Ernst Goldschmidt was born in Vienna in 1887. His father was Dutch and his mother German. He studied Classics at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating in 1909.
Even as a student, Goldschmidt had a great love of old books, manuscripts and bookbindings and on his graduation he had privately printed a descriptive catalogue of 75 of the best items in his collection. He returned to Austria where he worked for several years cataloguing the contents of monastery libraries for the Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke (Union Catalogue of Incunabula). During this period he acquired a quite exceptional knowledge (and love) of late medieval and early modern texts, which formed the foundation of his subsequent career.
In 1917, Goldschmidt started working for the antiquarian bookseller Gilhofer
and Ranschburg in Vienna. He had originally approached them with a list of items which he wished to purchase for his personal collection. On discovering that their business was effectively suspended because their specialist staff were all away on military service, Goldschmidt stepped in and demonstrated such aptitude that his services were retained even when the war finished. However in 1923 he decided to move to London because hyperinflation was eroding his capital, business in Austria was becoming more difficult and pro-German sentiment was becoming widespread.
He set up in business as an antiquarian bookseller in Bond St., specialising in medieval manuscripts, incunabula and books from the 16th century. Having only scant familiarity with the history of English publishing, he mainly dealt with items from the continent. The catalogues which he issued set a new standard in bibliographic description and provided a wealth of additional information about the texts based on Goldschmidt’s own encyclopaedic knowledge. These catalogues quickly became legendary among librarians and bibliographers and Goldschmidt’s reputation was further enhanced when in 1928 he published his Gothic & Renaissance bookbindings exemplified and illustrated from the author’s collection. On business trips to the United States in the 1930s, he was often invited to deliver lectures on historical bibliography.
Business slowed during the Second World War and the focus gradually shifted more towards works of scholarship and reference, with the needs of the large American libraries particularly in mind. Goldschmidt continued working until his death in 1954.