Fekete is a bibliophile and collector at a scale resembling that of the fictional character Kaspar Utz. But unlike the main character in Bruce Chatwin's novel Utz, who is so attached to his porcelain collection that he never leaves his native Prague, Fekete travels constantly in pursuit of the latest addition to his library. And when the thrill of hunting for books on a particular subject disappears, Fekete simply sells that collection.
Born in London in 1954 to a Hungarian family, he worked for the American Citibank in Eastern Europe in the mid-1980s, and developed an affinity for the region. That was when his love of book collecting was born. Today, nearly 35 years later, Fekete's Instagram and Facebook feeds look like a mood board for a Wes Anderson movie. The photographs show his interest in nostalgic journeys on old-fashioned trains, forgotten towns in Eastern Europe with majestic pre-war architecture, good bars and restaurants and, of course, rare books. Fekete is currently working on a reality show in which he will be the bibliophile version of Anthony Bourdain and reveal the secrets of the different places he visits. Vij! spoke to him on the phone while he was sitting comfortably among his rare books at his home in Göttingen.
Mr. Fekete, when did you start collecting books?
As a child, at the age of nine. Then it became a passion in 1985-1986, when I moved to Budapest, because there were a lot of antiquarian bookstores. I have always been a collector, but not in an organized way. I started with the legendary Baedeker travel guides, but in 2001 I sold my collection for the same reason I sold my erotica collection. In 1988, I went to live in Paris and broadened my horizons as a collector with some French books with amazing bindings, but to be honest, I wasn't very smart about my purchases at the time. A few years later, I got into erotica and, as they say, the rest is history.
Why did you decide to sell your erotica collection?
I made this decision in 2012 for two reasons. First, my collection was enormous. Second, there was nothing else I really wanted to own. I often say that when you're collecting, you should be "hungry" and excited. But many collectors get to the point where they have everything. Then you wonder: "If I buy this book for three thousand euros, will it add something to my collection or not?" The excitement just disappears. And when you find out that there are many other books that you could buy for three thousand euros, then it's time to stop collecting or sell your collection. A book collection should be alive. When it stops growing or changing, it dies and becomes dead capital. This is the second reason why I sold my collection. I had poor liquidity and a lot of assets. Their value would eventually increase, but they did not bring me any income. That is, I looked at things from an investment point of view. My erotica collection was one of the best in the world, but I had lost my passion for the hunt. Today I still own part of it and I have not given it up, but I no longer collect as actively.
Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, original revised edition, published in London around 1780.
What attracted you to collecting erotica in the first place?
In 1990, I lived in Frankfurt and I met the famous collector Hans Jürgen Döpp in an antiquarian bookstore. He invited me to his house and said that he would be happy to show me his collection of erotica. When I saw it, I was amazed. I immediately liked the idea of collecting erotica, because most of the items are quite rare, they were banned, published in small editions and were created by free-thinking people who were against the state or the church. In the 18th and 19th centuries, erotica was often a form of satire depicting the hypocrisy of the church and the aristocracy. On top of that, most of these books were printed with great care, on expensive paper, and had beautiful bindings because they were meant for wealthy customers.
The catalog with highlights from the erotica library of Tony Fekete, published by Christie's
Among bibliophiles, the Christie’s auction that sold books from your erotica collection has legendary status. How did it happen?
That was my idea. I have a friend named Sven Becker who heads Christie’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Department. I have known him since he worked at the London antiquarian bookstore Simon Finch, where I used to buy a lot of books. I told Sven that I had decided to sell my erotica collection and he came to Germany.
He looked at my collection and was very impressed with it. Over the next two months, I sat down with a student for a couple of hours each day, and we prepared a complete catalog of my collection. I sent it to Sven and together we selected some books, which my friend then drove to London in a bus. There will be another Christie’s auction this month, which will sell another 200 books from my erotica collection, and tomorrow I will travel to Paris to hand-deliver some of the things I want to sell.
An album with erotic prints from 18th century England, prepared by the famous bookbinder Christian Samuel Kalthoeber. Part of the Christie's catalog of Tony Fekete's erotic collection
You mentioned that collecting is also a financial endeavor for you. What do you invest your money in these days?
I invest in a completely different passion, which first started about six years ago – books related to the languages and cultures of Eastern Europe. I am interested in the movement of ideas between countries in this part of the world. For example, I would be less interested in a German edition of Immanuel Kant than in a Romanian, Hungarian or Bulgarian translation of the same work. I also have a lot of bibles, which are often the first books published in most languages. I have a copy of the so-called Ostrog Bible, which is the first Bible printed in Cyrillic, published in 1580 in Ostrog, Ukraine. I also have the so-called Bucharest Bible – the first bible in Romanian, printed in 1688. I have books in Russian and Serbian, as well as several in Bulgarian. I often travel to Moldova, where I also buy a lot of books. Another things I am collecting at the moment is Shakespeare editions in various rare languages such as Armenian and Western Frisian.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for a collector?
Knowing what to buy. Or rather knowing what not to buy. But my criteria are quite strict, because I only want interesting books in my library. In addition to being coherent, my collection has a message and reflects my character.
What makes a collection remarkable?
That is a very good question. First of all, its completeness. For example, what makes my collection of erotica remarkable? As a friend once exclaimed: "You have everything!" And it's true – I had every significant thing ever published on the subject. It's different with my other linguistic collection, because there are no established criteria for what is good and what is not, and I figure it out on the go. One of my guiding principles is that every book I buy should have a story because the field is too broad. In most cases, there are quite comprehensive bibliographies, but sometimes I find things that are not included in them and that is my contribution. So there is a certain amount of creativity in my collecting. As far as I know, there are currently no other people who collect books on the way culture travels between the borders of different countries.
What advice would you give to a novice book collector?
Don't buy too many things. Like a friend of mine from Christie's said about my collection, "I've never seen a library with so few inessential books." In other words, most books in a collection must be relevant to its subject.
You live in Göttingen. Is this a good city for bibliophiles?
No. There are very few books here that are worth buying. I have a friend who runs an antiquarian bookstore in town and I buy things from him that aren't very expensive.
What was your last remarkable find?
Let me think… I bought two really outstanding books in the last year. One is a dictionary of the Turkish language called Grammaire Turque and published in Constantinople in 1732 by Ibrahim Muteferika. The book was sponsored by the French Embassy in Turkey. Muteferika is an extremely interesting person who published the first printed books in Arabic in the Middle East. What is even more interesting is that he was actually a Hungarian from the town of Koloszvar, today's Cluj-Napoca, Romania. I bought this book at an auction in Hungary. It wasn't cheap, but it was worth it.
I am currently standing in front of a display case where I keep some of the more interesting books in my collection. Like a manuscript from 1709 – a German translation of De secretis mulierum by Albertus Magnus, also known as St. Albert the Great. This book, whose Latin title translates to "the secrets of women," was especially popular in the Middle Ages, it explains human reproduction to celibate monks who were known for their sexual abstinence. Another very valuable book I bought last year is the first Croatian dictionary, titled Dictionarium quinque nobilissimarum Europae linguarum. It is a dictionary of the "five noblest languages" in Europe – Latin, Italian, German, Dalmatian and Hungarian, published by Faust Vrančić in Venice in 1595. Vrančić is also known as the inventor of the parachute, and two years after the publication of this book, he successfully jumped from an 87-meter bell tower on the market square in Bratislava.
Your Instagram account is remarkable and takes the viewer back to the time of nostalgic journeys by train and sophisticated continental hotels and restaurants. You recently announced that you are working on a new reality show inspired by it.
This is a very interesting project that I am working on with a Romanian documentary team. It will be a documentary series that combines my interest in books with my travels. We will try to rediscover some parts of Eastern Europe by train and tell stories about the people I have met there. The approximate route will be Germany - Austria - Hungary - Romania - Moldova. We want to go to Ukraine as well, but that depends on the situation. I would like to visit an area in southern Ukraine called Chernihiv, which is of great cultural importance. The theme of the series will be the forgotten Eastern Europe and the different cultures in the region. As a Bulgarian, for example, you know how scattered Bulgarians are around the world. Few people know that the so-called Banat Bulgarians live in Western Romania. So this is the goal of the documentary series we are working on right now – to show the cultural currents that have been running or are still running between the different countries of Eastern Europe.
Tony Fekete is on Instagram as @feketetony