Reading into the past
Paul Feain, Hong Kong International Antiquarian Bookfair organiser, tells Matt Fleming there’s an appetite for old texts
Any communists out there who fancy parting with hundreds of thousands of dollars for a full set of original Das Kapital books by Karl Marx? Or would sir prefer one of the first prints of literary masterpiece Ulysses by James Joyce? Or, maybe, the first American edition of Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick? The Hong Kong Antiquarian Bookfair is coming to town and there’s scores of old photographs, books and posters for collectors – and for those who want to own a piece of history at a decent price. Organiser Paul Feain says there are some historically important – and expensive – items for sale this year.
What’s the history of the book fair?
The fair was formed after talks between myself (of the Cornstalk Bookshop in Sydney) and Mitsuo Nitta of Yushodo in Tokyo. We were both in Montreal at a meeting of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers in 2004. ILAB is an organisation of antiquarian booksellers from around the world but predominantly from Europe. We felt that more should be done to promote the sale of antiquarian books in Asia. What better place to start all this than in Hong Kong?
Indeed. So it was a success?
It went well. Mitsuo has a lifelong friend, Chris Li, the manager of Swindon Books in Hong Kong, and his assistance was sought. The three of us gathered in Hong Kong and organised the first Hong Kong International Antiquarian Bookfair. A total of 64 booksellers came along from all parts of the world. Many took a small glass showcase just so they could have a presence and observe. There was a drop-off of exhibitors over the next couple of years but now the number is increasing again. This year we have about 50 exhibitors sharing 33 stands, from Australia, Sweden, Hong Kong, Japan, the UK, the USA, Germany, Thailand and more.
What is the most expensive sale that’s ever been made at the fair?
Well, I’m not sure about the most expensive, but one dealer sold a map of China for US$500,000. I know other items have gone for similar amounts. Often buyers and sellers are reluctant to reveal the details of expensive sales. There have been several items sold for more than US$100,000. There was a Chinese historical poster, a 19th century photograph album, the first edition of Das Kapital, a book of views of China from the mid-19th century and other things as well.
What are we to expect this year?
This year’s fair is exciting and, aside from the first one, when many dealers came out of curiosity, it will be the biggest and best. Many dealers are coming for the fifth time. There are booksellers who are serious about selling in this region. There will be rare historical books, documents and artefacts. One of the most interesting is a collection of lantern slides – unusual historic images of China, its people and places, dating from 1890 to 1916. There are 300 images which have never been published before. There are photos of Dr Sun Yat-sen, daily life in China, buildings and geographic features.
Anything else to look out for?
There will be a bank note on display signed by Chairman Mao, as well as by other luminaries from the 1940s. There will be airline posters depicting Hong Kong and other posters showing what life in Hong Kong was like. And the Das Kapital, Ulysses and Moby Dick books.
Why are so many people interested in antiquarian books?
Many people love books and it’s natural to love antiquarian books. These antique books have helped to preserve the culture of people in the East and the West. There are always some individuals, rich or poor, who need to collect and handle these books. Some do it to help preserve the culture of the world and others do it to enrich their own lives.
What does the future hold for the fair?
The people of Hong Kong have taken to it with a relish. More people have attended each year and sales have gone up. The future is promising.
The fifth International Antiquarian Bookfair is between 5pm and 9pm on December 2, 11am and 6pm on December 3, and midday and 5pm on December 4, in Hall A1 of the Hong Kong Exhibition Centre, China Resources Building, 26 Harbour Road, Wan Chai. Entry is free. For details call 2801 5311.
The Das Kapital collection of 16 books – including the first edition in English – is available for purchase, price on request. Ulysses by James Joyce, numbered 45 in 1922, is priced at HK$3,384,000. Moby Dick by Herman Melville, the first American edition in 1851, is HK$492,000. The first Confucius text for a European audience is going for HK$165,000.