In April 2013 Roland Folter, an expert bibliographer, retired antiquarian bookseller, and noted collector of the history of bibliography and the book trade, suggested to me that the earliest antiquarian bookseller's catalogue illustrated with plates printed in color might be Bulletin Mensuel No. 8, October 1878, issued in Paris by the firm of Damascène Morgand and Charles Fatout. Upon hearing of this I was able to acquire a nicely bound copy of Volume I of the Bulletin (1876-78), containing the first 8 issues describing a total of 4562 priced items continuously numbered, followed by an elaborate index of authors and anonymous works found in the first volume. According to Roland Folter, the lot numbering continued in 9 subsequent volumes of the Bulletin, comprising 59 issues in 10 volumes (1876-1904), describing 46,593 lots on well over 10,000 pages with 91 plates (19 in color) and over 600 text illustrations, making it perhaps the most voluminous antiquarian bookseller's catalogue ever published. (This set was continued as Bulletin - Nouvelle Série, published in 21 individually paginated and individually numbered issues from 1904 to 1920.)
Issue No. 8 contains 6 finely printed color plates of bookbindings, each with a tissue guard. In the introduction to this volume the publishers stated that they had desired to include facsimiles of bookbindings earlier but found the reproduction quality unsatisfactory until the availability of a new process they call a combination of photogravure and "chromotypographie." This appears to be a combination of photogravure – the modern form of which was invented in 1878 – and chromolithography.
Bulletin Mensuel resembles twentieth century antiquarian catalogues in terms of format and occasional annotations. Some of the line cuts of title pages are even printed in both red and black. In issue No. 8 the booksellers also included detailed black & white engraved reproductions of medieval miniatures, another feature which may have been unusual for the time. I find it interesting that the booksellers chose to reproduce bindings in color even though the spectacular bindings reproduced were by no means as expensive as some other books in the catalogue, especially the illuminated manuscripts. Clearly the reproduction quality for attempts at illustrating elaborate images of medieval manuscripts with their wide color range might have been unsatisfactory, or perhaps prohibitively expensive at the time, with many more color impressions required for each plate.
Another unusual element in the catalogue is that the second color plate, illustrating No. 3948, reproduces a miniature bookbinding in its original size. The Grolieresque mosaic binding on a miniature 1828 edition of Horace is priced only 270 F; certainly this is the earliest color reproduction of a miniature bookbinding in an antiquarian booksellers's catalogue. Were miniature books reproduced in their original size in antiquarian booksellers' catalogues prior to this?
Searching for information on Morgand & Fatout, I found the following information on Damascène Morgand in an online issue of the American magazine, The Curio, Vol.1, No. 3, published in November 1887. The article, written by the presumably forgotten journalist Max Maury, was entitled "The Great Booksellers of the World. Damascene Morgand, of Paris." From it I quote:
"A little farther at No. 55 Caen used to present an alluring stock of illuminated manuscripts, incunables, first editions XVII. and XVIII. century bindings, engravings and etchings in their earliest and most perfect states, and of late years, in 1875, I think Damascène Morgand, having bought out the Caen business, began his career of unprecedented success, built upon that solid experience acquired under old Fontaine's careful tuition. In 1882 his partner, Mr. Fatout, died, and the forty-seven year old Norman connoisseur began his rapid strides towards his world-wide reputation. The great bibliophiles placed orders in his hands with a feeling of full security; and in all the great public sales, Damascène Morgand, dignified, cold as steel and as sharp as a Yankee of Yankeeland, came forward as the buyer of the highest-priced lots and of unique examples of books, bindings, and prints. Such collectors as the Baron James de Rothschild, the Count de Lignerolles, Ernest Quentin-Bauchart, Eugène Paillet, Louis Roederer (of Champagne fame), the Baron de La Roche-Lacarelle, etc., took from his hands the most famous jewels of their choice libraries. From such customers a dealer learns more than he teaches, and, in fact, the spirit of the collector possessed Mr. Morgand as deeply as it did his buyers. As a tangible proof of his gigantic work, his firm has published, for the last ten years, monthly bulletins, embellished with costly illustrations fac-similes of frontispieces, reproductions of bindings engraved in colors, and the collection of these bulletins is sought after as the basis of every bibliophile's library of information."
Roland Folter also pointed out to me in an email on May 3, 2013 that 1878 appears to be a watershed year for the introduction of printed color plates in commercial rare book catalogues as, in addition to the Morgand & Fatout catalogue, a few copies of the Sotheby catalogue of the J. T. Payne sale in London on April 10, 1878 were "struck off on thick paper with Eleven facsimile Illustrations in gold and colours. Price 5s.", and a Bachelin-Deflorenne auction catalogue for a sale in Paris in June 1878, listing among other things a Gutenberg Bible, was issued with 5 color plates (2 folding). I have not seen the Bachelin-Deflorenne catalogue, and cannot judge the quality of its color plates, but as it predated the Morgand & Fatout catalogue by 5 months, it is conceivable that Morgand & Fatout decided it was time to introduce color printed images in their catalogue when they saw the color plates in the Bachelin-Deflorenne catalogue.