Neil Harris and Teri Edelstein plan to share their passion for rare illustrated books with future generations.
Neil Harris retrieves a children’s book from a shelf in the art deco apartment he shares with his wife, Teri Edelstein. The thrill of the hunt, and the resulting joy that comes from owning a rare, beautiful thing, are evident as he turns the pages of André Hellé’s Grosses Bêtes et Petites Bêtes, revealing its simple, blocky illustrations and stylized lettering.
In pristine condition, the 1911 book clearly has never been owned by an actual child. “Children’s books have a very short life because they’re often used up by the children,” says Harris. “They aren’t taken care of.”
The book represents the combined passion and expertise of Harris, the Preston and Sterling Morton Professor Emeritus of US and Art History, and Edelstein, a former director of the Smart Museum of Art. After meeting in 1989 and marrying in 1997, Edelstein was a quick study of Harris’s collection.
Harris, who collected marbles as a child, began acquiring rare books thanks in part to his friend Robert Rosenthal, AM’55, former curator of Special Collections. “He was a very stimulating and enlivening presence who got a lot of faculty interested in collecting,” Harris says of Rosenthal, who died in 1989.
Harris credits Edelstein for shaping the collection. “I had a tendency to buy the same book more than once. Teri is able to say, ‘You know, we already have that.’” Their library of rare treasured books includes volumes showcasing Japanese woodblock prints and French modernist art like Grosses Bêtes.
They picked up that particular book while traveling in Paris. Walking by a shop they’d visited numerous times before, Edelstein recalls, “I looked in the window, and there was a little corner peeking out from behind the other books.” She recognized the hiding book as an André Hellé. Harris further recognized it as the rare Grosses Bêtes.
The shop owner, who usually ignored his customers in favor of playing checkers with friends, was transformed when the couple inquired about the book. “The man jumped up and kissed Neil on both cheeks—‘You, sir, are a real connoisseur!’” says Edelstein. Adds Harris: “He was astonished and modestly chagrined that an American had come by and got a hold of it.”
Collaborators as well as partners, Harris and Edelstein have co-authored books and curated exhibits together. In 2014–15 they organized the exhibition En Guerre: French Illustrators and World War I in the Library’s Special Collections Research Center, a place Edelstein and Harris support financially and want to continue to support well into the future.
The couple, working with the Office of Gift Planning, set up a gift annuity that provides them with lifetime income. The remainder of the annuity will help Special Collections purchase and care for rare books and will support future exhibitions. In addition to their gift annuity, Edelstein and Harris also make regular annual gifts to a variety of University Library funds and have contributed nearly 700 books of their own to Special Collections.
For Edelstein and Harris, donating the books is a way to share the fine-printed materials that have given them such joy and inspiration over the years. “It’s letting students engage in a culture that is approximately now 600 years old,” Harris says, “one that appears to be drawing partially to an end.”
Working together, they ensure that the collection doesn’t tip into obsession. “Collecting is a way of denying death,” Harris says. “You seek a kind of immortality. All collectors think about that—that it may seem selfish or narcissistic.” Then again, he ponders, without collectors like him and Edelstein, “Where would our libraries be?”
Back to Building for the Future newsletter.