By Anton Gerits
When antiquarian bookdealers, talking among themselves, call a colleague a “great dealer”, they don’t always mean the same thing. Some mean a dealer with many staff, a large turn over and great profits. Others mean a dealer who masters the art of really studying a book, a dealer who is able to discover something in or about the book that suddenly makes it interesting for all readers, not just the obvious specialists.
When Bob de Graaf once said: “I have not become a great dealer”, he hastened to add: “No, that is not false modesty.” And he repeated, with meaning: “I have not become a great dealer, but I have never aspired to be one.”
Bob de Graaf did not come from a wealthy family. He finished secondary school (gymnasium) with great success but had to provide for his own livelihood from then on. In 1947 he started working at the Internationaal Antiquariaat & Veilinghuis Menno Hertzberger, where life wasn’t easy for him. Despite appreciating Bob, Hertzberger was never quite satisfied. His comments on Bob’s purchases and book descriptions were chronically negative. Nevertheless, Hertzberger made him manager in 1953.
Bob's future wife, Emmy, also worked at Hertzberger’s. In 1959 Bob, together with Emmy, took the decision to leave and establish himself as an independent book dealer in Nieuwkoop. During the first years of this independent existence Bob and Emmy had to deal with some obstruction from their former employer. It is typical of Bob de Graaf that he was able to restore, over the years, a normal relationship with Menno Hertzberger and to stay friends with him until Hertzberger’s death. Bob did not like envy and quarelling, but was certainly able to make his position clear in matters of principle in a very friendly and convincing way.
Bob was not just a “great” dealer in the usual meaning of the word. The 88 catalogues he published between 1960 and the end of the 20th century mark his great love and knowledge of the Classics, Humanities, Renaissance, Bibliography and Typography. These catalogues are a lasting tribute to his scholarship, not only because of the thorough bibliographical descriptions but also for the many interesting and studious notes he added to these.
His business however, was not his only interest: Bob was a very “social” person with a never-ending willingness to contribute to trade ethics and knowledge. His social life was not limited to his circle of professional colleagues. In his own modest and honest way, he contributed to and was active in various religious and public organizations. He was a member of the Remonstrantse Kerk and chairman of the local “Beraad van Kerken” (Council of Churches), he was an active member of Rotary International and within his profession always available and ready to help and advise young colleagues. To that end he published, in 1965, the manual “Het Antiquariaat. Een beknopte handleiding” (A concise guide, 2nd edition, 1968).
Following his desire to contribute to increasing professionalism in the world of antiquarian bookselling, he accepted a position on the committee of the Nederlandsche Vereeniging van Antiquaren (NVvA, founded in 1935). He served the NVvA from 1963 to 1969 as secretary and from 1971 to 1974 as its President. In 1973 he was asked to join the committee of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB, founded in 1947). He accepted both the position as editor of ILAB’s Newsletter and as secretary of the ILAB committee. From 1979 to 1982 he served ILAB as its President. In all of these various positions he initiated developments leading to better contacts worldwide with and between the dealers, the librarians and the libraries. In 1985 he was made, and deservedly so, President of Honour of ILAB.
For both Bob and his wife Emmy the scholarly aspect of their profession was always more important than the pecuniary aspects of it, although that aspect of their profession was prudently and responsibly taken care of as well. His many book publications (of which several were with Emmy) and contributions to numerous book journals make an impressive list. In his Festschrift “For Bob de Graaf, Antiquarian Bookseller, Publisher, Bibliographer” (Amsterdam, 1992) one finds, apart from contributions by colleagues and scholars, his bibliography : three full 4to pages running from 1953 to 1991.
Both the NVvA and ILAB have lost a thoughtful advisor and an important source of information; many collegues, both in the Netherlands and abroad, have lost a dear and loyal friend.