Rare Richard Francis Burton collection worth £2 million in Abu Dhabi

The 19th-century explorer provided the British Empire with rare insights into the region

'Personal Narrative of Pilgrimage to El Medinah & Meccah' by Richard Francis Burton. Photo: Peter Harrington London
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Bargain hunting is a relatively new concept at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

At UAE booksellers' stands, you can land bestselling novels for as little as Dh20, while in the regal pavilions belonging to UK antiquarians such as Peter Harrington London, you can sweep up an extensive collection of works by 19th-century British explorer Richard Francis Barton for a cool £2 million ($2.5m).

According to owner Pom Harrington, that price is a steal.

The collection — with selected pieces previewed at the book fair — totals 125 works, including books, autographed manuscripts, drawings and letters.

"There are people who spend 30 or 40 years collecting these and now this is that one opportunity to get this big collection instantly," Harrington tells The National.

"Opportunities like this don't come very often and this is why we came to the book fair to meet buyers because Richard Burton's work is very relevant to this part of the world."

Through intensive and sometimes-daring journeys into the Middle East, Burton’s first-hand account of his travels provided many in the British Empire rare insights into the region.

In 1853, he famously posed as Mirza Abdullah, an Indo-Persian dervish, to perform the Hajj in Saudi Arabia, a practice restricted to Muslims.

The 1858 first edition of Burton's account of the pilgrimage, Personal Narrative of Pilgrimage to El Medinah & Meccah, can be obtained as part of the collection and is available for viewing at the book fair.

"This is so rare and it is written like a guidebook for the West that explains if you go to Makkah this is what you will see. He explains the religious ceremonies and the Hajj itself, as well as explaining the life of the Prophet Mohammed," Harrington explains. “He managed to get all those details while knowing that if we were caught, he would be in serious trouble."

Other highlights include an 1886 first edition of Isabel Burton’s version of her husband’s translation of Arabian Nights. Other regionally significant items not part of the collection are also on offer.

For £125,000, you can obtain Trucial States, a memoir by a British Royal Navy sailor during a tour of the Gulf in 1930 and 1931.

For £15,000, you can buy an inscribed first edition of F.M. Hunter’s 1877’s An Account of the British Settlement of Aden.

With such eye-watering price tags, it is no wonder prospective customers are ushered into an elegant corner of the pavilion where tea and coffee can be sipped on plush leather chairs.

However, it is not only wealthy culture lovers Harrington entertains. Peter Harrington has been exhibiting at the book fair since 2016, a period coinciding with the rise of cultural institutions in the UAE.

"We recognised there is an important market that is starting here," he says. "There are places like the Mohammed Bin Rashid Library that is coming soon in Dubai, and there are also other institutions already here such as the National Archives and the university library of NYU Abu Dhabi.

“What they are doing is important because if you think about it historically, for centuries in Europe and the West, they have been collecting books for libraries and it all builds up over time.

“This is now starting in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and other places in the region because they know they have to catch up."

Despite the accessibility of these gems, Harrington says hardcore collectors are rarely found at book fairs.

“They like the thrill of the chase,” he says. “It’s about going to places, searching, enquiring and finding it for themselves. I, on the other hand, am looking for customers who want something because they have nothing.”

The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair runs until Sunday at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, More information is available at adbookfair.com

Updated: October 12, 2022, 10:24 AM