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Turning the page

Ars Libri, a valued destination for art books in Boston, is heading for a new home

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / March 27, 2011

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You walk up a dozen steps and press a buzzer. The door opens. Immediately, that distinctive smell: books.

For anyone who loves art and books, walking into Ars Libri, a bookseller on Harrison Avenue in the South End, is a heady experience. The space is modern, uncluttered, light. The ceiling is supported by a dozen square timber columns. There is usually a small display of contemporary artworks or rare prints mounted on a wall by the street-facing window. Long rows of shelves zigzag toward the back of the large room. They groan with handsome volumes, many of them out of print and hard to find.

Ars Libri, which was established in 1976, is easily the best place to buy art books off the shelf in Boston. But to Elmar Seibel, the brains behind Ars Libri, that fact is almost incidental. What’s more, due to momentous shifts taking place in the book-selling business, it may not remain the case for much longer.

Seibel, a German who moved to the United States in 1970, is a dapper man of 58, with penetrating blue eyes and a sort of casual, conspiratorial charm.

His name is little known in Boston, but over the last 30 years, in his understated way, he has played a large role in the city’s cultural life as the owner of Ars Libri (an intellectual hub for artists, collectors, and scholars) and as an overseer (1991-2004) and benefactor at the Museum of Fine Arts.

“Professionally, he’s a deal-maker,’’ says Malcolm Rogers, the MFA’s director, “but I mean that in a good sense. He’s such a positive fellow. He cares deeply about cultural institutions.’’

But Seibel’s influence extends far beyond Boston. He has been responsible for establishing whole libraries, including the library of a research institute connected to the world’s richest museum (the Getty); he has been on intimate and influential terms with collectors, scholars, diplomats, philosophers, and artists; and, through both his dealings at Ars Libri and his private collecting, he has pursued a mission to bridge the intellectual and aesthetic divide between the West and the cultures of Persia and Islam.

Seibel speaks in a mellifluous murmur, and on most days, gives the impression of having three brains all working at once. “Sometimes I worry that he carries all the information in his head,’’ jokes George Abrams, a leading collector of Dutch drawings who has known Seibel for 30 years, “but he periodically assures me he is well organized.’’

For more than 30 years, Seibel has been negotiating the movement of vast quantities of art books around the world. His regular clients have ranged from some of the world’s largest universities and museums to such artists as Cy Twombly, Brice Marden, Willem de Kooning, and Sol LeWitt and such architects as Rafael Moneo and Richard Meier. Typically, he has bought libraries and archives from private individuals and sold them to academic institutions and museums. He was responsible, in the 1980s, for building the vast library of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles virtually from scratch.

“He’s low key,’’ says Abrams, “but you know he can find almost any academic or scholarly art book you may want in a short time. And he has been one of world leaders in putting whole libraries together for educational and academic institutions.’’

A critical encounter
Elmar Seibel lives with his wife, Azita Bina-Seibel, and their son, Kian, 17, in the Back Bay. Bina-Seibel’s mother lives downstairs.

A few years ago the house underwent a major renovation, designed by the architecture firm Office dA. The biggest challenge was to find space for Seibel’s own book collection — approximately 30,000 volumes, though about half are stored in a warehouse. Thus the staircase of the townhouse winds around a rising column of bookshelves, while high bookshelves wrap around a bar and an adjoining bathroom.

Azita is Iranian. A chef and restaurant entrepreneur, she runs, with her brother, Lala Rokh and Bin 26 Enoteca, two restaurants on Beacon Hill, and Bina, a restaurant and food and wine purveyor at Downtown Crossing. She met Seibel in 1987, when she was running Toscano’s on Beacon Hill.

“I was living nearby,’’ recalls Seibel, “but I was traveling nonstop, so I did all my entertaining at the restaurant. We got talking, she invited me for a drink, and I insulted her terribly.’’

He has a mischievous smile on his face when he says this, but he isn’t joking. “We got into a big political argument. She was saying things that were pro-shah, I was anti-shah, and I ended up, in frustration, saying, ‘You Arabs!’

Apart from the fact that Iranians are not Arabs — culturally, linguistically, or genetically — many Iranians, says Seibel, “haven’t forgiven the Arabs for conquering Iran in the seventh century.’’ From her reaction, he quickly realized his offense. “Of course, it was the worst thing I could have said.

“I sent her flowers to apologize. They arrived on her birthday. We just celebrated our 20th anniversary a few days ago.’’

Bina-Seibel had reason to express sympathy for the former shah. Her family is related to the ousted royal family. Her father, an engineer and head of a construction company, was also a financial adviser to the shah’s brother. When the 1979 revolution took place, her father and his wife came to the United States (where Azita had been sent to study in Boston), expecting to return when Iran’s upheaval ended.

“He literally never unpacked his bags,’’ recalls Azita, her eyes welling with tears. “We were all studying to go back home.’’

When Seibel and his wife had their son, they wanted to expose him to his Iranian heritage. Seibel therefore focused his collecting impulses on Persian and Iranian culture — particularly on the transmission of Persian knowledge and culture to the West.

He has acquired an impressive book collection, which he rates — with more modesty than pride — as the third best of its kind in private hands. Among his treasures are a 15th-century translation of the “Metaphysics’’ by the great 11th-century philosopher and physician, Avicenna; a 19th-century cookbook with 2,000 handwritten recipes for the court of the shah; and a precious edition of a French account, by Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, of the coronation of a shah in Isfahan in the 17th century.

Hanging on the walls at home are Persian miniatures and calligraphy, Western maps of Persia, European prints of Persian subjects, and some beautiful textiles.

Seibel seems most passionate, however, about his collection of more than 2,000 photographs from 19th- and early-20th-century Iran, including the only known daguerreotype of an Iranian person.

An affair with Iran
Seibel visited Iran for the first time in 1991. “I sort of fell in love with the country,’’ he says. “Starting in about 1997, I visited with increasing frequency.’’

In 2001, he went three times — in part to buy books, but mainly to study Iranian photographs and to visit Iran’s great libraries, palaces, and museum collections.

At the time, Ars Libri was deep in negotiations with the Aga Khan Foundation in Geneva over the sale of around 27,000 books. The foundation is headed by the Aga Khan — reputedly a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as a graduate of Harvard University and a very, very rich man. The foundation wanted to set up a university in Central Asia, with campuses in each of the republics.

It needed a first-class library.

The 27,000 books Seibel was offering represented three collections. One had belonged to a German scholar of Central Asian archeology, Karl Jettmar, whose area of expertise was the cultures around the Karakorum Highway, one of the main routes of the ancient Silk Road. The second was the library of Richard Nelson Frye, this country’s greatest Iranologist and, coincidentally, the Aga Khan Professor Emeritus of Iranian Studies at Harvard. The third was the Viennese library of Karl H. Menges, a specialist in Central Asian languages, who had lived in Samarkand after World War I.

The collections were a perfect fit. Seibel could have made more money by selling them separately. But the idea of selling them as one was, to him, irresistible: Together, they amounted to a library that was unique — a superb resource.

Seibel spent more than five years cataloguing. He was used to this kind of work, hunched over tables with index cards and slowly shifting piles of books. (“You don’t do this for the money,’’ he says with a wry smile). But in this case, the task was fiendishly difficult. The books were written in 60 Central Asian languages. Many of them were obscure or on the point of extinction, thanks to the Soviet Union’s attempts to Russify its territories in Asia. It seemed like the job would never end.

In Iran, Seibel had good contacts. Azita had various relatives who held — or had held, before 1979 — high posts in Iranian cultural life. These people opened doors for him.

On his last trip to Iran in 2001, he arrived at 1:30 a.m. on Sept. 11. He got a few hours sleep and then went to meet two friends to catalog a photo collection. In the house were two large screens showing the BBC and CNN. Seibel saw what was happening — the burning buildings, the billowing smoke.

“I was convinced it was an Orson Welles ‘War of the Worlds’ kind of hoax,’’ he says. “It took me the longest time to realize it was real.’’

But one friend grasped the situation quickly. His ex-wife lived a few blocks from the World Trade Center, and he was desperately trying to get hold of her. “When he managed to raise her on her cellphone . . . he told her to get out of her apartment, not to use the subway, and to head north,’’ remembers Seibel.

“He turned to me and said, ‘It’s going to be a very different world for our children.’ ’’

In the wake of the attacks, says Seibel, there was, in Iran, “a tremendous outpouring of support for America from officials on TV. . . . Cab drivers would refuse to take your money, they’d kiss you. There was a candlelight vigil in front of the Foreign Ministry. The newspapers were full of outrage and support for the US. We went to the Caspian Sea on that Friday, and even up there people would stop you on the street and express their support.’’

It was, he says now, a “pretty astonishing time.’’

But geopolitically, the world was rushing in a new direction. Seibel quickly developed a bad feeling about the negotiations to sell the Central Asian collections. He got back to Boston on Sept. 28 and wrote to the Aga Khan Foundation.

“About six weeks later they sent me a pretty terse e-mail saying their plans had changed and they were not pursuing my libraries anymore.’’ The reason they gave — that it was unrealistic to build such a project in such an insecure environment — was frustratingly vague. But, as Seibel concedes: “Everyone knew the US would have to react somehow, and that it would impact Central Asia in a major way.’’

Hoping all was not lost, Seibel went back to Tehran in the spring of 2002 and met with the acting director of the National Library, who was very interested in the collections. But that January, President George W. Bush had described Iran as part of an “axis of evil,’’ along with Iraq and North Korea. Trade sanctions were tightened.

Seibel now had 27,000 Central Asian books on his hands, and no idea what to do with them.

At this point, Ars Libri was, says Seibel, in “a precarious situation.’’ He mentioned his predicament to one of his lawyers, who suggested he try to sell it to a US institution.

“This was, after all, precisely the geographical and political area which we knew little to nothing about,’’ says Seibel.

The lawyer’s partner was a trustee at Boston University and introduced Seibel to John Silber, the school’s former president and then its chancellor.

“It took a while to realize,’’ recalls Seibel, “but Silber was truly amazing. He immediately recognized that this was the perfect thing for BU to do, and he pushed it through completely on his own.’’

“It was the only time in my career,’’ adds Seibel, “that we sold a major project like this to a local institution.’’

Leaving home
Seibel was born in 1952 in Mulheim-Karlich, in West Germany. The school he attended in nearby Koblenz offered a great classical humanist education. But the orderly march of scholarly inculcation hit a snag when Seibel discovered that the school’s acting director was a founding member of the local branch of the neo-Nazi party. Seibel published the evidence in a leaflet he handed out to fellow students.

It was the late 1960s, and Seibel was getting increasingly involved in left-wing politics. This didn’t go down well with either his school or his conservative parents. His older brother, H. Dieter Seibel, a sociologist and pioneer in microfinance, was a professor at Princeton. He suggested Elmar “get a fresh perspective’’ and finish his schooling in the States.

So Seibel came to Princeton near the end of 1970. His brother’s position allowed him to obtain a reading card for Princeton’s Firestone Library. He remembers the experience of going there as “astonishing,’’ adding: “Those were still the days of open stacks.’’

Against his parents’ wishes, he decided to stay. He spent the summers of 1971 and 1972 living with the German émigré philosopher Paul Oppenheim, a friend of Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell, who became a mentor.

Oppenheim got Seibel excited about art (he had a first-rate collection). And through Oppenheim, he met Walter Kaufmann, a philosopher and a translator of Nietzsche. It was Kaufmann, “a fabulous bibliophile,’’ who gave Seibel an early taste of what it could mean to build a private library.

The only place that would offer Seibel a full scholarship (which he needed because his parents refused to support him here) was the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He majored in philosophy of science and Chinese. But before graduating he was offered a job in New York at the Kraus-Thomson Organization, the world’s largest antiquarian book and periodical seller.

Seibel had no experience in the trade. He was also unsure about leaving the academy. But he took the job, in part because it came with a work permit and the promise of a green card.

At Kraus, Seibel was involved in the sale of part of Herman Hesse’s estate; various libraries of Russian czars and aristocrats that had been nationalized by the Soviets; and items relating to the Spanish Republic. After three years, he left Kraus (“I couldn’t afford to live in New York’’) and, together with Shepard Ferguson, a Cambridge-based dealer in photographic prints and books, set up Ars Libri.

Back in May 1976, Ars Libri operated out of the basement of Ferguson’s house at 527 Massachusetts Ave. They decided to specialize in books on the fine arts, art and architecture, and German émigré literature. One of the more remarkable libraries he sold in those early years belonged to Max Shachtman, Leon Trotsky’s literary executor. It included 20 years of correspondence between Trotsky and Shachtman and first editions of Marx and Engels.

When they ran out of space, they moved to 711 Boylston St., across from the Boston Public Library. They got a big break when the Fogg Art Library at Harvard asked Ars Libri to look at a group of duplicates it wanted to sell. Seibel discovered they were part of a donation by Ise Gropius, widow of the architect and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius.

He purchased the library, and the resulting catalog, he says, “gave us real credibility.’’

One person who noticed was Robert Gore Rifkind, a Beverly Hills, Calif., lawyer who collected German Expressionist works of art. He asked Ars Libri to help him build “a definitive library’’ relating to German Expressionism.

As his collection grew, Rifkind collaborated with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on several important exhibitions relating to the movement. Eventually Seibel and Stephanie Barron, a curator who had become Rifkind’s wife, convinced him to give the library and print collection to LACMA.

In the meantime, Rifkind had asked Seibel to do the IRS appraisal for the donation. So for many months Seibel lived at Rifkind’s house and cataloged the library and print portfolios.

At one of the dinner parties Rifkind liked to throw, Seibel was seated next to Harold M. Williams, who was to become the CEO of the J. Paul Getty Museum — the richest museum in the world, thanks to a $4.5 billion endowment. The two hit it off, and shortly after Williams took over at the Getty, he called Seibel. “He asked me what it would take to create the finest art research library in the world.’’

That phone call would have massive consequences — for the Getty, for Seibel, and for Ars Libri.

How exactly do you create a world-class library from scratch? And how long should it take?

Seibel was systematic about it. “I created a list of scholars in the fields that the [Getty] Research Institute would collect and started to contact them.’’ Many of them — leading international experts in Italian sculpture, Dutch and Flemish art, German Renaissance art, the ancient Near East, medieval manuscripts, Spanish art, and so on — were willing to sell.

But he was not just systematic: He was also, according to Kurt Forster, the Institute’s first director, “an acrobat. It was the sheer spectrum of his interests that was so impressive: not just books, but journals, works of art, and ephemera (objects that often provide the most lasting record). He was not just interested in these things but able to scout them out.’’

By 1984, massive quantities of books, from medieval manuscripts to avant-garde modernist material, were pouring into the Getty through Ars Libri. The quality of the material was so good that the center dramatically widened the scope of its collection policy.

In the space of a decade, Seibel and the Getty had built a 600,000-volume library. According to Forster, “it became the most comprehensive library for the visual arts in the USA.’’

The worldly discover
Discoveries can come in unexpected ways. In 2001, Seibel got a call from the niece of a French Egyptologist, Alexandre Varille, who had died in a car crash exactly 50 years earlier.

“Varille’s older brother,’’ says Seibel, “was totally distraught and locked up his library and archives in a building in the family’s vineyard. The older brother developed Alzheimer’s.’’ Not knowing what to expect, his daughter opened the building in Lourmarin, France, for the first time in 50 years.

Seibel went there and immediately bought the library — “a small, but very choice collection.’’

When he came to pack the library and related archives, he was told there was more in her uncle’s room in Lyon.

“It turned out that the room in Lyon contained the entire archives of Varille’s own professor, Victor Loret, which Varille had inherited.’’

As head of the Egyptian Antiquities Service in the late 19th century, Loret had been the first systematic excavator of the Valley of the Kings.

“Here was his entire life’s work, tens of thousands of pages of excavation records, diaries, correspondence, drawings, watercolors, glass plate photographs, in addition to all of Varille’s records. . . . All of this had long been thought lost!’’

Seibel sold the larger part of the library and the archives to the University of Milan.

A new incarnation
The buying and selling of libraries, no less than the building of them, requires some consensus about the value of books. And if, as Victor Hugo wrote, “A library implies an act of faith,’’ that act of faith, for the world’s great book merchants, is turning rapidly into an improbable leap.

Over the past few years, almost every assumption behind Seibel’s chief pursuit has eroded or been questioned, so that today, Ars Libri’s focus on library-building is no longer viable. Books are still bought and sold, but in different ways. Online databases and search engines, which enable customers to find the cheapest edition of any book and ship it from anywhere in the world, have had a precipitous deflationary effect on the reference book business.

So why still do it? Certainly not for the money, Seibel says, since the cost to acquire and hold the books is high, he has a staff of four, and profit margins are rarely above 20-25 percent. “It’s a living,’’ he says. “None I would recommend if you want to become wealthy.’’

Pressure has also been applied at the other end of the business. Customers — primarily libraries — have had their limited budgets eaten up by the expensive and never-ending implementation of new technologies.

“Today,’’ says Seibel, “the majority of librarians focus on making collections or information accessible . . . . Very, very few,’’ he says, specialize in developing collections.

There’s a tension, too, between librarians and academics on the one hand and book traders on the other. Respected booksellers “used to be regarded as an equal partner,’’ says Seibel. “Now they treat you like a merchant, nothing more. Many of them are insecure because we know more about these things than they do. They hate that.’’

“Reference books used to account for 90 percent of our income,’’ says Seibel. “Now it’s not even 10 percent.’’

As a result, like many other book dealers, he and his colleagues at Ars Libri have decided to focus on rare books and manuscripts, specializing in (but not limited to) documents of 20th-century avant-garde art. Available, for instance, a copy of a rare illustrated book by Fernand Leger for $8,500. Or, if modernism is not your thing, a celebrated anthology of calligraphy styles by Jan Van Den Velde, published in 1609, for $35,000.

Seibel says he will continue to buy libraries that seem particularly special. But the reality is that reference books are a tough sell. In fact, After 10 years of trying to sell the 40,000-50,000 reference books still in Ars Libri’s possession, Seibel decided late last year to donate them, as well as a huge quantity of journals and other documents, to the Museum of Fine Arts. The gift, says Rogers, “is a major contribution to the future study center we are planning.’’

Seibel also plans, next April, to move Ars Libri out of its current showroom into a smaller space nearby on the corner of Harrison Avenue and Thayer Street.

Businesses change, and Ars Libri is well placed to thrive in its new incarnation. But it’s sad to think that the days of browsing beautifully arranged reference books at this spacious South End establishment are numbered. Going to Ars Libri until now has been like going to a favorite library, but without the drawback of institutional gatekeeping and complicated numbering systems; with the benefit, too, that you could potentially possess, not just borrow, anything that appealed to you.

Perhaps the most attractive part of going there was that you couldn’t know in advance what your eyes would fall upon, what new worlds would open up before you. That very unpredictability is a casualty in the broader shift away from open-stack libraries (and bookstores) toward digitization.

In a digitized world, as Seibel puts it, “People don’t browse. Everybody seems to look only for what they know and need. Anything that has not yet been digitized is completely forgotten.’’

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.