French Armorial Book Bindings

Alex Cooper Auctioneers will sell books and historical documents in the Discovery Sale which closes on May 29. Beginning with Lot 6800, there follow over 100 lots on a very broad range of topics. The sale is now open for personal examination during posted hours, and online for viewing and bidding until the sale closes on the evening of May 29.

Among so many interesting books, there are two 17th-century French books with original armorial bindings. These were books owned by high officials in the court of Louis XIV, men of immense wealth and power, who had their books specially crafted to reflect their status. In those times, books were frequently sold in simple bindings (“in boards”) and their new owners would then commission more substantial covers to suit their purses and tastes. Lot 6822, Rousseau’s Dictionnaire de Musique, is a nice example of a bookseller’s economy binding, with marbled boards and untrimmed pages. Noblemen would frequently commission full leather bindings, the covers completely covered with leather, and then stamped with their coat of arms, thus the term “armorial bindings.” Craftsmen would further enrich the leather with tooling in gold or blind (the simple tool impression). The materials were simple and durable, so long as they stay dry, and we can still handle books like these that were printed some 350 years ago.


Lot 6822, J.J. Rousseau, Dictionnaire de Musique, 4to., 1768

The first of these armorial bindings is Lot 6806. This book belonged to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, 1619-’83, who was for many years chief minister to Louis XIV. Colbert was a great bibliophile, with a library of over 20,000 books. Many of them were bound like this, in polished red goatskin imported from North Africa. The coat of arms is distinctive, incorporating a snake in a play on a Latin word for a grass snake, “colubert.” The book it protects is a French edition of Thomas Herbert’s account of his travels in Persia and the East Indies, published in Paris in 1663. When Colbert died, his library was dispersed. Today, only a few precious volumes like this are available on the market.

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Lot 6806, Herbert's Voyage, 1663: Colbert Library Binding

The second binding is offered as Lot 6807. This handsome volume was the property of Francois-Michel le Tellier, Marquis de Louvois, 1639-’91, Secretary of War and Superintendent of the King’s Buildings under Louis XIV. He succeeded Colbert as the King’s chief minister in 1683. This volume reflects a more grandiose taste, with boldly grained African goatskin cover, with deeply embedded gilt arms on each board, more gold tooling, and bold marbled endpapers. The edges of the pages are also gilt. The binding covers the commentary of Abraham de la Houssaye on the Roman historian, Tacitus, published in Paris in 1684. The book included a veiled critique of unchecked royal power, which is interesting in this context. Like Colbert’s, the library was dispersed, and now very few examples documenting its glory have survived.

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Lot 6807, De La Houssaye on Tacitus, 1684, Armorial Binding

Alex Cooper is always interested in selling fine and rare books, such as those previously mentioned. Please feel free to reach out to Richard Hall or other members of our professional staff for a consultation.


Richard Hall
Specialist of Rare Books & Ephemera