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  • Writer's pictureCassidi Beck

Journey into Literary History: A Day at the Firsts Rare Book Fair


Last Thursday, while on the tube back from Belgravia, I happened to be reading the large, unmissable billboards as I waited for my train. Quickly catching my eye was a black poster with the surnames of literary greats, such as Austen, Tolkien, Angelou, Dickens, Marx, and Shakespeare. Interest piqued, I discovered the billboard was advertising London's Rare Book Fair. Before I could forget to do some more research when I emerged from the Underground, I managed to snap a quick photo. Thank goodness I happened to scroll through my photos sometime later. Without a moment's waste, I booked an entry ticket for Friday, excited beyond belief for what I knew was going to be a unique, memorable experience.

The Saatchi Gallery is one of London's most iconic and innovative art spaces, and in May, it annually hosts the Firsts Rare Book Fair. Coinciding with the 400th anniversary of the publication of Shakespeare's First Folio, this year, the fair ran a theme of "Shakespeare: 400 Years of Influence". Rare book and antique exhibitors promised to not only bring their 1st editions and rare collectibles but also items they believed responded best to the theme.

Only recently have I truly started to grasp the profound significance and value that rare books hold, allowing me to fully appreciate their historical, cultural, artistic, and personal worth. Rare and vintage books provide us with a tangible connection to the past, allowing us to delve into the thoughts, ideas, and stories that have shaped our history. They offer a window into different eras, cultures, and perspectives, preserving knowledge and literature from bygone times. These books also represent an essential part of our cultural heritage. They often embody the literary and artistic achievements of previous generations, reflecting the evolution of language, storytelling, and publishing. Many of these books are also exquisite works of art. From intricate illustrations and ornate bindings to delicate typography and craftsmanship, these books showcase the artistic talents and techniques of their time. They are not merely vessels of information but also objects of beauty that can be appreciated aesthetically. One should also consider the scarcity of rare books and how it adds to their allure and value. Whether due to limited print runs, historical events, or the passage of time, these books become increasingly difficult to acquire. These books also often encompass seminal works, groundbreaking ideas, and influential authors. They have shaped the literary canon, inspired movements, and influenced the development of various disciplines. It is also about the deep personal significance these books can hold for individuals. For one, they might evoke memories, a sense of nostalgia, or resonate with one's passions and interests. These books can provide a deep sense of connection and appreciation for the written word and its enduring power.

A Landmark Event for Collectors and Book Lovers Alike

As the largest rare book fair in Europe, the First Rare Book Fair has become a landmark event for collectors and book lovers alike. This year's event saw over 100 exhibitors from around the world offering an impressive array of books--from first editions to rare collectibles and novellas.

The fair showcased some of the most valuable books ever printed on its main stage, and while exploring the gallery, I happened to see some incredibly rare, unique treasures. Marshall Rare Books exhibited an amazingly preserved example of Queen Elizabeth I's Second Great Seal, an iconic item from Shakespeare's day. The seal was created at a time when Elizabeth was trying to cement her public image. I also came upon Regiomontanus (renowned mathematician Johann Muller), an original, 1st edition published in 1490. Exhibited by Christian White Rare Books, a document dated the 1st of January 1598 was on display. The document was signed by long-term Shakespearean patron, the Lord Chamberlain, George Carey, and Lord Hunsdon. Shakespeare's Third Folio was on exhibition at Jonkers Rare Books. Due to the extensive destruction caused by the Great Fire of London, the scarcity of surviving copies, particularly The Third Folio, makes it arguably the rarest among the four 17th-century folios containing Shakespeare's plays.

While exploring the two floors of exhibitors, an eclectic mix of books from every period of literary history was on display. I had the great pleasure of spotting 1st editions and 1st impressions of Ian Fleming's historical 007 novels. From Dr. No, You Only Live Twice, to For Your Eyes Only and Thunderball. I also came upon an attractive, unrestored contemporary binding of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published in 1817. Herman Melville's The Whale, a first edition and first issue published in 1851 (one of only 500). Also seen was a 1932 first edition, first impression of the seminal dystopian novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.

There were also beautifully illustrated editions from different time periods, such as the early 1900s with their hand-drawn sketches or woodcuts by illustrators like Arthur Rackham. The illustrations in the books were also worth noting as they can be hand-drawn or woodcut, adding another layer of storytelling to each book. The artists behind them were often inspired by their own personal experiences or those around them, and they used their imagination to create beautiful pieces of art that bring a story to life.

Unlocking Literary Treasures

Of great fascination was the observation of the novels' pricing and the factors influencing their valuation. For example, an Ian Fleming Novel ranged anywhere between £275.00 and £20,000. When I spoke to Peter Harrington Rare Books about the valuation of books, he mentioned several key factors.

  1. Rarity: The scarcity of a particular edition or printing significantly impacts its value. If there are only a limited number of copies in circulation, especially in good condition, the rarity factor enhances the book's desirability and worth.

  2. Condition: The overall condition of the book, including its cover, pages, and any additional elements like dust jackets or illustrations, plays a crucial role in determining its value. Well-preserved copies with minimal wear, stains, or damage tend to command higher prices.

  3. Edition and Printing: The specific edition and printing of a novel can greatly influence its value. First editions are generally more sought after, particularly if they contain unique features, author signatures, or other notable characteristics. Additionally, limited editions or special printings often hold higher value due to their exclusivity.

  4. Historical or Cultural Significance: If a novel has historical or cultural importance, such as being a groundbreaking work or associated with significant events or figures, its value is likely to be elevated. For instance, if "Dr. No" marked a turning point in the James Bond series or if it was tied to notable adaptations or the author's life, it could contribute to its value.

  5. Demand and Popularity: The demand and popularity of a specific novel among collectors, enthusiasts, and readers influence its value. If there is high demand for a particular book or if it has a dedicated fan base, its price may rise accordingly.

  6. Market Conditions: The state of the rare book market, including trends and fluctuations in prices, can affect the value of a novel. Supply and demand dynamics, recent sales records, and the overall interest in vintage books contribute to the market conditions and ultimately impact the book's value.

Their Dr. No is of significant value because it fits many of the above criteria. It is a first edition, first impression with a dust jacket and it is signed by Ian Fleming on the front endpaper. While it's the sixth novel in the James Bond series, it was the first to be turned into a film starring Sean Connery in 1962. It is also in immaculate condition, described as a 'near-fine copy'.


While the initial Rare Book Fair offers an excellent opportunity to unearth new literary treasures, it also provides a delightful and enjoyable experience. The ambiance can be described as relaxed yet vibrant, with numerous individuals conversing and laughing as they peruse bookshelves or sit engrossed with a cherished volume on their laps. The exhibitors were exceedingly helpful, and their immense passion for their craft was evident. I am truly grateful for attending the fair and eagerly anticipate similar events in the future until the next edition takes place next year.

Meanwhile, becoming a rare book collector is an expensive hobby I will not be taking up any time soon (perhaps, one day in the future, hopefully). I'll continue to explore the vintage book shops scattered around London, catching up on some classical literature (modern prints only, of course), and indulging in the latest and greatest releases.

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23 Μαΐ 2023

Well written, I thoroughly enjoyed your passionate description of your love for books and your day at the art fair.

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