Marginal Notes 3: Provenance

Marginal Notes 3: Provenance

Tuesday, Jul 11, 2023

As a collector, it is natural to want to record one’s name in a book or, when giving a book as a gift, to inscribe it with a loving message. However, it is acknowledged by both booksellers and collectors alike that copies of books with ownership inscriptions are usually undesirable.

Our professional advice has always been: Do not write your name or gift inscription in books unless you and/or the recipient are – or will be – famous!  At the age of ten, I had no thought of this advice, as seen in a much-read book in my personal library, from a period when my ambition was to grow up and become a librarian. It is The Secret Island by Enid Blyton, bearing my hand-drawn pen & ink bookplate and my pseudo-Dewey-system number on the upper pastedown and verso of the upper free endpaper, the front panels of the dust jacket having been pasted on the upper board, and the boards lacquered.

The more acceptable method of recording one’s ownership is to have a bookplate designed that reflects one’s interests or name (not a commercially produced bookplate), to be tipped-in usually on the upper pastedown of books. There are numerous books that have been written about bookplates, or ex libris, with the genre continuing to be popular amongst collectors. The New Australian Bookplate Society ( is actively promoting both past and current designers and collectors.

In recent times there has been increasing interest and research into books that bear ownership names, sometimes along with marginal notes, particularly if by someone famous. Additionally, the presence of a book plate is not only acceptable, but also a bonus, as it establishes provenance.

We have handled many interesting association items over the past six decades, with one of the most important and fascinating being the copy of Shakepeare’s Second Folio (London, 1632), which is currently for sale in our bookshop. This copy not only has the extremely rare imprint of William Aspley (the most common imprint being that of Richard Allot), but it also bears an early, perhaps contemporary, inked ownership inscription: Wm Herbert of Swanzy is ye true owner of this booke’, at the head of the first play, The Tempest. This early (and presumably first) owner could be one of several William Herberts in seventeenth century Wales.