By: Sheila Gibson Stoodley
When it comes to miniature books, smallness is the point. “What’s nice about them is the fact that they’re so complete and so tiny,” says Catherine Williamson, director of the books and manuscripts department for Bonhams & Butterfields in Los Angeles. “The entire text is there, it just happens to be on a miniature scale.”
The concept of miniature texts predates Gutenberg and medieval manuscripts; Mesopotamian scribes incised little clay tablets as early as 2000 B.C. Their size ensures that miniature books are difficult to make, no matter what tools are used, and they convey information of all sorts, though some publishers viewed the petite, portable format as ideal for certain audiences. Bibles and religious texts are frequent miniature subjects, as is material aimed at children. J. Fernando Peña, librarian at the Grolier Club, a bibliophile society in New York, says, “For the most part, they were created to challenge bookmakers. Producing something very small shows how capable they were in their craft.”
Modern bookmakers and collectors define a “miniature” as any book measuring 3 inches tall or less. They also recognize “microminiatures,” those measuring below an inch. Though size matters, the factors governing value—condition, rarity and provenance—are the same as for everything worth collecting. The name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt demonstrates the power of provenance: He amassed more than 750 miniatures, and a volume containing his minute, hand-initialed bookplate will command a serious sum. Anne Bromer, a Boston-based dealer who specializes in miniature books, is offering FDR’s copy of Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler for $8,500. “If it wasn’t from his library it would probably be a $300 or $400 book,” she says. “It’s the historical provenance. These things are almost impossible to obtain.”
Sometimes age plays a role; miniature books made before 1800 are scarcer. Bromer and others agree that fewer were produced in earlier centuries, and those few were vulnerable to loss. The story of the Emancipation Proclamation illustrates how easily miniatures can vanish. A million copies were printed in 1863 for Union soldiers to distribute to slaves, informing them that they were free. Bromer estimates that about 100 copies survive. She recently acquired the second that she has ever handled and lists it at $25,000.
Contemporary books can fetch four- and five-figure sums if they benefit from the attentions of a custom bookbinder, whose artistic rebinding renders a limited-edition copy unique. Peña says that when the Grolier Club’s collection of miniature books returns to view, it will nearly double in size courtesy of a gift of 230 volumes from Neale M. Albert, a collector who pursued designer bindings for his miniatures, most of which were printed in the 20th and 21st centuries. “He sent them to bookbinders to have them rebound,” says Peña. “In all cases he gave them complete freedom to do what they wanted.” Two custom display cases, one for the original Grolier collection and one for Albert’s, are under construction, and Peña hopes they will be ready sometime this fall.