Refugees and ambassadors: 20th century émigré booksellers and their books

Albi Rosenthal: Bookseller and music scholar

I’m just back from a fascinating discussion concerning ‘Refugees and ambassadors: 20th century émigré booksellers and their books’, hosted by Maggs Bros Rare Books. Now, this would be my dream work location: a 19th century house on Bedford Square, housing all sorts of weird and wonderful tomes – everything from General Custer’s wife’s account of her life with her husband to first editions of Cervantes in the original Spanish. Imagine being surrounded by so much history every day.

William Sherman of the Warburg Institute was the event chair and the panel members included Arnold Hunt, Brooke Palmieri and Julia Rosenthal. The premise was how armed conflict has remained a driving force in how books and manuscripts have circulated throughout history – and how it has been an underlying cause of their destruction. From the Thirty Years War to the French Revolution, to the nearly constant conflict that characterised the 20th century, the value of books as cultural heritage, no matter whose culture, has been altered in times of crisis.

Each presenter discussed this topic in relation to a major figure in both the creation of value and the survival of books: the bookseller. Each talk was interesting, but I particularly enjoyed listening to Julia Rosenthal, who spoke movingly of her father, Albi Rosenthal, who was born in Munich in 1914 into a German Jewish family. Albi’s father, Erwin, was a distinguished art historian and his mother, Margherita, the daughter of Leo Olschki, founder of an Italian dynasty of booksellers.

Raising his family in Germany between the two World Wars, Erwin Rosenthal was alarmed by the rise of National Socialism and began transferring both his business and his family out of the country. Albi made his first visit to London in May 1933, to view a set of manuscripts on sale at Sotheby’s – just as the boycott of ‘non-Aryan’ firms in Germany began. The Rosenthals found a stormtrooper barring the entrance to their own business; five months later, Albi moved permanently to the UK.

The remainder of the 1930s was a contented period for Albi. British Museum contacts of his father. A.M. Hind and Dr Robin Flower, provided him with a home and access to medieval manuscripts and his father introduced him to Fritz Saxl, also a refugee from Germany and head of the recently-arrived Warburg Institute; he gave a nervous Albi a job. Three and a half “blissful” years ensued, working with contemporaries including Ernest Gombrich, and in 1936 Albi founded his bookselling firm A. Rosenthal Ltd. By now he was living in Curzon Street in a flat, found quite by chance, by his mother – and paying a princely £3 a week for the privilege.

In 1939, Albi published his first catalogue, containing books and manuscripts from his father: ‘Secular Thought in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: A Collection of 100 Manuscripts and Printed Books’, which was well-received. Harder times were just around the corner, however, as in November 1940 the Curzon Street premises suffered bomb damage and had to be evacuated – although Albi did not lose any stock. With his second catalogue already in preparation, Albi decided to move the business to Oxford. He, however, would spend the remainder of the war interned in Lingfield.

Albi loved this country, believing that “a man’s fatherland is wherever is well with him” – and maintained a deep respect for its customs, institutions and peculiarities, even during his World War II internment. He made light of that experience, teaming up with a chef from The Savoy to cook for officers.

Eventually, Albi was able to combine his two great loves, music and books, when in January 1955 he acquired the firm of Otto Haas, previously Berlin’s most prestigious music and antiquarian auction house. ‘Leo Liepmannssohn’ was renamed by Haas when he emigrated to Britain – helped by none other than a certain Maggs Bros.

Despite a long and illustrious career in bookselling, only one of Albi’s children followed in his footsteps: Julia, who runs A. Rosenthal Ltd from her home in Oxford. It was a lovely tribute that she paid tonight to her father, who passed away in 2004, and while she was less faithful to the subject of tonight’s discussion than the other speakers, preferring to talk about Albi Rosenthal the man, as opposed to Albi Rosenthal the bookseller, that’s the reason I’m sharing this post. I enjoyed the other talks, but wouldn’t feel comfortable writing about them (I know very little about antiquarian books or the people who sell them, unlike the rest of the audience, who nodded knowledgeably throughout the evening). Albi Rosenthal, however, I felt I got to know a little and very much wish I could have met – a feeling reinforced by reading this eloquent obituary published in The Independent.

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