Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Hard Decisions of a Book Restorer



What follows is a guest post by Steven Hales (Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania)

My parents are antique dealers, and if there is one thing that I have learned from them, it is that people will collect anything: coins, stamps, Tiffany lamps, Victorian salt shakers, gasoline pumps, barbed wire, automobiles, rocks, fossils, Coca-Cola advertising, airline barf bags. I collect rare books. When I was in philosophy grad school at Brown I met Dan Knowlton, the university’s on-staff hand bookbinder, and wound up taking private bookbinding lessons from him for two years. I’ve been a serious hobbyist binder ever since. So I have first-hand knowledge of the kinds of interventions bookbinders do, and what they hope to achieve as a result. Here are a few thoughts about the types of value that collectors are interested in and how restorers (especially bookbinders) maximize or minimize those values.

It turns out that these different values are in tension with each other. It isn’t possible to set the dial on each of them to maximum, which means that restorers have to make choices about which values to promote and which not, and to what degree. There’s not one optimal goal or balance of goals that everyone is trying to achieve. Rather, there’s a plurality of legitimate approaches with different aims, something that restorers and conservators often fail to recognize. What I know best are antiquarian books and bookbinding, so I’ll focus on those examples, but the pluralism of values as a guide to restoration holds across other collectible objects as well.

The first kind of value that anyone thinks of is, naturally, monetary value. That’s not very helpful to a restorer for two reasons. The first is that market worth is a function of the other qualities of a book, and restorers directly engage with those other qualities. The second reason is that what features the open market sees as desirable isn’t fixed in time, but fluctuates with social fashions. One relevant feature is authenticity and originality—to what extent is the object as it is represented? This is relic value. A dresser could be an 18th century Philadelphia highboy but have new drawer pulls or have replaced veneer. A genuine 1912 Buffalo nickel could have been altered to be a forgery of a 1913 Buffalo nickel, which is immensely rarer. John Lennon’s hand-scrawled signature on a photo has a great deal of relic value, whereas a printed signature on the same photo has none.

There is also the aesthetic value of the object. An attractive, large, and well-preserved trilobite or geode is more appealing than a small and broken one. There is no artist with trilobites and geodes; they aren’t artifacts. It might be handy to distinguish artistic value as a species of aesthetic value. Rafael DeClercq, for example, considers artistic value to be an object’s aesthetic value at the time of completion, or was intended by the artist to have at some point after completion. I’ll be focusing on artistic value and setting other forms of aesthetic value aside, although they are relevant to collectors of non-artifacts. The final sort of value is practical. Does the object function the way that it ought to? Can the 1957 Chevy Bel Air be safely driven down the road, does grandpa’s brass and oak ice box seal properly and keep things cold?

There is a broad continuum of possible interventions that a bookbinder might make on a project. Here are the prominent stops along the path, along with what that particular approach means for the various values of the book.

Preservation. Take the book, or the remnants of a book, or the stack of torn and wrinkled pages that remain from what was once a book and put them in an acid-free box. Stick the box on a shelf in the rare books library and forget the whole thing.

Relic value: highest obtainable. The preservation approach is all about maximizing relic value. Every bit of the original, no matter how crumbling or fragmentary, is retained and nothing is added to the book or changed about it at all.

Artistic value: low. The only remaining artistry is in the typography and layout of the pages, and in any rubrication, historications, or illustrations it may have. If the whole thing is in such bad shape that it goes into a box, it is safe to assume that there’s next to nothing left of the original binding, and so there’s no artistic value to be found there.

Practical value: low. An item like this is very frail, and must be handled with the greatest possible caution. It can’t be handled and read like a properly functioning book.

Monetary value: low. The value of such a book will obviously vary, and it could be quite expensive. But the preservation approach minimizes the monetary value, since collectors are also interested in artistic and practical value, which preservation ignores entirely. They would rather have an actual book instead of the tattered remains of one in an acid-free coffin.

Minor restoration. Create a functional book while preserving as much of the original book and binding as possible. For example, if the boards are beaten and rough and it is clear that someone dropped the book repeatedly from great height, then the binder will fix the corners and treat the leather. If the spine is peeling and flaky, it is consolidated as best as possible and every flake of leather is saved. Gossamer-thin, fibrous paper is used to invisibly repair any torn leaves. However, the binder won’t replace any paper, even endpapers, and won’t remove any stains from anything.

Relic value: high. As much of the original is saved as possible, and the book is conserved just enough to make sure it is still a real book.

Artistic value: moderate. There will be some of the original artistry of the binding remaining, in addition to that of text layout and illustrations.

Practical value: moderate. The book is now functional, but still primarily held together with what may be ancient thread, frayed hemp cords, and hide glue. It should be handled with care.

Monetary value: moderate. A minimally restored book will have more resale value than one disbound in a box. Here’s a lovely restoration by the firm H&H Bookservices:


photo credit: H&H Bookservices

Greater restoration. The book is pulled completely apart. If there are stained or foxed leaves, they are washed and any tears mended. All the signatures are resewn and the textblock rebacked. Period-appropriate headbands (typically in two-color silk) are sewn on by hand. Assuming the original leather spine is missing or badly decayed, it is replaced with new leather and the old boards are reattached. The spine is then tooled with gold leaf in period style. The flyleaves are replaced with new paper, ideally using handmade paper matching the original leaves in color, texture, and weight.

Relic value: moderate. The original textblock is still mostly there, even if there are some facsimile leaves or plates, but only some of the original binding remains.

Artistic value: moderate/high. The leaves look closer to they did when new, and if well done the book is now handsome on the shelf while still retaining some of the old look and appeal.

Practical value: moderate/high. A book with fully mended leaves that is resewn, glued up with modern glues, and has new, strong joints attaching the boards and spine is sturdy and useable.

Monetary value: moderate. There’s variance among collectors as to whether they would prefer a book with minimal restoration or one with more substantial restoration, and the market reflects this disagreement.

Restomod. I’m borrowing this term from car collecting, but it is a handy label for a full overhaul of the book. The binder pulls the book, mends, washes, resews, and rebacks. If there are missing leaves, they are replaced with facsimiles. If it is a particularly valuable book and the binder has some blank paper from the right period lying around, then custom letterpress facsimiles are ideal. Finally the binder creates an entirely new binding. The new binding might be a replication of a period binding, that is, a traditional design that would have been in use around the time the book was published. Or the binding might be a sui generis artistic design of the binder that incorporates all kinds of exotic or fantastical and creative elements. Like this amazing art binding of a 1931 edition of the Four Gospels, executed by the English master binder Philip Smith in 1988.

Relic value: low/moderate. The book is still considered an authentic antique, and is desirable for that reason. Many parts of it may be new—certainly the binding is—possibly maps, frontispieces, title pages, and so on could be recreations as well.

Artistic value: high. A full rebinding like this can be of the very highest quality, from spectacular period designs, to award-winning creative artworks. This is a 16th century Grolier-style binding that I did on the first edition, in full red goatskin with extensive leather onlays in dark blue and tan:


photo credit: Steven Hales

Practical value: high. A restomod is as robust and tough as a new book. The only thing that still requires careful handling are the antique leaves themselves.

Monetary value: high. A beautiful binding on a maximally restored collectable is very desirable and priced accordingly.

Replica/facsimile. What if you really want a book, but it is unobtainably rare or stratospherically expensive? Anyone can own a Bible, but a Gutenberg Bible is something else again. Unless your name is Gates, Zuckerman, or Bezos, you are out of luck. However, there are occasionally sales of high-quality facsimiles of the Gutenberg Bible custom bound in full medieval style with alum-tawed pigskin and brass bosses and clasps. A Bible collector might well decide that a first-rate replica is a couple thousand dollars well spent. There are a handful of other titles like this well, like Schedel’s Liber Chronicarum, Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, and The Book of Kells. Here’s a facsimile of the Gutenberg Bible, bound by Austrian binder Ernst Ammering.


photo credit:  Librarie Camille Sourget

Relic value: zero. There’s nothing original or ancient here. It has no pedigree or provenance.

Artistic value: high. A high-quality replica can have even greater artistic value than an original, with more vivid colors in the illustrations and a finer or more creative binding.

Practical value: highest obtainable. A good replica is much more durable, solid, and more useable than a 500 year old original. Furthermore, while it would be a shame to damage one, it is not the major crisis it would be to injure a Gutenberg Bible or Shakespeare First Folio. Only a very confident and experienced bibliophile would flip through a medieval illuminated book of hours, but an average collector could enjoy turning the pages of a facsimile.

Monetary value: moderate. A professional-grade facsimile is desirable, collectable, and valuable. It still won’t come close to being worth the money of an original, though. A single leaf of the 1455 Gutenberg Bible sold earlier this year for $62,500.
There are different levers a bookbinder can manipulate, and when one lever is pulled back, another one moves forward. There’s no way to maximize all the values of a book, and all of those values are legitimate, fair concerns. Many conservators think that relic value is paramount, and anything that risks diminishing it must be absolutely avoided; all treatments—if any whatsoever—must be reversible, non destructive, and thoroughly documented for posterity. Others see relic worship as a primitive fetish, like coveting a lock of Lincoln’s hair, or the bones of the saints. Why not prefer a gorgeous facsimile that has all the same content, all of the maps, plates, and illustrations, in a designer art binding that you can actually touch and read without needing insurance? And, of course, there are many steps in between these extremes.

My proposal is that we should be pluralists about the value of collectables. Yes, relic value is real and not crazy, but so is artistic value and practical value. A bookbinder (or conservator or restorer) might choose to stop anywhere along the continuum of interventions discussed above, deciding that it is the best balance of values. Once restoration has begun, it becomes clear that there is no perfect balance of relic, artistic, and practical values. There simply is no perfect solution. Each option has its pros and cons. There are many “right mixes” of these values, and it must be a joint decision of the owner and binder. The decision is a normative and artistic one, not merely a matter of technique.

Notes on the Contributor

Steven Hales is Professor of Philosophy at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. His current and recent work concerns luck, relativism, and rational intuition. He also dabbles in popular philosophy.

Image credit: “BookBinding” by Cindee Snider Re via Flickr

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.