Antiques: Reading Between the Lines
When fred feinsilber began acquiring illustrated books—in his case, limited-edition publications that feature high-quality engravings, sketches, plates, and sometimes original artwork—he did so with the assumption that Pablo Picasso could be as valuable to him as Albert Camus was.
For Feinsilber, the 66-year-old retired founder of the French chemical company Revco, the illustrated books would augment his collection of rare volumes of literature, which began with a first edition of an Albert Camus book that he received for his 18th birthday. He says that Camus’ writings helped him make sense of the world following a childhood that was upended by World War II; by the time that Feinsilber became a French citizen at age 16 in 1956, he had fled from Russia and Romania and emigrated from Israel. “The main subject of Camus [in Le Mythe de Sisyphe] is revolt against injustice. The absurdity comes when we accept it and feel that we cannot do anything, and cannot change it,” he says. “Camus helped me build a set of references on which to base my life.”
In the 1970s, Feinsilber turned to illustrated books to help him better appreciate art in general and the genius of Picasso in particular. “I couldn’t believe how he drew horses,” he says, referring to sketches in his 1956 copy of Les Chevaux de Minuit (The Midnight Horses), which includes an original drawing by Picasso among its 13 illustrations. “Picasso’s horses bore no relation to nature or to the 19th-century image of a horse. He used a simple line, but it was obviously a horse.”
Feinsilber will relinquish Les Chevaux de Minuit, a 1942 handwritten manuscript of Camus’ Le Mythe de Sisyphe, and other tomes at a Sotheby’s Paris auction October 11 and 12. The collection, which will be dispersed in 550 lots of books that span the 15th century to the 20th, could fetch more than $6.3 million. The Camus manuscript’s presale estimate ranges from $255,000 to $383,000; a 1521 edition of De Architectura libri decem . . . in vulgare by the Renaissance architect Vitruvius, which contains 117 engravings, could command more than $51,000. Sotheby’s will display some of the books from September 11 through 15 at its New York office.
Feinsilber, who plans to attend the Manhattan exhibit, describes the pleasure of collecting as “buying something that overwhelms you.” He says that several of his books still hold that power over him, but he is ready to sell them to underwrite his more recent interest in primitive art. “As you get older, you gain a big thirst for understanding,” he says, explaining his desire to master a new subject. “I’m getting towards the end, so I have to hurry up.”