I cannot do everything alone of course - there is strength in numbers. Thankfully, over the years I have become good friends with many of my esteemed colleagues and experts in the trade. Their help and advice has been a source of inspiration, a fountain of ideas, and an indispensable key to my success. I feel very fortunate as well to have worked with devoted curators and librarians at Institutions through the world to whom I have sold.
And I have also held true to a very important conviction: to always conduct my business with integrity and transparency. My clients and colleagues have appreciated this simple and straightforward approach. I look forward to continuing to do so, to travel widely, to go where no bookseller has gone before, ferret out new treasures, to pay and price fairly, and most importantly, to meet new clients and friends.
Hakikia is a Turkish Angora. Photograph by Tessa Spaaij.
“It is not a coincidence that throughout my website, one sees many cats,” van den Graven added.
When I lived in Istanbul, I fell as much in love with the city as much as its street roaming feline inhabitants. Once, the Turkish Angora cat reigned throughout the courts of Europe. Given their affectionate charm, independence, and intelligence, I think I could not have done better than choose the famous cat and mouse Sessa printer's mark as my logo. It is also befitting to mention this in a postscript, because as we all know cats have the last word.
On his website, van den Graven describes Konstantinopel Rare & Fine Books in this way:
We are respected members of ILAB, (The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers) whose emblem stands for integrity and professionalism in the rare book trade. We have been in rare book business for more than 35 years.
During that time we have built lasting connections with institutions and private collectors worldwide. Our carefully built relationships mean we can often pay more for your material with the immediate needs of important end clients in mind. Thousands of books have passed through our hands and we are very experienced when it comes to making fair market evaluations. In these days of the internet, we do not need to see books and manuscripts in person in order to give you a preliminary idea of what your items are worth. Just send us an e-mail with the author, title and year of the book together with a few pictures and that will do the trick.
We buy antiquarian material, not second-hand books. This means as a rule of thumb that we are particularly interested in books printed before 1800, travel books, important illustrated books, early printed works, incunabula, atlases and (illuminated) manuscripts. Naturally, there are exceptions for important books. We also specialize in manuscript material, handwritten journals, logbooks, archives, drawing books because they are per definition unique. I started out bookselling when I lived in Istanbul and developed a keen interest in all things Middle Eastern, manuscripts, books, maps, photographs. In this case it does not matter if the material you offer us is 20th century.
We can offer immediate payment and travel to the UK or anywhere in Europe in a heartbeat for important and interesting material. We have handled important estate collections and are generous with our time and expertise, whether you want to sell or not. The only thing we cannot provide are appraisals for legal and insurance purposes. For material you wish to sell, we pay 100% of shipping costs and handle if needed any export licenses.
AXP readers interested in learning more about van den Graven and his fascinating efforts are encouraged to visit Konstantinopel Rare & Fine Books.