Profile of a Rare Book Dealer: Peter Kraus

I'm excited for you to meet Peter Kraus, who has been in the book trade exactly 50 years!  If you're ever in New York City make time to visit Ursus Books and Prints, at 699 Madison Avenue, between 62nd and 63rd streets.  Check out their website HERE.

I hope you enjoy his interview as much as I did!

Ursus Books and Prints  

Ursus Books and Prints

Q:  Tell me about yourself, even a brief history about how you became a rare book dealer.

A:  I was born in England.  My father was a surgeon, and I would have been the fifth generation of medical men had I become a doctor.  I went to Epsom College, a school for the sons of doctors, but while there came under the spell of my uncle, the bookseller, H. P. Kraus.  On leaving school I went to work for him on the day after my eighteenth birthday, and stayed for nine years.  Among the books that were in stock at one time or another while I was there were a Guttenberg Bible, a folio Audubon, and all four Shakespeare folios at the same time.  in 1972 I left to start Ursus Books, named by my friend, the artist and book maker, Leaonard Baskin.  Based on what I had learnt at H. P. Kraus, I dealt in scholarly art books and rare books of all kinds.  After our children were born, my wife, a librarian by profession, started Ursus Prints, dealing in rare decorative prints, and it has been part of Ursus ever since. 

For the past two years my shop is on the third floor of 699 Madison Avenue.  The building was designed after World War I to be the New York branch of Fortnum and Mason, and is a miniature version of the Picadilly store.  The Depression intervened and the store never materialized.  Prior to that I was in the Carlyle Hotel for 28 years, but the change in the nature of the book trade made those rather large premises unaffordable.  They are now occupied by a major art dealer. 

I am married with two daughters.  The eldest, Nicola, is the author of The Nanny Diaries, and eight other books, and the younger, Olivia is a lawyer, who has decided to give up law, and came to work in the book shop in August.  I am not a book collector, although I have a large reading library, which is largely non-fiction, consisting mainly of history, biography and travel.  I do, however, very much love and collect Indian miniatures.  I am also a lover of opera, attend the theatre regularly, and surprise am an avid reader, alternating fiction and non-fiction.  I also love to travel, but am never happier than when I return to New York, the greatest city on earth.


Peter with President Clinton, while President Clinton visited Peter's store.

Peter with President Clinton, while President Clinton visited Peter's store.

Q:  What is the preferred genre you deal in?

A:  I much prefer illustrated books, whatever the field, but can always be temped by a great, or special book in any field, although I find myself becoming less and less interested in literature.

Q:  What is the price range of the books do you deal in?

A:  I try to start at $500 and go up from there.  At the moment my most expensive book is $500,000.

Q:  What is the most interesting book you've sold?

A:  The most interesting book I have ever sold is probably a spectacular early nineteenth century manuscript from the Russian sect of Old Believers.  The illustrations throughout we're quite extraordinary, and because the sect was ruthlessly persecuted, very little of their printed or manuscript work survives. 

Q:  What was your most unexpected or surprising rare book find?

A:  One of my more surprising finds came several years ago in the private office of a French colleague who tends to specialize in books printed before 1900.  He produced a copy of the legendary work by Sonia Delaunay.  La Prose du Transsiberien.  This copy had never been assembled, and the sheets and the vellum binding, which had been hand painted by Delaunay herself, were still flat, and in pristine condition.  This made it one of the most desirable copies of one of the most sought-after books of the twentieth century.  It is now in a private collection in America. 

Q:  Why do you think books are important in our time of digital media?

A:  Books are more important now than ever.  They are the physical manifestations of everything which makes up our civilization.  Of course, information is available digitally, but the physical book is about so much more than information.  Just as talking to a loved one on the phone or by Skype cannot be compared to being in their presence, so the physical book cannot be compared to its digital equivalent. 

Q:  What has been the biggest challenge you have experienced in rare book dealing?

A:  The biggest challenge has been the internet.  Prior to that, knowledge, quality of stock, professionalism, and location, were the things which made the difference.  All that changed overnight.  Now everyone is an expert, ignorance is bliss, and to a degree, anarchy reigns.  Survival for me, and not just my position in the trade, now depends on the four things listed above.  But the internet means that the advantages I would have had just from being in the trade for 50 years have been erased. 

Q:  What is your proudest moment of rare book dealing?

A:  My proudest moment as a rare book dealer was when my uncle, not one to praise anyone lightly, told me that he was proud of me, about ten years after I had left him to start my own business.  There was certainly never anyone else whose opinion I valued more.

Q:  What is the best advice you've been given?

A:  I was lucky enough to receive tremendous amounts of advice, and help from my elders and betters.  Dealers such as my uncle, Otto Ranschburg, Jake Zeitlin, and Pierre Beres to name just a few, and I think the one piece of advice which they all gave me, was to always try and buy the finest copies.  Always try and go for the best.  And I would still give that advice to anyone dealing or collecting today. 


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