A. S. W. Rosenbach (1876-1952), bookseller

A. S. W. Rosenbach
A. S. W. Rosenbach. From the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress. Public Domain.

Dr A. S. W. Rosenbach was a leading American bookseller, who began collecting at the age of 11 with an illustrated edition of Reynard the Fox. He made his first valuable purchase as a student at the University of Pennsylvania – a first edition of Samuel Johnson’s Prologue – before gaining a PhD in Early Modern drama in 1901. However, as he later wrote in Books and Bidders: The Adventures of a Bibliophile, 'I [gave] up my fellowship to enter a business that would, perhaps, put money in my purse. I did not, when at college, appreciate what a high adventure the business was to prove … I had a better chance, a far greater opportunity, to unearth unpublished documents, and uncover original source-material, than ever I could have as an instructor in English in some university.'

In 1903, Rosenbach and his brother Philip founded the Rosenbach Company in Philadelphia. It was not until 1920, however, after the death of famous bookseller George D. Smith, that Rosenbach assumed a leading position within the rare book trade. He would maintain this for the rest of his career, helping to build the collections of Henry E. Huntington, Henry Clay Folger, J. P. Morgan, Lessing J. Rosenwald and Joseph E. Widener amongst others.

Rosenbach’s success at salesmanship can be at least partly attributed to his deep knowledge of books and his personal enthusiasm for them – even keeping some valuable items for himself. He was well-known for buying and selling books at remarkably high prices, but he justified his practices by insisting that books were investments that would hold their value. Notably, in spite of his large price tags, he maintained a loyal following of wealthy book-collectors for many years. It probably did not hurt that Rosenbach had a reputation for dominating European book auctions – where he was variously known as 'The Terror of the Auction Room', 'Le Napoleon des Livres' and a 'Robber Baron' – indulging in good whisky, telling entertaining anecdotes about the trade, and generally entertaining his clients in a lavish manner. His dedication to his clients likely helped mitigate any frustrations arising from Rosenbach’s own desire for self-publicity.

Rosenbach’s dramatic sales and purchases were frequently covered by contemporary newspapers. Not only did this bring Rosenbach greater fame, but it helped bring greater public awareness to the antiquarian book trade overall, particularly in America.

Danielle Magnusson