A prized library of classical English books, including the first work printed in English and original quartos and folios of William Shakespeare, has been acquired by the University of Texas in what is being called the most expensive purchase of a rare-book collection.
The transfer of the coveted Carl H. Pforzheimer Library of English literature from private hands in New York to the university here was made possible by H. Ross Perot, a Dallas billionaire whose mission has become to use his wealth and influence to lift his beloved Texas, not long removed from the rugged frontier, to the upper echelons of western culture.
"This is one more step toward building the finest university in the world," said Perot, who bought the collection for $15 million.
"We'll take 'em any way we can get 'em," Texas Gov. Mark White said.
At a lavish news conference and celebration here today, Perot officially presented the library's 1,105 books and 250 manuscripts to Texas academics and officials who, grateful and somewhat overwhelmed by the offering, promised that they would pay him back. They all laughed when asked whether Perot would repossess the library if the university, short of cash because of the bust in oil and gas prices, was unable to raise the funds.
Decherd Turner, curator of the Ransom Humanities Research Center, where the collection will be kept, was effusive in his description of the books and in his praise of Perot. He called the purchase "the major bibliographic acquisition of our time," and said Perot's ability to secure the library from the Pforzheimer family demonstrated that "Texas' reach is still supreme over all others'."
Whether Texas in fact might be overreaching is a matter of dispute among rare-book experts and curators in this country and Europe. Some librarians on the East Coast, while not commenting for the record, spoke with more than a hint of condescension about the manner in which Texas is trying to buy culture. That seems to be a minority view, however, because the university has emerged as a serious repository of historical works, including an original Gutenberg Bible, acquired in 1978 from the New York City-based Pforzheimer Foundation.
"Texas in fact has brought in a great deal of literature for a long time," said Arthur Freeman, a consultant for London-based Bernard Quaritch Ltd., one of the world's leading dealers in rare books and manuscripts. Freeman, in a telephone interview from London, said Quaritch handled the deal between Perot and the Pforzheimer family, and that the reputations of Perot and the university were highly regarded.
"They are not some kind of outlaw marauders," Freeman said. "Their collections are so serious and so important, that adding to it isn't a loss to the philistines at all. The books are going to an environment where they will be appreciated and used."
Norman Farmer, professor of Renaissance literature at Texas, was among the guests invited to the fourth floor of the Academic Center here, where 250 of the purchased works were on display. Farmer said that being able to examine original texts of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Chaucer, Bacon, Donne, Spenser and Milton will be invaluable to him and his graduate students.
When asked which of the possessions he most prized, Farmer said, "That's like saying, 'What kind of caviar do you like most?' But I must say, the Shakespeare folios -- they are priceless jewels. And the Coverdale Bible of 1535 -- incredible."
Perot seemed delighted to please the likes of Farmer and Turner. He described himself modestly as a sailor and technician whose knowledge of great books could be summed up in two words: "Not much." When he was first approached about purchasing the collection last year, Perot said, he almost dismissed the idea, but decided to call Turner.
"I said, 'How much are they worth?' and he said, 'Twenty million (dollars),' " Perot recalled. "I gulped and said, 'What do they mean?' and he said, 'Ross, I would literally crawl to New York just to see them.' That's when I realized how important they were."
The books were collected by Carl H. Pforzheimer Sr., a New York financier, since World War I. Pforzheimer died in 1957.
Before this morning's news conference, Turner took Perot on a quick tour of the display cases. They moved from the one showing the copy of the first book printed in the English language, Raoul Le Fevre's 1475 "Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye," over to the case with Shakespeare's folios and then to the one with "Comedies and Tragedies" by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher.
"Look there!" an excited Perot said to Turner. "On the title page there it says, 'Never Printed Before.' There you are! Never printed before!" Perot and Turner, benefactor and curator, looked at each other and smiled.