Henry Posner Sr. as Collector

A native of Warsaw, Poland, Mr. Posner emigrated to the United States, arriving in Boston about 1905. He worked successively as a dock worker in Boston, census taker and teacher in Baltimore and as a surveyor for the Western Maryland Railway. In 1912 he attended Carnegie Tech but left before graduation to start his own business on Spahr Street in the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh.

That business, the Alpha Claude Neon Corporation, in 1927 became the first licensee of the George A. Claude patents for the low pressure gas discharge lamp which developed into the neon sign industry. By 1932, Alpha Claude Neon had become the Pittsburgh Outdoor Advertising Company, which Mr. Posner owned and managed until his retirement in 1964.

Mr. Posner exercised the same skill, research and attention to detail in his book collecting as he did in his business. During 50 years of collecting, between 1924 and 1973, Mr. Posner maintained detailed records of his purchases, correspondence with dealers, and research notes about items he was considering for his collection. The letters illustrate Mr. Posner's characteristics as a collector: his methodology, his perseverance and patience, and his pleasure and enjoyment in his collection. They demonstrate the enthusiasm and the energy he invested in order to learn everything he could about his special interests.

Notes in many of the books indicate related titles to be acquired or reference citations to be checked. Mrs. Posner once remarked to Anne Skoog, the Carnegie Mellon Fine and Rare Book Librarian when the collection came to the library, that she enjoyed social occasions, but that her husband Henry would "just as soon spend the evening with his books." Mr. Posner knew how to buy books and how to examine the fine editions that he was purchasing; he had learned about collations, bindings, provenances, extra-illustrations, added engravings, worm-holes and other characteristics that affect the quality and rarity of books. Much of this knowledge had been obtained from book dealers. In a letter to Mr. Jacob Zeitlin, a well-known dealer in California, Mr. Posner wrote:

"As a rule, there are always exceptions, book collectors don't always know all they should about the books they are collecting. And I sometimes think librarians are so busy supervising, cataloging and studying special subjects, that they are not as knowledgeable as one would expect them to be. The rare book dealers - that's a different story. They know."
March 11, 1971

Despite his reservations about librarians, Mr. Posner wrote boldly to major libraries for assistance in verification and collation and he received lengthy and helpful replies from many.

Mr. Posner was consistent in acquiring books that were flawless, or close to it, for his collection. He demanded perfection from his dealers in any items they quoted to him. In a letter to Lawrence Gomme, he wrote:

"I generally know what I am after and will not buy anything except what I want, and in first class condition at that."
April 17, 1951

He respected his book dealers but he demanded much from them in service, attention to detail and expertise. He even expected a discount. Mr. Posner arranged for a standing discount with some major dealers and is still remembered in the trade for this. According to his records, he first secured a discount in 1948 with his major purchases of Limited Editions Club titles from Maurice Inman. Mr. Posner was able to arrange a 10 percent discount with H.P. Kraus in 1955, with H. Marley of Dawson's and F. Thomas Heller. Sometimes, for a significant title, a book dealer would hold out, claiming a very small profit margin, and Mr. Posner would want the book enough to acquiesce. Jacob Zeitlin won one of these exchanges over the Ptolemy Almagest. In some letters, the reader senses the book dealer's exasperation as he tries to cope with this determined, bibliophilic businessman, who had to be kept satisfied since he regularly made significant purchases.

Mr. Posner understood that he needed patience and optimism to collect the best copies of the titles that he wanted to add to his collection. He was most proud of his copy of Ptolemy's Almagest (1538), and its illustrious provenance. In a letter to a doctor at the Mayo Clinic, he wrote:

"… For some reason, Darwin items are apparently very scare. However, in this book-collecting game one has to be very, very patient. Eventually, they all show up. It took me twenty-seven years to acquire Ptolemy's 'Almagest.'… After being in the collection of Marcus Laurinus, the Mathematical Society, The Royal Astronomical Society, and the Bibliotheca Colbertina of the famous Prime Minister to Louis XIV of France, it finally landed in the Library of the Family of Henry Posner …"
January 9, 1974

Mr. Posner's copy of the Almagest was purchased from Jacob Zeitlin of Zeitlin and Ver Brugge, in Los Angeles in January of 1972 and was the last major title purchased for his collection before his death in 1976. The book dealer sent the Ptolemy title to Mr. Posner on approval. Mr. Posner asked for a discount, but Zeitlin was able to command full price since he had a firm order for the book from the Bibliothèque Royale in Brussels. Mr. Posner replied on January 13, 1972: "However, since I want the book, I enclose my check."

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