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Battle of the Books
Friday, April 14, 2017 - 22:08

Reviews of two Denis Godfrey books. First up The Enchanted Door published in 1963 followed by Antiques and Bygones: Notes for South African collectors  released in 1967. Both books were published by Howard Timmins.

Denis Godfrey was a Johannesburg journalist whose features appeared regularly in The Star. He was himself an assiduous collector of Africana, and loved a bargain. This book was a popular book about Africana books and Collectors in its day. R F Kennedy described the book as "full of good stories and not always accurate information", although it has the self-important subtitle, " a discourse on Africana book-collecting, with notes on famous collectors, collections and books". It appeared as a limited edition in 1963 and within 3 months the second edition had been published. It has the feel of a miscellany and was a keen punt for Africana book collecting in the 1960s. It is lightweight and anecdotal but has some useful snippets of advice. This book has itself become collectable and even after 50 years, Godfrey's thoughts on what types of books to collect, the original bibliographic sources and where to find treasures still applies.

 

Book Cover

 

Old dealers who were around in Johannesburg and Cape Town have been replaced by new bookmen and women. While Godfrey poured over printed catalogues we search the internet. The collections of great collectors such as Campbell, Gubbins and Humphreys have gone into institutions and universities. Humphreys collected mining material when no one else appreciated the value; his advice to collectors was to specialize as top general material becomes ever rarer. 

Maps and sea charts also feature as one can hardly be interested in books and not stretch to antique maps of the continent and its oceans. The end papers show the 1540 Munster woodblock map of Africa. Godfrey's own books came to be sold on auction after his death, so replenishing the stock available to other keen collectors at the going market price.  

2017 Price Guide: R200-250 with dust wrapper

 

The 1540 Munster woodblock map of Africa​



Antiques and Bygones: Notes for South African collectors was a sequel to Godfrey's very successful first book, The Enchanted Door, and was carried through on its coat tails. Much shorter, the focus of this book was on objects likely to appeal to the antique collector and likely to be found in South Africa. There is plenty of breadth with 45 chapters but each is no more than a tantalizing note of a couple of pages. The probable origin was a quick newspaper column. Take it with a pinch of salt that an ornate enameled jeweled egg owned by a Johannesburg resident was a genuine Faberge Easter Egg. The topics range over silver, glass, clocks, prints, furniture, porcelain, dolls, pewter, coins, recipe books, art and much more. But there is nothing about ethnography, African Art or indigenous artifacts. It is a cursory romp through European antiques that may or may not have a South African link.

Then as now it's still a case of "let the buyer beware". The book gives an insight into what more affluent South Africans collected on auction and bought from dealers in the sixties. There are numerous illustrations and perhaps the black and white pictures are the most interesting feature. Godfrey was important because he catalogued the Barnett collection of photographs and wrote the text for the second Barnett photographic volume and he makes the link between these projects with one group photograph of 5 sisters, the Osterloh sisters from the Barnett Collection now identified.

Godfrey reminds us that the collecting mania is rather like building a jigsaw puzzle, you can't escape the thrall but you can educate your mind, change your sense of what's collectable and sharpen your discernment. Knowledge is still key and the best collections are put together by people who collect what no one else is interested in at the moment.

2017 Price Guide: R140-160 with dust wrapper

 

Book Cover

 

Both books lack depth, but spark interest. My preference is The Enchanted Door because it has a tighter focus on books and is the more substantial volume. 

Kathy Munro is an Honorary Associate Professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand. She enjoyed a long career as an academic and in management at Wits University. She trained as an economic historian. She is an enthusiastic book person and has built her own somewhat eclectic book collection over 40 years. Her interests cover Africana, Johannesburg history, history, art history, travel, business and banking histories.  She researches and writes on historical architecture and heritage matters. She is a member of the Board of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation and is a docent at the Wits Arts Museum. She is currently working on a couple of projects on Johannesburg architects and is researching South African architects, war cemeteries and memorials. Kathy is a member of the online book community the Library thing and recommends this cataloging website and worldwide network as a book lover's haven.

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