Priscilla Juvelis Put yourself in Priscilla Juvelis’ shoes for a minute or two. Priscilla is sitting in another stuffy auction room on behalf of her client, one of America’s premier private book collectors, who desperately wants the rare book that’s the center of attention.

Surrounded by high-end book dealers and collectors, Priscilla’s nerves start to fray as the bids climb into hundreds of thousands of dollars…

“It’s pretty stressful,” laughs Priscilla, a member of the ABAA. “I’ve been in that situation a number of times. All of my energies are totally focused on my work. It is very, very serious.”

Priscilla is a private dealer who specializes in finding and selling rare books to institutions and private collectors. Her specialties are beautiful books from the ‘book arts’ genre where traditional literature is enhanced by original graphic art, private presses famed for combining art with writing, and American female authors from the 19th and 20th centuries, especially those connected to the reform movements.

Book auctions in perspective
Attending auctions around the world to buy rare books on behalf of clients is just one part of her multi-faceted business, but it is an aspect where her clientele put 100 per cent trust in her knowledge and abilities.

“You go to the preview of the auction and examine the book in question,” she explained. “Then you make the recommendation to the client on its possible value, the hammer price, and whether they should bid for it. It’s really important to handle and examine the book as the auction house might have 600 items for sale and their catalog details might not be extensive. The description might not tell us what the customer wants to know – auctioneers are simply trying to facilitate the sale.

“A client may have said ‘I will pay X and not a penny more’ but sometimes I ask myself is it worth foregoing my commission to get this book for someone who has spent years looking for it? Naturally, that would be a special client with whom I have a long-standing relationship. With some clients, it might be worse for me to come back without the book than go above the given limit.”

But she is quick to put the high prices of the high-end rare book trade into perspective. “A million dollars can buy a huge library but in the art world it wouldn’t buy anything at all,” she added. “In the collectible rare book world, you can make a huge statement with a million dollars.”

Knowing your clients
Until last year, Priscilla had a bookstore in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts, but now operates Priscilla Juvelis Rare Books from Maine where book viewing is by appointment only. Her clients range from private collectors with deep pockets to the libraries of famous institutions and foundations.

“I know exactly what these clients are looking for and attempt to find these books and make recommendations,” said Priscilla, who lists Harvard’s Houghton Library and Yale’s Beinecke Library among her clientele. The names of private customers are usually kept confidential at their request.

Her other roles include consulting on collection development and appraising collections. Her private clients are doctors, lawyers, authors and professionals of all types. She is particularly thrilled by her large number of female clients.

No longer a male-dominated rare book world
“When I started in this business, it was completely male-dominated but things have changed over the past 25 years,” said Priscilla, who served as president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America from 1998 to 2000. “The librarians were male, the collectors were male, the book dealers were male, and the curators were male. That’s not the case any more.

“There is one female private collector in New York whose collection I find breath-taking. From Margaret Fuller, Kate Chopin, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, to books by any woman who was the first to do something, she’s got it. Her collection has the American women writers and the abolition and suffrage leaders I love.”

Priscilla is also a member of New York’s Grolier Club - America's oldest and largest society for bibliophiles and enthusiasts in the graphic arts. Priscilla recommends its catalogs and program of public exhibitions as a good way of learning about book arts. Founded in 1884, the club operates a research library on printing and related book arts, and was one of the first organizations to treat beautiful books as worthy companions of art and sculpture.

“From September 20 to November 25, they will be putting on the Guild of Book Workers Centenary Exhibition and that will be very interesting,” she added. “The Grolier Club takes its name from Jean Grolier – one of America’s first bibliophiles who became known for commissioning his own book-bindings – a practice previously reserved for royalty.”

The Art of Private Presses
With over 1,000 books listed for sale at AbeBooks.com, her inventory stretches across the book arts genre from Donald Glaister, one of the world's pre-eminent designer bookbinders, to Vincent FitzGerald & Co – a contemporary private press publisher who mixes art with literature through highly desirable limited editions. [View some of these extraordinary books]

Other contemporary private presses found within her inventory are Flying Fish Press, Perishable Press, and Argentina’s Ediciones Dos Amigos that creates beautiful limited editions featuring Latin American artists and authors such as Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, and Julio Cortazar.

Private presses began at the turn of the 19th century in England when small printing shops produced books by hand. William Morris’ Kelmscott Press is credited with starting the movement in the UK, although there were similar trends towards hand-produced ‘books of beauty’ in France from the likes of Ambroise Vollard and Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler. The private press movement flourished and spread to the United States where it has also blossomed and adapted to modern times.

“The contemporary book arts genre is the ‘new world’ take on these traditions from England and France – after all, fine printing has existed since the invention of the printing press,” said Priscilla, who herself jointly published The Book Beautiful and the Binding as Art, Volumes 1 and 2, in 1983 along with the late John F Fleming – one of America’s foremost rare book dealers. “Today private presses are re-interpreting known skills and techniques to produce something new and wonderful.”

Beautiful rare books are highly sought
Priscilla sees little change for her profession because the demand for rare books remains undimmed.

“The rare book trade is focused on books as artifacts,” she said. “For example, since its publication in 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication Of The Rights of Women has affected so many people and it is important that we know about it and what it looked like. By seeing first editions, we put the book in context. We can see the actual object that effected a change in the world as it first appeared.

“It’s also important to know what was considered a beautiful book one, two, or three hundred years ago on back to the first examples of written and painted texts. Human beings have been compelled to express themselves visually and verbally since their very beginnings. By noting the changing aesthetics as exhibited in the books they created, we honor them. Collectors are on the front line of preserving these repositories of human knowledge and relics of human history.”

[View some extraordinary books from Priscilla Juvelis]