“Speedy and sound execution” of all orders – this is the promise that Hermann Gilhofer made to his customers in the opening advertisement for the “Gilhofer” bookshop, which opened at the corners of Bognergasse and Tuchlauben in the heart of Vienna in the summer of 1883.1 A mere year later, on October 1, 1884, Heinrich Ranschburg joined as a partner, and the company was subsequently known as “Gilhofer & Ranschburg”. It was Ranschburg who expanded the business range from the regular bookselling trade to include dealing with old and rare books, thus laying the foundation of a company that within less than a decade was to become one of the principal businesses of its kind on the continent.

When the founder Hermann Gilhofer resigned from the company in 1903, Heinrich Ranschburg had already succeeded in earning it worldwide renown – not only due to his strong-willed and at once gentlemanly leadership, but especially through the book and art auctions he held, which drew customers from all over the world to Vienna.2

By 1912, Gilhofer & Ranschburg had issued 102 stock catalogues and 99 occasional shortlists; 35 auctions had been held, among them those of the Trau, Metternich, and Schreiber collections. The next decade was to see the legendary sales of the Albertina duplicates, the Prince Dietrichstein collections, and the auctions of the majority of the books from the libraries of Tsarina Catherine II and the Tsars Nicholas I and Alexander, and finally also the complete collection of miniatures from Tsarskoye Selo.3

The company’s stock at that time comprised no less than some 300,000 books, 100,000 engravings and lithographs, and 25,000 autographs. To maintain this standard, Ranschburg personally attended all important auctions in London, Paris, Leipzig, and Munich.4 After his death in 1914 and the resignation of Dr Ignaz Schwarz, who had been acting manager since 1902, Dr Ernst Philipp Goldschmidt and Wilhelm H. Schab took over the reins.

Since 1926, Gilhofer & Ranschburg had been sole agent for the sale of the Gutenberg Bible owned by the Benedictine monastery of St Paul in the Carinthian Lavant Valley.5 After a consortium of investors had been formed, the Bible was sold – through the intermediation of the industrialist and collector Otto H. F. Vollbehr – to the Library of Congress in 1930. This finest of the 48 known copies of the probably most-sought book in the world is on permanent display in the Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Building.6

The disastrous events of the year 1938 cut short the company’s previous success story. Under the new legislation imposed by the National Socialist rulers, Wilhelm Schab and Otto Ranschburg (Heinrich’s son, who had taken Goldschmidt’s place) were forced to abandon their business. Schab entered negotiations with his Munich colleague Hans W. Taueber. After the sale was completed, Schab emigrated to New York, where he founded a bookshop under his own name, later to be headed by his son. Otto Ranschburg also escaped to New York, where he was to take over the well-known business Lathrop C. Harper in 1951.

After the War, the previous owners filed restitution claims, and the business was placed under public administration in 1947, with Friedrich Hoffmann acting as temporary manager. On April 8, 1949, the restitution commission ruled that the business, now registered as the limited partnership “Gilhofer KG”, was to be restituted to its original and rightful owners, William H. Schab and the heirs of Heinrich Ranschburg.7

Subsequently, a final agreement was reached between Taeuber, Schab, and Ranschburg’s heirs, in the course of which the distribution of ownership of Gilhofer KG was rearranged. In 1952, catalogue no. 292 (“Zoology and Botany”) ended the first series of catalogues, which had been consecutively numbered since the company’s foundation nearly seventy years earlier. The new series, which was begun in the same year, has meanwhile reached no. 166 (“New Acquisitions, Summer 2007”).

It was with Rudolf Hoffmann’s entrance to Gilhofer in 1958 (he became sole proprietor in 1988) that the company managed to link up with its reputation of old. Due to his tireless travels and his exploration of new buying opportunities, “Gilhofer” once more became a recognized name in the international market, and the company’s position as the trade’s principal concern in Vienna was firmly established.8

Gilhofer celebrated its centenary in 1983, and at least in Vienna the company was once more synonymous with the rare book trade in general: the name was a household word requiring no further explanation.9 The correspondence concerning this anniversary alone takes up three archive folders. Among the congratulators were the international trade’s foremost antiquarians and the heads of the great libraries, as well as numerous private collectors and longtime friends of the business. One of the latter was the 83-year-old Otto Ranschburg, the “highly esteemed senior of the company”10 , who on September 20, 1983, sent his “dear friends” in Vienna his “very best wishes and congratulations”.

  1. The concern was registered on Sept. 25, 1883. Cf. „Gilhofer und Ranschburg“, in: Hupfer, Georg, Zur Geschichte des antiquarischen Buchhandels in Wien. M.A. thesis, Univ. Vienna, 2003, p. 149–153. 
  2. Cf. Eisenstein, Jacques, „Der Antiquariatsbuchhandel in Österreich und Ungarn“, in: Oesterreichisch-ungarische Buchhändler Correspondenz. Festnummer anläßlich des 50jährigen Bestehens. Vol I. Vienna, 1910, p. 62–69 (67). 
  3. Cf. Taeuber, Werner, „Hundert Jahre Gilhofer Wien“, in: Gilhofer Buch- und Kunstantiquariat Wien. Catalogue 132 (1983), p. 4–10. 
  4. Cf. Wiener Kommunal-Kalender und städtisches Jahrbuch. Vienna, 1912, p. 39. 
  5. Raschl, Thiemo. Zum Verkaufe der St. Pauler Gutenberg-Bibel. In: Gutenberg-Jahrbuch 6. Mainz: Verlag der Gutenberg-Gesellschaft 1931, S. 341–343. Cf. also Secher, Herbert Pierre, “Emil Secher and the Rare Book Trade”, in: Rare Books: Who Wants Them, Who Needs Them? University of Memphis, 1997. 
  6. “Perfect copy on vellum […] The finest copy in existence, according to the International Typographical Union” (Gutenberg Bible Census, online resource). 
  7. Cf. Schildorfer, A. and U. Simonlehner, “Arisierungen” im Falle der Buch- und Kunstantiquariate “Gilhofer und Ranschburg” und “Dr. Ignaz Schwarz”, p. 16 (www.murrayhall.com, term papers WS 2001/2002). 
  8. Cf. Endler, Franz, “Ein erstes Haus am Platz. Das Wiener Buch- und Kunstantiquariat Gilhofer feiert sein 100jähriges Bestehen”, in: Die Presse, 1/2 October 1983, Kunstszene VII. 
  9. Ibid. 
  10. Address of the reply letter by Hans Werner Taeuber and Rudolf Hoffmann, dated October 7, 1983. The correspondence also documents Otto Ranschburg’s participation in the preparation of the company history composed by Taeuber on the occasion of the centenary (letter dated April 13, 1983).