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Books & Manuscripts

The Counts of the Ribes’ Library

By Sotheby's

O ne of the great and best-preserved private libraries in Paris is about to come under the spotlight as it goes up for auction. Events of this kind occur every so often and tend to spark memories and curiosity in equal measure.

The Counts de Ribes’ library, belonging to Jean and his son Edouard, was formed about a century ago and continued to grow until 2013. They were both prominent figures in Paris and led lives as worldly individuals, patrons and leading directors of companies in banking and insurance, but they always devoted an unexpectedly large amount of time to studying, researching and delighting in their collections and bibliophilia. The books in this catalogue bear witness to both of their lives; they were selected and have long been treasured in a room that could be likened to a chapel: their library.

The collection spans various centuries, genres, literary movements and origins, but the works share a common hallmark. They are all the product of mature, considered, informed decisions, as well as of the tastes and pleasures of connoisseurs with considerable means. Such dedication to high standards and enjoyment is a testament to a steadfast commitment to the bibliophilic association the Société des Bibliophiles François. Jean de Ribes was elected a member of the group in 1920 and was President from 1961 to 1980. In turn, his son Edouard joined the association in 1987 and was a member until his death. Both men welcomed their fellow members to their beautiful Parisian residence with indefatigable hospitality.

There will soon be little point in trying to make a distinction in this catalogue between the books that belonged to each man. However, before the collection is dispersed, it is still possible and perhaps useful to discern the differences in inspiration from one generation to the next. Having spent much time with both collectors, I can shed some light on this topic for the benefit of aficionados.

Firstly, we can ascribe the great works to Jean de Ribes, i.e. the major books of the classical centuries, splendidly published in the 17th and 18th centuries, illustrated by the best artists, magnificently bound, often with coats of arms and in perfect condition. These are bibliophilic gems, which, after the Goncourts, were much coveted by our late 19th-century forebears. Books widely considered to be the most famous bibliophilic works of France’s Golden Age stand majestically on the shelf alongside a beautiful Jarry manuscript, Les Chansons by Laborde, two festival books, and Les Amours pastorales by Longus, with binding attributed to Padeloup, displaying the coat of arms of the Regent of France.

Yet the library of Jean de Ribes was not confined to a cage of classicism. The man of tradition gathered souvenirs from the Count d’Artois’ entourage and the Bourbon Restoration, a time during which his family had excelled. He was a man of culture open to the trends and celebrities of his time — Loti, Huysmans, Montesquiou, and Mallarmé — and his acquisitions were often further developed by his son Edouard, creating a remarkable sense of continuity, which is one of the outstanding features of this catalogue, with twelve works by Verlaine and seven by Proust. Their common approach is demonstrated in two specific areas. First of all, there is Montaigne’s body of work; several of his works were present from the outset, and the collection was brilliantly completed by Edouard de Ribes. The other example is the commendable perseverance shown in the revival of what is undoubtedly a unique collection of books written or owned by Mérard de Saint-Just, a resolutely light-hearted author and sophisticated 18th-century bibliophile and one-time owner of the Château de Saint-Just in the Oise region, which in 1828 became the property of the Ribes.

Edouard de Ribes made a significant and original contribution to this library. While respecting the dominant classicism of his father’s collection, he deliberately and gleefully turned his focus back to the 16th century. The scope of the four works by Ronsard is an indication of this. Edouard de Ribes did not hesitate to broaden the range of the library he inherited, from Stendhal to include the Surrealists, from Flaubert to Cocteau, from Apollinaire to Picasso and Dufy, from Morocco to polycarbonate bindings, with a predilection for Monique Mathieu, Frère Claes, Pierre-Lucien Martin and Marius Michel.

At the same time, however, he embraced all the rigour of the high bibliophilia of the past and applied it to his own bold approach. It is clear that this library was not assembled for the purpose of building a catalogue. It is a family library, composed out of love, providing personal satisfaction and bringing a sense of euphoria. Such a result is not easily achieved. It is the outcome of a flawless selection process involving a certain art of living and razor-sharp precision, resulting in a literary and artistic masterpiece. The criteria remain the same: famous authors, good titles, limited editions, first editions, good paper, illustrated letters, handwritten corrections, letters enclosed or stuffed inside, first edition illustrations, series and original works, as well as sumptuous, mosaic, lined, inlaid, and signed bindings, with cases.

Therefore, the Counts de Ribes’ selection for their library was not based only on the rarity of the book, but also on the desire for each copy to combine the various bibliophilic qualities or virtues that endow it with its own rarity, or to take the metaphor further, with a unique holiness.

Listing the collection in a catalogue is almost a natural consequence of such an approach, which is in reality a work of creation. The dispersion of the collection is not an act of destruction. It is a way of distributing it among book lovers who wish to acquire it. It is also an opportunity for dissemination, remembrance and devotion, which I hope will receive a warm welcome.

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