Frequently Asked Questions  home


Note: The opinions expressed in the FAQ section, as in other parts of this web site, are those of Benoît Junod and do not reflect those of FISAE


Are a bookplate and an ex-libris the same thing?

Does one write it ex libris, ex-libris, or exlibris?

Are ex-libris expensive?

Are they difficult to find?

Are there many books about ex-libris?

What should I collect?

What are pseudo-exlibris and  homage plates?

How should I store my ex-libris collection?

Can I join any society, or only the one in my country?

Why should I join one society, or several?

Should I commission an ex-libris?

Which artist should I choose? How expensive will it be?

How are society congresses different from FISAE ones?

When can I register for the next congress?




Are a bookplate and an ex-libris the same thing?

The two words are used interchangeably. ‘Ex-libris' comes from the Latin “ex libris” which mean ‘from amongst the books of', and is usually followed by the name of a person or institution. Purists might argue that ‘bookplates' does not cover the field of ‘booklabels' which are typographical ex-libris with sometimes a line or flowered border, but the argument is weak. Others say that stamped and manuscript ex-libris are not bookplates, and this is true – strictly speaking – but usage today tends to be so loose that such distinctions are artificial.

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Does one write it ex libris, ex-libris, or exlibris?

As said above, the inscription often found on a bookplate is “ex libris” – two Latin words meaning ‘from the books of'. If referring to a bookplate as an object, it should be written “ex-libris”, as it is a composite of two non-English words. The same is true of terms such as “savoir-faire”, etc. However, an increasing number of people use “exlibris”, influenced by German (in which this is correct, but takes a capital E!) but not by French where it is ‘ex-libris' as in English…

Today, one often sees  collectors or researchers referred to as “exlibrists” or “ex-librists”… The word does not appear in most dictionaries, but as the English language does not have a regulatory authority like the Académie Française, we can all happily get away with it!

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Are ex-libris expensive?

Collectors always tell beginners that prices used to be reasonable – but today have become outlandish! This is nonsense. Good, sought-after bookplates have never been cheap and are not  today. Minor, artistically uninteresting bookplates have never been expensive, and probably never will be. Ther has been a slow, progressive increase in the price of bookplates, but they are still a form of collection which does not require important financial means.

What are the factors affecting the price of an ex-libris? They are, in fact, general factors affecting the value of artworks in general, and prints in particular. They include rarity, state of conservation, technical quality, historical interest (of the owner and of the artist), aesthetic and artistic interest, importance within the artist's creative opus, etc. Fashion also plays a role. It is no use dreaming that a bookplate one owns has a gigantic value if no one is ready to pay for it. So a bookplate, like any other object, has a market value – but there is no ‘catalogue value' as is the case for postage stamps, coins and many other collectibles. Often, collectors of ephemera will pay more for ex-libris than ex-libris collectors, because the scope of their interest is wider and the finances involved more substantial.

Obviously, the price for a bookplate within a collection or individually can vary enormously. In general, one can say that pictorial Art Nouveau bookplates (roughly 1890-1930) are more highly considered than the earlier armorials, except the earliest and those by major artists. Within the modern period, bookplates made by top printmakers were often done in limited editions and signed; proofs and rarities are sought after and can fetch prices up to 200 EUR or even 300 EUR (for example for a Max Klinger), whereas more normal prints, unsigned and unnumbered, by less important artists might fetch 5 EUR to 10 EUR. Collections are usually a better buy than individual plates, and are a quicker way to build up a collection – but they nearly always contain a load of uninteresting material which afterwards has to be gotten rid of by sale or exchange.

But that's all theory. Let's look at reality. In Spring 2005, two auction houses which are not at all specialised in bookplates sold interesting collections. One was the John Simpson collection of British bookplates which sold at Bonhams in London , and the other was a series of about 200 lots of ex-libris – mostly German from the 1900-1930 period - at the Schneider-Henn auction house in Munich .

The highest price fetched by an individual ex-libris at Bonham's was £660 for the small portrait plate used by the celebrated Samuel Pepys. Some very rare early armorial plates at best fetched a third of this amount. A lot of 170 pictorial plates, estimated at £200-£400, which contained a very rare ex-libris made by William Blake fetched the huge sum of £8,640 – but was certainly bought by a Blake collector rather than a bookplate enthusiast. The price of £1,569 paid for 22 Art Nouveau plates (estimate £400-£600) shows that artistic early 20th Century plates are avidly sought after, by ephemera collectors as well as bookplate collectors. At the Schneider-Henn auction, there was a confirmation of ‘sure values'. Plates by highly esteemed artists nearly always reached the estimate, with 240 EUR for the rare ex-libris by Diego Rivera (estimate 100 EUR) and a fabulous collection of 227 bookplates by Emil Orlik, including rare proofs and mostly signed, estimated at 2,500 EUR fetched 4,000 EUR. However, three large lots of 1920s plates (1,700, 1,050 and 2,600 items), mostly original graphics and many signed, fetched an average price of 2.95 EUR, 3.6 EUR and 1 EUR per piece – which goes to prove that it is essential to visit the sale room and check the contents of lots very carefully.

However, if you happen to enter a bookshop and the vendor, instead of the usual “Ex-libris? No, we haven't had any for years”, says that he has got a shoe-box of them and would you like to buy the lot, you might pay as little as one euro apiece – and discover treasures.

Turning to the most collected type of ex-libris today, contemporary plates made by artists in signed and numbered editions, the situation is not very different from what is described above. Ex-libris by good artists (if you buy one of the few ‘artist's proofs' which the creator is allowed to print and keep beyond the edition he remits to the owner) can fetch up to 20 EUR – 50 EUR. This is the reason why collectors of contemporary ex-libris tend to commission bookplates and exchange them, as an edition of 50 or 100 plates is usually less expensive than the total of the individual prints.

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Are bookplates difficult to find

Sources of ex-libris for collections are not as common as philatelist's shops or coin dealers'. However, many antiquarian bookshops in Europe have some for sale, and there are a few vendors specialised in this field (see on this site under non-Fisae members, etc. and under Links). Some collectors' societies (the Swiss Ex-libris Club, for instance) regularly buy collections and sell them to their members at very attractive prices. Then, of course, there is the exchange channel, especially for contemporary plates. You will find that some collectors are more generous than others, but nearly every one thinks that he is giving treasures in exchange for rubbish. Some collectors will only exchange bookplates by one artist for plates by the same person, or one technique for the same technique. Such attitudes are not conducive to good relations between collectors – and as bookplate collecting, as any other hobby, must be a source of pleasure and fun, and the basis of friendships and shared experience, it is advisable not to insist on the absolute equality of exchanges. If one has a bad experience (and it happens to all collectors) – then simply, one never exchanges with that person again!

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Are there many books about ex-libris?

The bibliography on ex-libris is huge and growing every day. Every collector needs reference material on his field of collection, and therefore what is of interest to one person might not be appreciated by another.

Collectors of old bookplates (pre-1880, roughly) will find an array of reference books on the ex-libris of different countries. In some cases, they give a selection of the most beautiful and representative plates over the centuries (the way British Bookplates , by Brian North Lee, does for Great Britain) or can take the form of a register, trying to record all bookplates of that country (for example Warnaecke's Die Deutsche Bucheignerzeichen for Germany, or Agnes Wegmann's two-volume Die Schweizerische Ex-libris bis zum 1900 for Switzerland). Publications by the early ex-libris societies in the 1880-1910 period are also excellent sources of information.

For modern bookplates (as opposed to contemporary ones) there are several key works, such as the 7-volume listing of monograms of artists being published by Klaus Witte, as well as a wide range of monographs and books on important bookplate artists (both important artists who made bookplates within the corpus of their creation, and artists who made a large number of ex-libris – and sometimes nothing else). The Gutenberg museum has produced a register of modern bookplates, which is in progress and helps with the identification of artists and individual plates.

Most publications concerning contemporary ex-libris are mainly picture books, with little or no text. They are for the most part catalogues of competitions, or studies of bookplate artists within a country or region, or individual monographies. For a collector of contemporary plates, looking at as many catalogues and exhibitions is a key task, as it is the best way for him or her to acquire a sense of what is being made and refine his or her taste. Catalogues and publications are usually easily obtained through FISAE member societies, but can also sometimes be purchased through book dealers hunting through sites like Abebooks or Amazon.com.

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What should I collect?

Printed ex-libris offer one of the most incredibly wide fields of collection that one can imagine. They span five-and-a-half centuries of existence and though for the first three they were mostly armorial in theme, as books and libraries became more democratic, their motifs became universal. You have some collectors who decide to collect everything that they like, and aim at building up a panoramic collection which shows their concept of the evolution of style and taste over the centuries.

Today, one can find persons collecting either by theme (owls, birds, musical plates, erotic ex-libris, book motifs, the theme of vanity – death and the maiden -, heraldic, culinary subjects, insects, wine-subjects, chess, Don Quixote, celebrities, mountaineering plates, nudes, etc., etc., etc.), by country or by region, by period (early, modern, contemporary), by style (early armorial, Chippendale, Rococo, modernist, abstract, etc.), by artist (only specific artists), by technique (intaglio, relief or flatbed engraving).

As far as techniques are concerned, there is sometimes a silly idea that an intaglio engraving (metal engraving, in general) is more valuable than a woodcut or other relief engraving, but that these techniques are to be prized higher than silkscreen or flatbed techniques – not to talk about industrially produced plates (line block or offset, for example), which are considered dross. Each and every collector has a different value system for what he collects; the essential is to have respect and tolerance for each individual person's choices.

This freedom of choice is one of the great qualities of bookplates, although it must be said that one limitation does and must exist: what one collects must be ex-libris. Over the years there have been several societies – and many collectors - with a wider range of interests: bookplates and ephemera, bookplates and books, bookplates and small-format graphics. An ex-libris remains a small-format print made to be pasted into books and to identify their owner. Each word in this definition counts…

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What are pseudo-exlibris and what are homage plates?

For nearly a century, there has been much discussion between collectors as to the objects of their collection. Some persons are of the opinion that an ex-libris is only an ex-libris if it has been pasted into a book (and subsequently removed) or was meant to be pasted and somehow escaped. For others, it is sufficient that it was conceived as an ex-libris, even if it never came close to a book… Still others think that if a few prints of an edition of a plate have been pasted into books, this is enough to make it qualify as a bookplate. It is generally agreed that contemporary ex-libris must include the words “ex libris” (or an equivalent phrase such as “from the books of”, “from the library of”, etc.) followed by the name of a living person or an existing institution, or at least his or her initials. The owner must be able to paste it in a book (it cannot be two meters by three, nor on paper so thick that the binding would break!).

Bookplates which do not comply with these basic norms are termed ‘pseudo-exlibris' , and are frowned upon by most serious bookplate collectors. Thus ‘ex libris Lago Maggiore' is a pseudo-exlibris, as are ‘ex libris W. A. Mozart', or ‘ex libris peace'. But if a plate has a double inscription, with ‘ex libris John Smith' and ‘Lago Maggiore', then it is acceptable.

Another source of problems is what one terms ‘homage plates'. Plates which belonged to famous people are avidly collected. Although many of them are perfectly genuine and were really used by their owners (Queen Elizabeth II, Charlie Chaplin, Roger Peyrefitte, Maxim Gorki or Albert Einstein), a certain number of artists have taken the initiative of making a bookplate for someone famous without being asked to do so. Some go further, print an edition of the ex-libris and send it to the person concerned, with a letter saying that they are a present. Unfortunately, the immense majority of such plates finish in the waste-paper basket and are never pasted into books; they are at best a ‘homage' plate and like pseudo-exlibris are frowned upon by serious collectors, as they imply a commission and a relation between the artist and the ‘owner' which never existed.

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How should I store my ex-libris collection?

You have taken a major step and you have acquired some ex-libris. Congratulations! If you are married, one hopes that your spouse approves your choice of collection and will come to share your passion – otherwise you might have to do, in the future, what the celebrated British collector Crouch (whose collection is in the Society of Antiquaries in London) did in the early part of the 20th Century: When he arrived home from work, he hid any bookplates he had bought in the hedge outside his house, and only went out to retrieve them at night when Mrs Crouch was fast asleep…

Right. You take out your treasures, put them on your table, spread them out to look at them and wonder what you are going to keep them in.

Let us remember some of the basic conditions for the storage of prints, books and works on paper in general:

  • Ideally, bookplates (like all printed works on paper) should be kept in the dark and never exposed to a source of light of more than 50 Lux. This is a rather stringent norm, recommended by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) – but realistically, if you don't want your treasures to discolour and fade within a couple of years, DON'T frame them and put them on a wall where the sun shines directly. If you really can't resist the temptation of framing a few, use UV-filtering glass, make sure that a cardboard mount avoids that the glass touches the surface of the print, and choose a shaded, low-light exposure to hang them. Try and use an ‘easy-open' frame, so you can change the ex-libris from time to time: prints don't like being kept under airtight conditions too long, and if you expose a bookplate for a short period it shouldn't mind too much.
  • Airtight conditions? Avoid plastic sleeves like the plague!!! Of course, if you need to take some plates somewhere for a few days, they won't come to any harm in plastic folders, but with time, airtight conditions (and plastic in contact with paper) encourage fungus and mildew… those horrible brown and black spots which you see on old prints and are termed ‘foxing'. If for some reason you can't find an alternative to plastic sleeves, ventilate the prints regularly. You might notice that sellers of bookplates use them… Yes, but their customers are flicking through them all the time and keeping them aired (at least one hopes so!)
  • Paper above all likes reasonable temperature and humidity conditions (about 20-22 o C, and about 55% humidity), and more than anything else, STABILITY. Avoid the outside walls of your house or flat, as they are more susceptible to temperature changes and to condensation. Avoid humid basements or attics which turn into furnaces every Summer…
  • Paper does not like acidity. If you decide to keep your prints in box-files, and mount them on individual sheets of board, make sure that all materials in contact with the print are Ph neutral. Most sheets industrially made and offered by stamp dealers are Ph neutral as far as the paper is concerned, but not as far as the cellophane. Acid-paper contact will not imply visible deterioration in a period of 5 years, but damages will be clearly noticeable at the end of 30 years… think of the future! And if you decide to mount the ex-libris on the boards, make sure you use a high-quality archiving tape such as Filmoplast P-60, or Ph-neutral stamp hinges. The Filmoplast can be obtained from the following address:
  • When you choose your mounts and box-files, you will probably do well to take A4 or Legal format. Bigger is unwieldy and wasteful when you have small plates; smaller is a problem because too many are too big! You might need to have one box in which you can put larger plates. If you have the choice, take boxes which have a hole in the back. This ensures ventilation.
  • The advantage of having the plates mounted is that on the mount you can make (in pencil, preferably) all the annotations you may wish to write. Who is the owner, who is the artist, their nationalities, dates of birth and death, the size and technique of the print, when you obtained it, from which source and at what price… and any other aspect which you find necessary. Alternatively, you might wish to keep all this on a database, and just have an acquisition number on the back of the ex-libris, written in pencil. And instead of mounting the plates, the trend today is to keep them loose in a thin Ph neutral paper folder made of an A3 sheet folded in half.
  • Filing method. Most experienced collectors have all their ‘old' bookplates filed alphabetically by owner, with a cross-reference by artist. This is because in most cases before the late 19th Century, the artist who made the ex-libris is not known. The owner is usually known by the inscription, and in cases without inscription, by the coat-of-arms. For ‘modern' and ‘contemporary' plates, filing is usually done in folders by artist, with the contents filed alphabetically by owner. Subdivisions by country or by theme or style are sometimes attempted, but usually prove to be unsatisfactory. When the collection is thematic, the same ‘old-by-owner / modern-by-artist' is usually retained.
  • The condition in which one finds bookplates is variable, to say the least. However, it cannot be said, like for stamps, that pristine condition is the standard and a grubby plate is half the value. A tear, old hinges, water-stains, thin patches due to hasty dismounting are all too common. If you need to clean off old hinges or stains, unless the print is very torn and frail, you can soak it for an hour in distilled water and then dry it and press it between two sheets of blotting paper. When dry, reinforce weak parts and repair tears with archival tape. This process will take care of many imperfections – but if the damage is more serious, ask help from a specialist in paper restoration.

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Why should I join a society (or several)?

My suggestion would be that you first look carefully at what sort of interest you have in bookplates, and what you have started collecting. If you are at all interested in early and/or modern ex-libris, you will probably be keen to collect those from your country, and your first step might be to join your ‘national' society. As an American, if you like or want to collect American bookplates, join the American Society of Bookplate Collectors and Designers. If you are Dutch, join Exlibriswereld. Once you are in, you will meet members who share your interests – and maybe many who don't! The world of bookplates is very eclectic.

Most societies organise lectures, meetings and exchange events, so as a member of ‘your' society you will have a chance to meet other collectors, and probably artists as well. Some societies organise sales of bookplates, or auctions, and this will be a way to increase your collection, in parallel to your becoming more knowledgeable on the subject of your hobby.

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Can I join any society, or only the one in my country?

Well… There are no collectors' societies in many countries, and I know quite a few collectors who are not members of their national society… and some countries, like Finland , have two!

If you are a member of the Bookplate Society in London , you will meet many members who are fascinated by old British plates, but very few who are keen on contemporary Slovak plates, for example, or erotic ex-libris. If you ask around, you will quickly find out where your soul-mates are hiding. If contemporary plates have taken your fancy, Graphia will provide exciting reading… and as a member of the German, Dutch and Swiss ex-libris societies, you will meet perhaps the best collectors of contemporary plates.

If you have found this web site and are reading this text, it means that you have access to Internet – and I would suggest that you spend a few hours visiting the various societies and artists whose links are on our links page. Looking at web sites, you will quickly get a sense of which societies are likely to satisfy your interest.

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Should I commission an ex-libris?

If your interests lie exclusively in research on old ex-libris, commissioning a bookplate will not seem a priority – though having one to one's name inside the books of one's library is, of course, a great pleasure. Most people's interest in bookplates stem from an interest in books, so ordering a personal bookplate seems an obvious step.

For persons wishing to build up a collection of old bookplates, having a personal plate will not be of much use, as people will tend to give you their plate in exchange for yours. You would be wise to buy material from persons selling old bookplates, and try to buy collections. Then you can exchange your duplicates, though you will not find hordes of persons with whom to do this.

Many collectors today, even if they collect old ex-libris, also collect contemporary ones. Bookplates in the 1920s, went through a phase - especially in Germany - when they reached heights of luxury and were collected more as small prints than as ex-libris, and the same can be said of the last thirty years. Of course, important and famous artists of all times have occasionally made splendid bookplates, but today, the artistic and technical quality of an ex-libris seems to outweigh what was its earlier appeal: the interest of the owner, the story behind it, the way in which the artist personalised the plate. This is why ex-libris today are often limited edition prints, signed and numbered by the artist, and collectors tend to exchange the same type of ex-libris. This implies that if you want to constitute a collection of ‘luxury' bookplates, you will have to commission an edition of such plates to be able to exchange with persons having the same quality.

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Which artist should I choose? How expensive will it be?

The possibilities are endless! The Italian collector Gianni Mantero was reputed to have over 1,500 bookplates to his name… and certainly that there are quite a few, today, who have several hundred.

Perhaps the best course is to look at catalogues of ex-libris competitions and exhibitions and determine what you like from an artistic point of view. Many societies, and publications such as Graphia, have lists of artists with their addresses, and you can write to them, explain what you want and how many prints you would like to have, and ask for the price. Instead of writing, it can be a good idea to visit an artist, or to try and meet him at a society congress or a FISAE one. On the whole, somehow artists tend to produce better ex-libris when they have met the ‘customer' personally, and have had a chance to talk with him or her at some length as to the subject, size, edition, etc.

Usually, an edition of 50 to 100 bookplates from a fairly experienced artist can cost from 300 to 1000 EUR, depending on several factors: the technical complexity of the work (several plates, colour, etc.), whether the plate is given to the customer or retained by the artist, etc. The important thing is that you should clearly know the price from the outset, not to have any surprises. Also, you should be told by the artist how many ‘artist's proofs' he plans to print apart from the edition of your bookplate, which he can sell.

If your interest in ex-libris is less focussed on ‘luxury' bookplates and you want an ordinary edition for pasting into books and for exchange, choose an artist who uses relief or planographic techniques rather than metal engraving or other intaglio techniques. It is difficult to print large numbers from metal plates, whereas a good wood engraving can yield easily 500'000 prints before any wear can be seen! If you have a weak spot for metal engraving, however, one solution is to get a small edition of handmade prints, and then a longer edition made industrially, for example by offset lithography. In many cases, a wood engraver will charge you for his design and for the block, and you will then have to have an edition done by a printer.

Despite the cost involved, collecting bookplates remains relatively inexpensive, when compared to other collections such as stamps or coins…

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How are society congresses different from FISAE ones?

Society congresses are usually shorter than FISAE ones and do not last more than two days. Apart from the German and maybe the Czech congresses, which are sizable, they are much smaller and more family-type events, ideal for asking questions to more experienced collectors, for getting used to exchange procedures, and there are few language problems! FISAE congresses are fewer (every two years) and in view of their geographic location, which changes each time and goes around the globe, it is difficult to attend all without a break. But they offer a much wider possibility of contacts, a range of interesting exhibitions, and an interesting time for all.

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When can I register for the next Congress?

The next Congress will be in Nyon, Switzerland , from 23rd to 27th August 2006 . Everyone is welcome to register for the congress and the optional excursions as from now, until June 1st 2006. If payments of registration fees and excursions have not been received by then, the registration is cancelled. Persons registering after this date may do so as long as the quota of participants corresponding to the facilities has not been reached. Perhaps not all the programme elements (publications, common transport, closing dinner, etc.) will be available to them.



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