Rare book collectors in the Middle East: ‘those who do it take it very seriously’

The Peter Harrington Rare Books firm has released a catalogue of rare books and manuscripts from the Islamic and Arabic-speaking world

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With a slightly cracked, eggshell-coloured hardcover, the Viaggio dell'Indie Orientali is unremarkable at first glance.

Sure, the book looks old with its yellowed pages and discoloured spine – and you can imagine a whiff of its smoky time-worn scent merely by looking at pictures of it – but, for the most part, the 16th century book by Venetian state jeweller Gasparo Balbi looks unexceptional.

That is, until you know what is in it and how much it is worth.

The Viaggio dell'Indie Orientali – published in 1590. Peter Harrington

The Viaggio dell'Indie Orientali – published in 1590 – is the first record in print of place names along the coast of the Arabian Gulf.

It is also the first printed mention of the Bani Yas tribe, one of the largest and most important of the Arabian Peninsula, from which both the Al Nahyan and Al Maktoum dynasties – today’s ruling families of Abu Dhabi and Dubai – are descended.

The book was sourced and acquired by Peter Harrington Rare Books for a regional collector in 2017, who bought the title for a whopping $80,000 (Dh293,800).

The company specialises in finding seminal works about the region and caters to some of the most dedicated book experts from the Gulf.

Pom Harrington, owner of Peter Harrington, has been in the business since 1994 and took over Peter Harrington when his father died in 2003. Peter Harrington 

‘Rare books are, by definition, hard to find’ 

Established in London in 1969 by Peter Harrington, the business is one of the leading rare booksellers in the world, with stock ranging from the 15th century to the modern day.

The company's current owner is Peter's son, Pom Harrington, who has been in the business since 1994 and took it over after his father died in 2003. He tells The National that it has sourced and sold several seminal literary works, including copies of each of the four 17th century folios of Shakespeare and the pocket diaries of Virginia Woolf that detail the last eight years of her life.

Peter Harrington has also compiled its newest catalogue on rare books and manuscripts from the Islamic and Arabic-speaking world, curated specifically for collectors from the Gulf.

The company is no stranger to regional tastes and demands. It has been coming to the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair since 2016 and took part in last year's Sharjah International Book Fair.

“This is the fifth catalogue we have created for this market,” says Harrington.

“The main challenge in putting together a catalogue is having enough high-quality rare books that would be interesting to this region. Rare books are, by definition, hard to find. We always look to bring something unique and interesting to the region, and it can take time to build a good selection of books and manuscripts.”

A 13th century Arabic translation of Aristotle’s Book of Politics of Management of Leaders (also known as The Secret of Secrets by Abu Yahya ibn al-Batriq. Peter Harrington 

Works in the company's newest catalogue include a beautiful Quran from the Mughal period, set at £62,000 (Dh281,500); an inscribed first edition of Twenty Drawings, the only collection of Kahlil Gibran's drawings, set at £12,500; and an inscribed first edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom by TE Lawrence, which includes a personal account of his role in the Arab Revolt, going for £85,000.

Harrington says a 13th-century Arabic translation of Aristotle's Book of Politics of Management of Leaders is one of the catalogue's most captivating works. Also known as The Secret of Secrets, it was translated by Abu Yahya Ibn Al Batriq, a Syrian scholar who lived between the years 796 and 806.

Works that document Makkah and Madinah or early city infrastructure continue to be very popular

“It is intriguing because it is so rare to have such an early text in Arabic as well as one with such extraordinary provenance that can be traced all the way through,” he says.

There are also several titles regional collectors consider essential to starting a strong collection, such as books by David Roberts, who toured the Middle East, the Levant and Egypt in the mid-19th century.

“We do bring these seminal works to the region each time we come out to meet new collectors,” Harrington says, pointing out there is a small, but very strong, book-collecting market in the Middle East.

"Those that do it, do it very seriously," he says. "We have seen a rise in recent years."

Most sought-after works by Middle East collectors 

Harrington says there is great interest among regional collectors in books written about the Arabian Peninsula – particularly first-hand travel accounts from the 16th to the early 20th centuries.

Manuscripts and maps that document the development of the region in the early and mid-20th century are also highly sought after – these include maps on trade and shipping routes, and information on political developments and oil exploration.

“There is also a strong interest in early photography of the region. Works that document Makkah and Madinah or early city infrastructure continue to be very popular,” Harrington says. “Additionally, landmark economical, philosophical or literary works from the western canon are also sought after by Middle Eastern collectors.”

The Middle East accounts for almost 20 per cent of Peter Harrington’s international sales, across a mix of private collectors, and those building public collections, such as libraries.

“The UAE currently accounts for the largest share of our Middle East business, with collectors from all across the Gulf regularly contacting us to assist with curating, appraising and acquiring items for their collections,” Harrington says.

But it isn't all maps and Aristotle translations. The firm also helps those who want to build a collection of special-edition Game of Thrones or Harry Potter books.

“Once we’ve met a customer and understand and learnt what their interests and their collecting ambitions are, we work with them to source books that would appeal and enhance their collections,” Harrington says.

Setting a price and checking for forgeries

The rare books industry is long established, but as with any market, prices move and change. Harrington says price is influenced by “a variety of factors”, from age to desirability.

Naturally, the condition of the book is important – a title in fine condition with its original bindings and dust jacket can be worth significantly more than the same edition in a poor condition.

“That is why we tend to only focus on choosing the best examples of a rare book. Each book we buy is personally chosen by a member of our team, its provenance is researched and it is checked for authenticity and completeness, photographed and catalogued.”

The Peter Harrington team is made up of specialists with 25 to 30 years of experience  in the business – many of them have come from other rare and antiquarian dealers and have dealt with thousands of books over the course of their careers. Experience is necessary to spot forgeries.

One should always be wary of books that only contain a signature with no further inscription unless it has a strong provenance

“Thankfully, in the antiquarian book trade, forgeries are relatively rare,” Harrington says.

He says that although it is hard to truly fake an old, rare book, there do tend to be forgeries when it comes to signatures, “which is why one should always be wary of books that only contain a signature with no further inscription unless it has a strong provenance”.

“Signatures are easier to fake but rare books less so,” he says.

For this reason, every book sold by the dealer is guaranteed to be authentic.

For a detailed look at the latest Peter Harrington catalogue, visit its website at www.peterharrington.co.uk