Antiquarian Books: India

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Antiquarian Books

B N Uniyal

The Times of India

Indian Field Sports by Capt Thomas Williams

Everyone is talking of how heated the contemporary Indian art market has become in recent years but few seem to have noticed how the updraft from the art market is whirling up every other India-associated collectible to the skies. Art prices are exploding but so are the prices of all sorts of India-related memorabilia — photographs from the early twentieth and nineteenth century, tourism promotion posters and picture postcards from the 1950s-60s, philatelic albums, period furniture, antique chess sets, old coins, banknotes and early share certificates. Auction houses and dealers in London, New York and Los Angeles say they are being besieged from all over for India-related trash and treasure.

Especially hot are rare books, as is evidenced by the stunning prices realised at last month’s sale of 242 India-related antiquarian books at Bloomsbury, London. The auctioneers had estimated the sale to yield about Rs 90 lakh but the bidding in the auction room turned so furious that at the end the tally went up to a staggering Rs 2.10 crore. Add another

Rs 40 lakh as buyer’s premium and the final figure soars to Rs 2.50 crore. This, despite the fact that the condition of the books offered was less than perfect. All but a few books were rumoured to have been grabbed by an NRI collector from North America. Even the few that the avid NRI collector let go from his hands fetched quite high prices. These were lapped up by some London dealers. Some dealers from India and Pakistan were present in the auction room but they too had to leave empty handed. Some dealers and auctioneers from Mumbai were bidding over the phone but they couldn’t get anything either.

A few books about India keep coming up for sale from time to time at art auctions or at the sales of mixed lots of collectible books but they do not usually cause the same excitement as auctions solely devoted to Indian books. There have so far been three such India auctions, all in London. The first, The Library of an Indian Gentleman, was held by Bloomsbury in November, 2003, when 315 books were sold for about Rs 1 crore. The second, held by Sothebys in May, 2005, also had 315 books on offer but they fetched a sum three times larger than the Bloomsbury sale.

Auction catalogues of the first three dedicated sales of books related to India

The third and the latest sale, again by Bloomsbury, contained the second tranche of the private library of American traveller and travel book collectors Robert Travis and wife Maria Travis, the first tranche having been sold by Sothebys earlier.

Collectible books associated with India have always been in demand from collectors and book dealers in Britain, France Germany, and Switzerland, the US and Japan, but the community of book collectors remained rather small until recently. It is only in the last four or five years that the demand for such books has been burgeoning in a big way as an ever larger number of young book fanciers has begun competing for books that are becoming scarcer by the year.

Most 18th and 19th century books relating to India, particularly those with handcoloured plates, like those of the Daniells, Hodges, Simpson, Doyly, Fraser, Forbes, Forrest, Emily Eden, Fanny Parks, Grindlay, Gray, Gould, Wallich, Jerdon and Hooker were published in limited editions of 100 to 250 copies. Most of these are large size folios. These were scarce and pricy even when they were published over 150 to 200 years ago. Few copies of these books survive today. Most of these are shelved in institutional libraries. Hardly a few are in private hands. These come to market once in a long while and are quickly grabbed by collectors.

Dealers of rare books are whining that they are becoming scarce by the day. ‘‘Old books about India don’t stay long on the shelves,’’ said Philip Brown, manager at the rare book section at the Blackwells at Oxford, ‘‘and replacements are hard to come by.’’

‘‘I don’t think I can get a copy of a Grindlay, a Fanny Parks or even a Sleeman as easily or as quickly as I used to a decade ago,’’ said an India specialist at an Amsterdam rare book shop somewhat ruefully. As these books are becoming scarce, prices are soaring ever higher. In many cases prices are doubling, even trebling, every few years. Alexander Jack’s Kot Kangra, a folio of just six plates with elaborate text descriptions published in 1847, sold for $1,275 at Sothebys in 1993 and soared to $4,680 at a Swann auction in 1995 and to $8,880 at Sothebys in 2005 and to a staggering $15,252 at Bloomsbury last month. Similarly, John Gould’s A Century of Himalayan Birds which had sold for just $2,534 in 1977 rose to $7,810 in 1986 and to $16,900 in 1998 and $ 23,920 in 2006.

The asking price for an unblemished copy of a book like Wallich’s Plantae Rariore has risen to nearly $80,000 and that for Gray’s Indian Zoology as high $58,000.

A big change in recent years is the entry of quite a few young Indian collectors and dealers as also a fair number of NRIs from the US, Canada and the UK. They have added a new dimension to the rare book market by showing interest in collecting not only the eighteenth and nineteenth century plate books but also contemporary Indian authors Like Raja Rao, R K Narayan, G V Desani, Mulk Raj Anand, Ahmad Ali and Salman Rushdie. The first editions, special editions, academic works, signed copies and proof copies of these authors are much in demand.

The cover of this book has busts of Indian leaders etched in 18 carat gold

There are also collectors for such diverse disciplines as poetry, biographies, autobiographies, sciences, mathematics, economics vintage Indian cookery books. Gandhi, Nehru and Tagore are the most favourite authors.

As a result, auction prices of the first English language edition of Tagore’s Gitanjali, of which only 750 copies were printed at the Chiswick Press, UK, by the India Society, London, in 1912, have gone up to $2300 (2001) and $2576 (2004).

The Golden Book of Tagore, a felicitation volume published in 1931 in a limited edition of 1,500 copies, sold for $55 in 1975 and for $90 in 1982 and then shot up to $2250 in 2003. A lot quicker has been the rise in the price of Loffrande lyrique, the French translation of the Gitanjali rendered by the French author, Andre Gide, himself a Nobel laureate like Tagore. This beautifully illustrated, large folio edition published in Paris in 1925 fetched $2,500 in 1995 and rose to $7000 in 2001. In 2002, it sold for $7,500.

However, the community of book collectors is still quite small as compared to collectors of contemporary Indian art. They collect books for their beauty, rarity, antiquity and the sentimental value of their past associations. They may fancy a mint condition copy of Monier William’s Sakoontala, published in 1855 for the sheer beauty of its heavily gilt decorated binding, a de Bry from the year 1600 for its antiquity, a Hodges, a Daniell or a Simpson for its numerous contemporary hand-coloured plates, or a Gandhi, a Nehru or a Tagore for its historic association, or a first edition of Kipling’s Jungle Books or of Kim in remembrance of times past.

Association copies are specially cherished, for who would not want to own a book bearing the stamp of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Anand Bhawan library. Such a book becomes even more valuable if it happens to bear a note in Nehru’s own hand (Read in District Jail Barreilly, Feb. 1932, J. Nehru).

If the book also happens to have been warmly inscribed by Nehru to someone like Lady Diana Menuhin, wife of the great 20th century violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, it becomes all the more precious to a collector. One such book, The Little Clay Cart, the English translation of Sudraka’s Sanskrit play Mrichhakatikam, was sold by the Maggs Bros. of London some years ago for a whopping sum of £1500 (Rs 1,23,000). An ordinary copy of that book without such associations with Nehru would hardly have fetched £ 5 (Rs 400).

(B N Uniyal has worked as a journalist with several newspapers. These days he is working on a book, Collectible India.)


Here’s a pricey read. These are only four of the rare books whose prices have grown by leaps and bounds over a few years



$1,275 1993

$4,680 1995

$8,880 2005

$15,252 2007



$2,534 1977 $7,810 1986 $16,900 1998 $23,920 2006


$55 1975

$90 1982

$2250 2003



$2,500 1995

$7000 2001

$7,500 2002

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