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  • Cultural Record Keepers:Simeon J. Bolan, Dealer in Russian Books
  • Irina Tarsis

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Figure 1.

Image used by permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University (*RC9.M2893.905s).

Rarely viewed as contributors to our cultural heritage, book dealers commonly are overlooked in the study of collection building. Book dealer Simeon J. Bolan deserves better. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917 hundreds of thousands of books were sold by the Soviet government to foreign agents. Beginning in the late 1920s and continuing throughout the 1930s Bolan was instrumental in the creation of Slavic collections at several major American research institutions. [End Page 192]

Simeon Joachimovich Bolan (1896–1972) was a New York City–based book dealer who specialized in Russian art, history, law, and literature and other Russia-related materials. He immigrated to the United States from Russia in the mid-1910s, and, following brief service in the U.S. army between 1917 and 1919, began selling Russian books in 1926.1 Most of his stock came through mail orders from Russian agencies, such as Mezhdunarodnaia Kniga (International Book) and Amtorg, as well as private collections or other book dealers in New York. Bolan's inventory contained materials of high quality and rarity often due to their impressive provenance, including that of imperial libraries. Bolan's main clients were major institutional libraries such as the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, and university libraries at Columbia, Harvard, and Yale, which were able to absorb a flood of books coming from the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and widespread nationalization of private library collections.2 Between 1928 and 1938 Bolan sold more than eight thousand books to Harvard University libraries alone.3

Among the private collectors who bought materials from Bolan was Harvard University graduate Bayard L. Kilgour, Jr., whose interest in Russia began while an undergraduate. For decades he relied on Simeon Bolan for new materials, cataloging, and general consultation. In fact, according to the surviving correspondence, his collection of first edition belles-lettres, which forms the largest portion of the current Russian holdings at the Houghton Library, was started by Bolan.4 Among the books that Kilgour donated to the Houghton Library at Harvard was the 1905 imprint of S. K. Makovskii's poems containing Bolan's bookplate, designed by Sergei Vasilevich Chekhonin (1878–1936).

Bolan commissioned Chekhonin, one of the leading graphic artists of the early twentieth century, to design a bookplate that Bolan primarily used as a logo on business letters.5 Curiously, Bolan's bookplate is pasted at the bottom of the inside back cover instead of the inside front cover, as is traditional. The 4.6 by 3.8 cm bookplate depicts a knight in an engraved helmet, akin to those worn by noble Russian warriors in the Middle Ages, clutching a sword and guarding an armful of books and manuscripts with his right hand. His left hand props up a shield that in decorative Russian reveals the name of the book owner—S. J. Bolan. Spires of churches, towers, and palaces, most likely referencing the Moscow Kremlin or Pushkin's enchanted palace of Knight Prince Guidon, form an attractive and inherently Slavic backdrop. At the bottom of the oval-shaped vignette, which is laden with Russian folkloric imagery, is a band with the Latin phrase "Ex libris" and the artist's signature in French—Serge [End Page 193] Tchekhonine. Other visual elements of Bolan's ex libris—flowers, flags, insects, dots, and cross-hatches—complete this markedly Chekhonian composition. Like other drawings executed by him, the bookplate was reproduced using a photochemical process called zincography.

Best known for his award-winning book illustrations and modernist porcelain designs, Chekhonin also produced paintings, theatrical and "official" designs (stage curtains, money, stamps, and posters), and jewelry decoration. Chekhonin's works were exhibited and commended at numerous domestic and international shows. In 1912 he was honored for designing a new typeface for I. Leman Publishing. In 1922 he won first prize for graphic arts at the first exposition of Russian arts in Berlin. His oil paintings were included in a 1924 large survey exhibit...


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