Translate this page
My Friend: Hubert Heilbronn

My Friend: Hubert Heilbronn

Probably the greatest bookbinder of our time, Jean de Gonet, to whom the Bibliotheque Nationale de France devoted a landmark retrospective in 2013, created numerous bindings for Hubert Heilbronn, several of which are presented in the catalogue for the upcoming sale Bibliothèque littéraire Hubert Heilbronn. Here, he reflects on their friendship.


I f Anne and Laurence Heilbronn had not convinced their father that the bindings he usually commissioned, with their gold-covered spines, were a little too outdated, and that he would do well to visit my first solo exhibition at Claude Guérin's in 1982, I probably would not have met Hubert so early on and in such favorable circumstances.

While most of my clients grumbled at the idea that I was spending my time on a mass-produced binding process, in plastic no less, rather than on original bindings on the books they entrusted to me, Hubert, on the contrary, quickly played two trump cards. As treasurer of the Amis de la Bibliothèque Nationale, he convinced this group to finance a mold for the Bibliotheque Nationale de France and subsequently asked me to create his own personal mold, in order to have bound, at a reasonable price, all the books in his possession whose market value did not merit an overly expensive binding.

Along with a few others – to tell the truth, rather few in number – he encouraged this conception of binding from A to Z, going from the ordinary binding to the original, crazy, eccentric, unique binding. Who could believe that a four-star chef does not also put all his genius into frying an egg?

It is often said that you work best and most happily for those who astound you with such kind gestures. This was the case with Hubert. During his frequent visits to the studio or the many dinners he invited me to, our friendship was strengthened and extended to that of his dear Gina who also welcomed one with open arms. I realised, during these moments spent together, often with drinks flowing, to what degree this "banker" had considerable talent as a performer and storyteller, and how his vast imagination was greater than his collection of books.

Let it be said that it is certainly Hubert who has converted bibliophiles towards taking a keener interest in books with inscriptions that make up the bulk of his collection. Reading between the lines of these inscriptions, Hubert can teach you, in a very pedagogical way, the strength of a connection, between who did what and when and where.


Jean de Gonet's cover of Breton's Nadja, designed in 1989 for the collector, is one of the bookbinder's most iconic creations; it features a surface embossed to resemble anti-skid metal plates, rendered on fine calfskin that has been polished with agate. Another exemplary achievement is the one for Gracq's Château d'Argol, produced in 1991, in calfskin, monotype printed in blue. Of mention are also two very fine Cocteau books, as well as two with "bias bindings", in varnished fiberboard and faux braided leather.

Jean de Gonet is also known for his bindings in RIM, a thick, wear-resistant, molded polyurethane. The process of mass production with this material allows for the making of less expensive, homogeneous, yet still personalised bindings. Between 1985 and 1999, the artisan made 13 different molds, the first of which was created for the Centre Pompidou.

He created customised molds for only four institutions or individuals: the Bibliothèque Nationale, the Bibliotheca Wittockiana, Chanel - and his friend Hubert Heilbronn. This Heilbronn mold was created in 1989; it recreates the bookplate of the collector, inspired by a schoolbook label, and featuring, with other embossed elements, an old-fashioned penholder.

By Benoit Puttemans, Director & Expert, Books and Manuscripts

Books & Manuscripts

About the Author

More from Sotheby's

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

Close