Archibald Acheson, Earl of Gosford, bookplate.

LONDON - When I am summoned down to the valuation counter to have a look at a book that someone has brought in, or when I pick a book off the shelf from a library that we are cataloguing, almost the first thing I look for on opening the volume is the bookplate.

From grand engraved armorials to modest little labels with a single name, bookplates can tell you a great deal about the history of the work. In some cases, if you are lucky, there will be a clutch of several of them which will help you chart the history of the book going back hundreds of years. The first bookplate might lead you to an old sale catalogue, which will in turn lead to the next owner and so on. I remember cataloguing an English Bible from 1537 and realising, from the evidence of the various bookplates, that this was no less than the fourth time that Sotheby’s had offered it for sale.

Sometimes a bookplate will tell you everything you need to know. William Morris’ is a case in point: elegant, restrained, no-nonsense. Others are more cryptic, with just a family motto in Latin, or an armorial crest – the sort of thing that will send you scurrying to the heraldic reference books.

William Morris’ no-nonsense bookplate.

Above all, these little bits of paper pasted into the front of much-loved books speak to the wonderful pursuit of bibliophily. Sometimes one hears regrets that collections which come to auction are to be sold lot by lot, but the bookplates in the volumes tell a different story: that these works had already been part of several distinguished collections before the present one, and will be part of many great collections to come.