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The history of the ILAB Breslauer Prize for Bibliography

55 years of honouring outstanding work in the field of bibliography and book history
Bernard Breslauer Archive

Image above: The late Dr Bernard H. Breslauer

The origins of today’s leading international prize in the field of bibliography and book history go back to the founding days of the League. In 1951, a newly formed ILAB Committee discussed the creation of an international bibliographical award which was finally realized during the 1961 ILAB Congress in Paris following a proposal by the Dutch antiquarian booksellers’ association, the Nederlandsche Vereeniging van Antiquaren (NVvA):

The Dutch association considered that it would be necessary to raise the level of bibliographical research and to this end proposed that the League institute a prize to be awarded annually or triennially to the author of a work on bibliography or bibliophily. … This proposal caused much interest, and many delegates aired their views by the close of the discussion. (Extract of 1962 ILAB Meeting minutes).

In 1962 at the Basle ILAB Congress, a set of rules was approved and a first jury elected. The President was Mr Georges A. Deny, first ILAB prize secretary and the Members, Professor de la Fontaine-Verwey, Chief Librarian of the University of Amsterdam; Mr Pierre Lelièvre, Inspector General of French Libraries; Mr Howard M. Nixon, Assistant Keeper of Printed Books at the British Museum and Dr Frauendorfer, member of the ILAB Committee.

The prize was to be awarded every three years to the value of US$750 ‘for the best work of learned bibliography unpublished or printed’ (ILAB Newsletter No. 10). It took another five years for the first ILAB Prize for Bibliography to be announced, the recipient being Jean-Peeters-Fontainas for Bibliographie des impressions Espagnoles des Pays-Bas meridionaux, published by B. de Graaf, Nieuwkoop, Holland in 1965.

M. Deny wrote in 1967 these words, which have rung true ever since:

"In the world of antiquarian books and bibliographical research, two persons are, day after day, confronted with the difficulties of research, authentication and evaluation of antiquarian works, whether valuable or not: the librarian and the antiquarian bookseller. The latter, in particular, because on his scholarship and knowledge depend his trade and his reputation."

In 1991 ILAB decided to award the prize every four years to coincide with an ILAB Congress in order to allow a larger audience to witness the award. At the same time the value was raised from US$5,000 to US$10,000. Besides donations from booksellers and funding by ILAB, the real continuity of the prize was ensured by a donation from the Breslauer Foundation in 2001, a charity created in accordance with the will of the New York antiquarian bookseller, Dr Bernard H. Breslauer. The prize now called ‘ILAB - Breslauer Prize for Bibliography’ was awarded for the first time in 2010 in Bologna under this new name. A further donation from the Breslauer Foundation in 2019 has allowed the League to continue to award the Prize.

Dr Bernard H. Breslauer (1918-2004) and his father, Martin Breslauer, were leading antiquarian booksellers in Berlin, London and subsequently New York, spanning between them the entire 20th century. Both published scholarly works on the history of bibliophily and themselves formed remarkable collections of historical bibliography. It is therefore an honour to acknowledge Breslauer’s lifetime achievements in the context of the Prize, as well as those of many authors who will gain broader publicity through the Prize and who deserve our utmost respect.

More information about ILAB and the history of the ILAB Breslauer Prize for Bibliography:

Nevine Marchiset: International League of Antiquarian Booksellers: An Historical Index, 1947 – 2017. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2018. ISBN: 9781584563730

Text: Angelika Elstner