Patricia Pistner – Collectors’ Island

February 3, 2021 2:34 pm

Text by Annalisa Merelli

There is, once Patricia Pistner has her mind set on something, no stopping her. In 1990, she started working on a doll house: she dreamed up an impossibly detailed miniature mansion with replicas of antique furniture and carpets, a masterpiece of historical research and craft so accurate the Naples Art Museum eventually dedicated an exhibition to it. 

In the ten years of devotion it took her to complete the dollhouse, Pistner accepted no compromises. She began attending dollhouse festivals, where she met and hired some of the world’s best miniaturists, and managed to get the world’s most prestigious museums, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the Louvre in Paris, to let them copy some of their precious furniture pieces. Some of the miniatures were so complex to recreate that it took the artisans many months of work, and no small amounts of cajoling, to complete them.

Each year the Genevan watchmaker Vacheron Constantin releases an art book titled Collectors’ Island, this year I photographed the entire book and this is one of nine stories included.

Many thanks to Creative Director Bradley Seymour, and to Editorial Manager Lara Lo Calzo. Captions and interview by Virginie Bertrand.

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The dollhouse had a library on its top floor, and Pistner set out to acquire volumes to fill it. At dollhouse festivals she had come across the work of Barbara Raheb, the most prolific 20th century American miniature book publisher. She started acquiring her volumes, as well as volumes from a few other miniature, dollhouse-size book makers and collectors. 

“I could have just as easily made a fake sets of books, just taking a piece of leather and do beautiful little spines, and do my whole library like that,” Pistner says, “it would've been a lot easier.” But she isn’t one to go for easy—she goes for perfect. 

After all, even her first dollhouse, had real books. She made them. “I thought my house should have books in it,” she remembers, “it’s important for a house to have books.” So she started cutting little books—actual miniature ones, one by one inches in size—to fit into her tiny house. “I would write and draw in them,” she says, “and I would cut out pictures from magazines when they were small enough to fit them.”

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In 1996, Pistner attended the Miniature Book Society’s annual meeting, looking for dollhouse-sized books. “The sales stopped at four,” she remembers. “At three o’clock I was hooked. I swept around that room and brought home a suitcase full of miniature books.”

That’s when she crossed the line, as she likes to say, going from someone who bought tiny books to fill her dollhouse’s library to a collector of miniature books.

There are, Pistner says, three types of collectors. Gatherers, who get as much of one type of object as they can; completionists, who pick a narrow subset (for instance, every miniature book by a specific author) and work to exhaust it; and integrators, who evaluate each new piece individually, looking at how it fits in their collection, whether it adds to it, makes it better, helps tell a bigger story.

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Pistner is an integrator. Early on in her collection, she asked renowned dealer Anne Bromer how many books she needed to have an important miniature book collection. The answer stayed with her: “she said, it's not the quantity—it's the quality.” 

Her collection—over 4000 miniature books, from thousands of years old tablets to contemporary works of art—isn’t the largest, or the most valuable. But it comprises books in excellent condition, and is built to tell a story—a story of binding through time, place, and subject. “Once I was aware of the various binding styles, I wanted the finest examples I could acquire,” she says. 

Amongst them are a German almanac from 1450 with astrological diagrams; an octagonal Turkish Qur’an manuscript from the late 1800s with a gold-painted leather cover; an Italian volume of psalms from the late 1500s with a silver and crystal covers with two reverse-painted religious episodes; a miniature copy of the Proclamation of Emancipation from 1862; a 1823 French novelty sewing kit including a small volume, all contained inside a walnut’s shell. There are contemporary volumes made by artists, and a forbidden war diary hidden inside a pipe’s joint. 

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Alongside antique volumes worth many thousands of dollars, a handmade miniature book proudly stands, too—one of her favorites. Gifted to her by then nine-year-old Joseph Gama, whom she had met at an annual Miniature Book Society’s gathering, it’s a hand decorated volume perfectly encapsulated by its title: Things I Like.    

Pistner is not an antiquarian by training, or a librarian, although she nearly became one: one of the two options she came down to when she went to college was to study as a librarian. She took the other, getting a degree in mathematics and business instead, eventually working as a systems analyst and designer first, then a programmer. Pistner wrote up code for the mail order company she worked for—one of many American women who in the 1980s, were building up the practical foundations of computer science. 

That analytic approach is easy to see in the way she talks about her collection. She knows by heart the sizes of her volumes, which go as small as an impossible 0.75 mm, their age and origin. She handles them with the confidence and care of a jeweler, and is quick to point out what makes each piece special—the shape, the story, the materials of its binding. 

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But as much as there is a thread of logic running through her collection, there is one of passion, too. Pistner does have a map, but her journey allows for detours. She is sometimes impulsive in her purchases, acquiring pieces that may not be a must to her collection, but move her. “I love my books, I love searching for my books,” she says, “these are my friends.” 

Many of her volumes are displayed in vitrines, on the second floor of her elegant, art-filled home in Naples, Florida, propped onto tiny stands she built herself and organized neatly but not predictably, in a way that delivers never ending book-shaped, gasp-worthy surprises. “I try to make your eye dance across the shelves,” she says, “it’s visual candy.”

In March 2019, Pitsner’s collection became an exhibition at the prestigious Grolier Club in New York, where she displayed about a thousand of her volumes. She curated the catalogue, too, together with Rare Books school professor Jan Storm van Leeuwen—a gargantuan feat that required the work of  25 scholars. “That catalogue is my legacy, it was a labor of love,” she says, “and hundreds of years from now people will use it as a reference.”

But although a highlight, the exhibit was in no way the destination of her collection. “I think of myself as a steward,” she says, “I am here to steward these precious things for the next generation.” As it grows, her collection becomes more challenging: It’s harder to find the unique addition that will take it forward. But in that very difficulty lies the pleasure, and in her determined quest for the next piece is all the optimism and excitement of any good collector. “I have a purpose that goes on and on,” she says. 

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