In the late 1960s, a young English investment banker, Franklin Brooke‑Hitching, found himself in a rare-books shop in Chicago. An experienced traveller – having ridden a motorbike around the world, even traversing the Sahara – he was inspired by the romance of discovery and bought a complete first-edition set of the official accounts of the three Pacific voyages of Captain James Cook, dated between 1773 and 1784, with beautifully tooled bindings, for an “outrageously expensive $2,500”. This purchase, charting one of the most famous voyages in the European age of discovery, inaugurated a lifelong pursuit of collecting books of exploration so focused and absorbing that Brooke-Hitching abandoned his career in banking and set up as a rare-book dealer. But over the past year, he has been selling off his personal collection of 1,400 titles through Sotheby’s – letting them loose, as he puts it, to enable others “to get on the ladder”. Many are keen to do that; in the first sale last March an even better set of Cook’s accounts fetched £92,500 – more than three times the high estimate.
Travel memoirs, often beautifully illustrated, once represented “the front line of knowledge,” says Mark James, head of travel at Mayfair booksellers Bernard Quaritch, the maps depicting the explorers’ own footsteps. Today, these treasured volumes are attracting new owners, some drawn to narratives with the immediacy of journals, others captivated by accounts written with the verve of adventure stories, such as the wholly unreliable A Voyage to Botany Bay by Irish-born convict George Barrington (first published 1795; the 1800-1802 edition, bound with its sequel, is currently available at Bernard Quaritch for £3,000). Others fall in love with “the copy beautiful”: sumptuous bindings, gold edging and original etchings, photographs, maps and author inscriptions.
While there are collectors for all types of book, those of most interest tend to mirror the great ages of European discovery – the New World from the 16th century; India and Australia in the 18th century; Africa and the Middle East in the 19th; and Antarctica in the early 20th century. (One notable area of exception is 18th- and 19th-century chronicles of adventure in America. “Americans buy Americana in a big way,” says Pom Harrington of rare-book shop Peter Harrington, citing accounts of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s epic journey across America to the Pacific from 1804 to 1806. A first edition of the first account by Lewis and Clark is available at Abe Books for $140,000.) And most agree that the cut-off date for collector interest is 1939, when travellers in large part ceased to be explorers and became tourists.
Dr Titus Boeder of antiquarian bookseller Maggs Bros says collectors prize books from the very beginning of printing – in theory, it is possible to find a 1493 edition of the letter Columbus wrote on his return from America, printed in Rome. One rarity in stock at Maggs is a second, expanded edition of A Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas in His Majesty’s Ship The Endeavour (1784; £38,000,) by Sydney Parkinson, a botanical draughtsman appointed to Captain Cook’s first voyage, which contains 27 hand-coloured, engraved plates. Maggs also has two manuscript fragments on velum of Marco Polo’s travels in Asia, dated around 1350, for £200,000.
Many collectors are driven by their interest in a specific place and John Hemming, a former director of the Royal Geographical Society and an explorer of the Amazon, has amassed “a fairly complete library of all the Spanish chronicles about the Incas and Peru… and of the explorers and anthropologists of the Amazon”. The majority are modern editions, but “my most prized book is an 1863 first edition of Henry Walter Bates’ The Naturalist on the River Amazons.”
More broadly, John Beaumont, a specialist in travel books, says those about the Middle East are most popular. A joint second are books about Africa, especially Henry Morton Stanley’s In Darkest Africa (Harrington’s has a presentation copy of the 1890 first edition for £3,000), and central and southern Asia. One such collector is Chris Knapton, a dealer in Asian art. His father was a diplomat in Iran and on a fishing trip to the Lar Valley “who should walk through our patch but Wilfred Thesiger”. His mother gave him a copy of Thesiger’s classic Arabian Sands, an account of the author’s travels across the Arabian Peninsula between 1945 and 1950 (a notable exception to the 1939 “cut-off”), which started an ever-growing collection. His most treasured volume is a signed first edition of that first memoir.
One-off gifts for friends living in or travelling to a specific part of the world are also popular. Julian Wilson, books and maps specialist at Christie’s London, says the right tome can be key to understanding a place on a deeper level. “If you were to go to Sydney today, you might seek out John White’s Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales from 1790. There is a romance to the story of the first fleet, while the engravings of fauna and flora make this volume highly attractive.” In 2013, a copy sold at Christie’s New York for $2,000.
Harrington says there has also been an increase in the sale of memoirs about polar exploration, prompted by the fact that “in the past 10 to 15 years a growing number of our clients have been to Antarctica”. A star piece in the upcoming September Brooke-Hitching sale is one of only 300 copies of the luxurious, vellum-bound edition of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton’s The Heart of the Antarctic: Being The Story of the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909 (1909), estimated at around £15,000.
For some, it is the content of the book that matters; for others it is the condition and visual appeal. For Brooke-Hitching, it was both. He bought books by or about British travellers that had to be “beautiful, perfect and lovely”, adding: “There are some I don’t have because I never found a copy in good enough condition.”