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Collections and Collecting

First, a few lifelong observations about collectors:

1. There are many great collections not assembled by great collectors.
2. A great collector has an inordinate desire to collect. A collector is the ultimate compulsive, addicted shopper.
3. A great collector has superior knowledge of his subject. He may even be a recognized authority, though I have found that great intellectual curiosity about a subject and avid collecting are rarely compatible.
4. Every active book collector has been on the receiving end of this question, typically from someone you hold in not very high regard: “Have you read all these books?” Of course you haven’t, but you do know the importance of each.
5. Great collectors acquire the rarest and most unique items in their field of interest early.
6. There is no great collector who has not demonstrated a willingness to take great risks. Let me explain.

The committed collector frequently takes two types of risk: extending his financial resources to acquire a particular rarity and putting his collecting wants above personal or even family needs. He will pursue items of questionable present value on the instinct that time will validate his judgment.

There are few collectors who cannot acknowledge that their lives were greatly enriched by their collecting experience—not by the pleasure of gaining temporary custody of some rare book or document, but by the lives of unique and talented individuals with whom our collecting meanderings have brought us face to face.

Let me pay tribute to a few notable benefactors to the cause of Texana collecting who have blessed me and many others.

First, there are the four horsemen of Texas literary production: J. Frank Dobie, J. Evetts Haley, Tom Lea, and Carl Hertzog. For more than fifty years, they were living legends. Small fortunes have been exchanged to acquire their works, and it will be interesting to see how succeeding generations value their creations.

I met J. Frank Dobie in 1962 on my way to law school at the University of Texas. He was in his study on Waller Creek, and we struck up a friendship of sorts. Dobie had a charm that attached to you—he loved storytelling. His designation as Texas’s leading folklorist fit him like a soft slipper. Lying somewhere between the exactitude of a historian and the total fabrication of the fiction writer Pancho found his literary pedestal from which he brought to folklore a vastly expanded audience. I’ve always believed he saw himself as the vaquero of the Brush Country. His political beliefs are apparent in his writings. As H. Bailey Carroll once observed, even his cows and horses were liberal.

J. Evetts Haley was the antithesis of Dobie. An uncompromising conservative, he ran for governor on a segregation ticket. He believed in small government and big people.

If the code of the West is honor, duty, and courage, that was the life Evetts tried to live and the one he sought for those of whom he wrote. In Charles Goodnight, he found the quintessential cowman. In Goodnight he confirmed the legend of the cowman and the reality of the cowman met. Goodnight confirmed Haley’s belief in the western hero. His biography of Goodnight is his finest literary effort, though Ode to Nita resonates with poetic grace. I paid many public tributes to Haley. He was hard to love but easy to admire.

Carl Hertzog could discuss book design like a biologist directing the dissection of a frog. He was a genius at elevating attention to detail to a grandiose final product. Working too hard, drinking too much, Carl produced the finest printed materials, books, and manuscripts in the history of Texas and the Southwest. He was not just the Printer at the Pass; he was the Michelangelo of printers who stand at that delicate passage between raw type and final publication. For all of us who showed a fondness for collecting his work, he responded with uncommon generosity, sending you unique, one-of-a-kind publications and frequently declining any compensation.

Tom Lea was the entire package—a literary Wal-Mart. He illustrated, painted, and wrote. His service as a war correspondent for Life magazine blended both valor with creative genius. Peleliu Landing, a collaborative effort with Carl, captures vividly the bloody marine invasion of that Japanese stronghold. Many generations of Leas were residents of El Paso. He relished the collaboration of the Texas and New Mexico landscapes and their shared history. It dominates his artistic endeavors. However, it was his history of a South Texas empire, the King Ranch, that remains his seminal work. It was greatly enhanced by Hertzog’s printing talents. The King Ranch represents the efforts of both men at the most vigorous moment in their shared history. I could never extract from the Lea the congeniality of Dobie, Haley, or Hertzog, but I cherish his crisp calligraphy and insightful explanations of the many letters he generously directed to my care.

The one individual who had the greatest influence on me as a collector and an influence I share with every Texans collector whose interest spans the years from 1962 to 1990 is John H. Jenkins. For more than twentyfive years his fame extended across the entire landscape of Texas bookmen. He was the reigning king of Texas booksellers, though he inspired some worthy competitors like Price Daniels Jr., Fred White, Dorman David, Ray Walton, and Bill Morrison. Johnny was a genius and much more. The youngest published author in America, at age sixteen, he authored the diary of his namesake and grandfather, John Holmes Jenkins. His valedictory address on consolidating the armed forces into one homogenous unit precipitate a full investigation by the FBI. President Eisenhower was contemplating such a concept as part of his State of the Union speech, and Washington believed this information had somehow been leaked to John H. Jenkins.

Johnny was himself a collector, but only as a source for a deal or dealmaking capital. He sold his 50D nickel collection to pay for his honeymoon and to provide capital for his first business, a rare coin and Texana book dealership located in Austin at 910 Congress.

I first met John in 1963. We sat by each other in our freshman tort class at the University of Texas Law School. He rarely attended class and had the poor judgment to cast a glance or two on my first exam paper. I barely passed; he failed. We laughed about the experience, and I became his partner in a coin and rare book business. Our best client was Ralph Yarborough. He always bought heavily after a big political fundraiser. We also formed Pemberton Press. Our first publication was a success, which led to an extended period of shared effort to build a rare book reprint business. It was interrupted by Johnny being drafted in 1965 by the army. That he passed the physical was incredible. He was only 5 feet, 5 inches, had Coke-bottle glasses and tiny feet. He used to laugh that he had more money than that rest of his college friends because he purchased his entire wardrobe in the children’s department.

From John I learned the art of book collecting. Here were a few of his musings:

Buy collections: you will only pay for the books and not the cost and energy to assemble them, but in contradiction he was fervent in maintaining that a collection will be greater than the sum of its parts. Collect only those areas where you can afford the best; otherwise, your collection will always carry the stench of mediocrity. The common books will appreciate gradually, if at all, while the value of rarities will go up geometrically. Love what you collect; otherwise, you have no more than another joyless endeavor. Specialize. Make your claim—Republic period, Civil War, Cowboys and Indians, travel narratives, books with maps. Mine them to exhaustion and then seek another. This advice I chose to ignore, not because it didn’t suit the best process for collecting, but because it didn’t suit my more impetuous nature.

There is a famous saying attributed to Ben Franklin: “Jack of all trades, master of none.” This is a misquote. It is “Jack of all trades, master of one.” With the exercise of alacrity and genius, John could master an in-depth appreciation of almost any subject. He grasped quickly the essential elements of a business enterprise or the critical measures of value of collectibles. In addition to his deep appreciation of rare books, documents, and maps, he was an authority on Bordeaux wines, Cuban cigars, Samurai swords, and rare coins.

Playing under the moniker Austin Squatty, he was one of the best Texas hold ’em poker players in the country.

But he was truly the master of the book deal. I observed and collected in the flotsam left behind in deal after deal—the Laudermilk Collection, the Josey Collection, the Country Store Gallery, and the crowning event, the Everstatt Brothers Collection of Texana and Western Americana.

In all too brief a life, he published over one hundred books, wrote more than fifty articles, authored fifteen books, and issued a phenomenal number of sales catalogs. His finest was The Texas Revolution and Republic. Book and document collectors find nearly indispensable his Cracker Barrel Chronicles, Basic Texas Books, and Papers of the Texas Revolution.

His legacy also includes some of Texas’s best book dealers, Dorothy Sloan, Mike Heaston, Mike Parrish—all former employers. 

There is one blemish on John’s career. It has been documented in some detail in a book called Texfake by Tom Taylor.

Beginning in the 1970s, the Texana market became the recipient of many rare letters and documents dating from 1820 to 1845. At first, it was clear that their provenance was a Mexican municipio archive. Then in Houston there was a famous auction conducted at the Warwick Hotel. Clearly many of these items had come from the State of Texas archives. For the next ten years collectors and dealers alike dealt with an outrageous number of Texas documents of questionable provenance. John’s friends and even his enemies are circumspect about his role. I firmly believe that John’s role was more passive than active. Clearly he, better than anyone, knew a legitimate item from one fabricated and state property from those in private ownership. Many items of questionable provenance passed from him to active collectors. He paid a price that far exceeded any transgression real or imagined. On the banks of the Colorado River outside Bastrop, the town his grandfather settled and the home of Edward Burleson, the subject of John’s last book, his reign as the best bookseller in Texas ended. He died from a bullet through the back of the head.

Every library in the state, private as well as public, is testimony to his indefatigable energy, his eclectic genius, and his mastery of the deal. He brought purpose to our otherwise selfish pursuits of collecting, telling us repeatedly that collecting the documents of the greatest state, with the greatest history of any state in the Union, was an honorable cause. A great Texana collection would have enduring value to educational institutions or museums, or the next generation of collectors. If well done, it would be a profitable effort satisfying to the soul.

With John’s death, a guiding light for Texana collectors was extinguished. Gone was a wise counselor, a true Texas philosopher. Though small of stature, when John stood on his collective accomplishments, he towered above all the rest.

Oh, you Master of the Deal, that you could have with equal élan mastered your life.