Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2006 Issue

A Visit To the Oldest Bookstore in the World


Sotheran's signed portrait of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

As I browsed through the glass enclosed bookshelves, display cases, tables, and many aisles of prized books, it was like being in an exclusive library of my dreams. All the literary greats can be found here, with first editions of Lewis, Kipling, Wells, Carroll, Milne, and Dickens, among many others. A signed portrait of Winston Churchill stared down at me, with an ever present cigar in his right hand. Along another wall was a photograph with a note inscribed by Arthur Conan Doyle. I spent a good deal of time in the children's book section admiring the selection available, which included rare picture books, illustrations, and first editions (including Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll). There is also an extensive collection of rare maps, prints, engravings, and drawings. Sotheran's has published several fine bindings of books over the years, as evidenced by an antique book press which stood next to the literary book section.

Probably the most famous was an illustrated edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, with an elaborately made 'Peacock' binding which took a period of two years to make, starting in 1909, and was decorated with engravings of peacocks. A one of a kind book, it included over 1,050 rare stones set in gold with rich Moroccan leather inlays by the famed bookbinder, Frances Sangorski. It was described at the time as being "the greatest modern binding in the world". The book was eventually sold to Gabriel Wells, an American buyer, for £405 ($748), but he never received it, as it was aboard the Titanic. When visiting London, be sure to stop by the British Library to see a later copy made of the book in 1989 to get an idea of the true rarity that the original was.

Situated downstairs are more collections, including The Folio Society, a separate company that specializes in the republication of rare book classics.

Many successful booksellers have gotten their start at Sotheran's. The staff was quite friendly and knowledgeable. I had a later conversation with John Sprague, who has worked with Sotheran's for almost 30 years, and provided me with a unique insight into the bookseller's history. I asked him about what the most valuable rare book ever sold by Sotheran's was. Noted Sprague, "I suspect that it would have been a Gutenberg Bible, printed on Vellum, which J. Pierpont Morgan bought in 1896."

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