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Show and sell – Firsts book fair reviewed

The Firsts Book Fair didn’t disappoint when it came to showcasing some of the best and most sought after James Bond first editions.

Late spring. London.

 

For bibliophiles this now means one thing and one thing only – the hugely popular Firsts book fair is coming to town.

 

Run by the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association, in collaboration with the the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, Firsts London attracts the UK’s top antiquarian book and printed material dealers.

 

And, when it came to showcasing some of the best of James Bond, it's my guess that last week’s event (17th-19th May), certainly didn’t disappoint the thousands of traveling pilgrims making their journey to Chelsea’s Saatchi gallery.



Even before you entered the main building, the omens for a good Bond showing looked good – passing as one did, Sloan Square’s Taschen shop, proudly displaying its just-released limited edition (huge) Dr No coffee-table tome (above, left).

 

But it was when you got inside the gallery itself, that some really beautiful Bond books were on display.

 

Most dealers selling modern firsts had at least one Fleming book to hand – everything from a selection of very good reprints [that seller Jonathan Frost, from Jonathan Frost Rare Books said he couldn’t resist buying - see above middle], to rare, and very scarce signed and proof copies.

 

“I don’t normally sell reprint Flemings,” admitted Frost to me. “But these were just in too good a condition to ignore.” We both agreed that demand for later impressions has steadily been growing - and will likely continue to grow, as very good condition first impressions start to get increasingly out of reach for many collectors.

 

But that didn’t stop the familiar names – Adrian Harrington; Peter Harrington; John  Atkinson, Lucius Books and others all vying the get the attention of the most well-heeled.

 

A particular highlight was a display of all 14 original James Bond books in fine condition being offered for sale as a complete set by Lucius books (below):


Not only was each book in supreme condition (The Man With The Golden Gun was Richard Chopping’s own personal copy, and signed by him - see above), but for the cool £147,500 price tag, the buyer of this set would also get a signed and numbered special edition On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (limited to just 250) – number 219 to be precise.

 

This number has never come to the market before (it came direct from a private collection, I was told) – which still very much proves the point that examples of this book are still out there, just waiting to be found. Lucius Books' James Hallgate told me that me that if a single buyer for the whole set couldn’t be found, they’d most likely be broken up and sold individually.


Also standing out from the crowd was another complete set for sale – this time one I’d never actually seen in the flesh: one of the just 100 ‘Complete Works’ sets (including Talk of The Devil – a collection of journalism and hitherto unpublished short stories), bound by Sangorski & Sutcliffe (see below):

Offered by binding company Sangorski & Sutcliffe itself, this set is the quarter vellum 'white' set – mimicking the design of the 1963 limited edition signed On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.


For those who have never heard of this firm, Sangorski & Sutcliffe are revered in the rarefied world of bookbinding. The more than century-old (and counting), company is perhaps most famous for being commissioned to create a bejeweled and gold binding of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Embellished with more than one thousand jewels, it was the most intricate and most expensive binding it had ever produced. Auctioned in 1912 owner Francis Sangorski arranged for the book to sent to its American buyer via the shortly leaving RMS Titanic – a decision that meant the book was never to be seen again.


For Ian Fleming aficionados though, Sangorski & Sutcliffe has another connection. It also famously bound one particular book – one of only two known proof copies of Casino Royale. Luckily, this book still remains (see left) – and was last seen offered for auction at Sotherby’s last year.


Seeing (and touching)

The books so-far discussed were not the only Ian Fleming editions to be seen at Firsts. There were some other stunners here, but before showcasing these, I feel a quick digress is worthy.


With most of the books I detail later, dealers at Firsts were more than happy to have me physically handle them. I still find it remarkable that they would let 'ordinary' folk like me do this. Of course, I understand the fact they ultimately want me to buy their wares – and the first rule of selling is getting customers to feel a connection with the product – in this case having them experience the sensation of holding and handling a rare book in the flesh.


But boy, I do worry about the impact many hands have on condition.

While handling one specific rare Fleming (very carefully), I shared this very fear with the dealer.


“I had a jacketless first edition of The Hobbit a while back,” he recalled. “I took it to a similar book fair, where the book was one of the star attractions,” he recalled. “As you can imagine, it was very popular, with lots of people showing an interest in it. But by the time 80 or 100 people had thumbed through it all day long, I literally had to downgrade my description of it from fine to average – something that also dramatically impacted its selling price too. Having this book there lost me thousands of pounds in potential profit, due to it being handled so much.”


It seems that taking very rare books to very popular fairs – even ones like Firsts, where I suspect browsers are a little more careful than your average punter – is still an occupational hazard. It’s a necessary part of selling, but if I were an exhibiting dealer (rather than just being online), I don’t think I would be so calm about so many fingers touching my books.


I mention all this, not just because handling a book a lot in a short space of time will impact condition, but because a less positive over-riding memory of my day at Firsts was also the extreme heat. It was a pleasant 20-degree day anyway, but the air-con in the Saatchi was down on the Friday, and within a few hours of the fair opening, and hundreds of people arriving, the whole place was getting uncomfortably warm and humid. The plug-in fans on each floor were busying in vain to only partially moderate things.


I was – let’s just say – perspiring, and the thought of sweaty, wet hands handling these books was something that I’m sure was troubling the dealers!


The proof is in...the proof!

 

Getting back to the main event though. Proof that Firsts was showcasing some top-notch stuff was shown by…a proof!



It was this uncorrected proof of The Man With the Golden Gun (above), in fact. One of just 596 copies, Ian Fleming proofs are rarely seen complete with their proof jacket; so this was lovely to actually have in my hand – if only for a minute or two.

 

Some other, super books that certainly caught the eye included this startling cabinet, from Harrington’s (below left):


Jonkers also did what Jonkers does, displaying exceptionally fine examples – such as this £27,500 priced copy of Moonraker (above, right).


No, it wasn’t signed. That’s the price that really superlative condition appears to command.

 

More moderately (!) priced, was this (below left), beautiful signed copy of The Spy Who Loved Me – inscribed to the Taittinger Champagne family. Taittinger was a brand that wasn't actually mentioned in The Spy Who Loved Me - rather it was actually mentioned in three other Ian Fleming Bond books - Casino Royale [described by Bond as “probably the finest champagne in the world,”], On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and in the Bond short story 007 In New York.


Here's a good pub quiz fact – Taittinger is the first ever brand mentioned by Ian Fleming in any of the James Bond books (and also the last by virtue of it also being in 007 In New York).


The 'Claude' in the inscription is Claude Taittinger, head of the Champagne family. Taittinger actually sponsored the Pinewood celebration to mark the first day’s filming of ‘From Russia, With Love’ on 1st April 1963 – the film where Taittinger features prominently (in scenes on The Orient Express).

 


Also for sale by John Atkinson was Raymond Chandler’s copy of Live and Let Die (see above), whilst the same dealer also had a copy of From Russia With Love signed by dust jacket artist Richard Chopping – for a cool £9,500.00 - also above.

 

If you get a chance, do go!

This year Firsts marked only its 6th appearance at The Saatchi Gallery, but already it feels like this book fair is an established part of the book fair calendar.

 

It’ll be back there again between 15th-18th May, and if you are able to go (tickets are £10 on the door, unless you can persuade a participating dealer to send you a guest pass) – then it really is worth it.

Even the paperbacks made an appearance!


Of course, unless you’ve won the lottery recently, for the most part, this is fair where most visitors be there for sight-seeing only, and book-wise will go home empty handed.

 

But they will (I hope), also come away with a head full of memories; of seeing some really excellent books; talking to the friendly dealers, and maybe even meeting and chatting to like-minded bibliophiles.

 

This year – and for the first time – an added bonus was the fair also hosting a series of book/collecting-related seminars (including a fascinating one from conservationists at the Bodlian Library). I’m very hopeful the success of these will see this repeated next year.

 

So until then…

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