by Ian McKayLAST summer, when a large Biggles collection was put up for sale in Swindon, results were a little disappointing – at least for some of those titles offered individually, where some reserves proved too strong for collectors and trade alike – and around half of the 100 lots were bought in – but W.E. Johns’ famous creation certainly does not lack admirers and in a Bloomsbury Auctions sale of February, a much smaller group of Biggles books, mostly from one source, brought good prices.
The most expensive W.E. Johns book, however, did not feature Biggles, who first appeared in print in the inaugural, April 1932 issue of Popular Flying, a magazine edited by Johns, and in bookform in that same year in The Camels are Coming. The sale's top Johns lot was the copy of Mossyface: a Romance of the Air, seen right. This 'adult' story, featuring ex-RAF Captain James Margerson in a search for a lost temple and treasures in Egypt, was re-issued in 1932, but it had first appeared in 1922 under the pseudonym of William Earle and as a title in the large format, sixpenny paperback 'Weekly Telegraph Novels' series. That authorial disguise, the flimsy nature of the wrappers and poor quality of the paper on which these novels were printed mean that few copies of this early work survive and this one went to a collector at £4800.
Moving down the lefthand column of illustrations, the 1935 OUP first of Biggles Hits the Trail, in a well-preserved and rarely seen jacket with 3/6d price tag, was sold at £1100 (Sotherans), while the copy of Biggles Flies Again, in a chipped, creased and otherwise defective jacket, went to Paganuzzi at £1600.
The latter is a hard title to find and in last June's Dominic Winter sale, a copy in a jacket that had been restored and showed careful re-colouring and re-lettering, and which was described as a later issue of 1936, was bid to £2100.
The copy of Biggles in the Orient which made £900 has its own caption, so I will move to the righthand column and to another of the scarcer Biggles titles, The Black Peril, with its jacket illustration of two giant Dornier Do-X flying boats, which sold at £1000 to Paganuzzi.
Ginger's first flight
I have resisted the temptation to don the anorak and identify the aircraft seen on the the other dust jackets, but I must report the fact that this creased and torn but rarely seen jacket has a 4/- over-sticker which may indicate a 1936 Hamilton reprint of the original of the previous year. It may also be worth noting that The Black Peril was the story which introduced "a lad of 15 or 16 years of age... in rags, dirty beyond description, but above a collarless shirt rose a frank, alert, freckled face, surmounted by a mop of tousled red hair". Ginger
The 1936 OUP first of Biggles & Co and "Biggles" of the Camel Squadron, an early John Hamilton edition of 1936, went to collectors at £850 and £700 respectively, while Biggles in Spain, a 1939 OUP first, was another private purchase at £1300.
The pre-sale publicity for the 20th century literature section of the Bloomsbury sale had focussed on a fine 1953 first of Casino Royale that was later inscribed and contained a long, related Als to Percy Muir. This did not bring the £30,000-40,000 suggested, but a lot offering 11 typed letters from Fleming to Muir did sell at £3500 (Pickard). Two copies of On Her Majesty's Secret Service of 1963, one of 250 copies of the signed, limited edition that came from the library of an old friend and Kemsley Newspapers colleague, and a copy of the standard first, lacking the jacket but inscribed "To Birdie from the same old beast, Ian", brought bids of £4000 (Lawson) and £2800 (Jonkers).
Staying with the spy story for a moment, a signed and "amazingly clean bright" 1963 first of John Le Carré's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold made £1200, and other jacketed firsts in this part of the sale included:- A copy of The Hitler Cult and how it will end of 1939, part of a Wyndham Lewis collection from the library of the late Quentin Keynes, which sold at £440.
A copy of C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters of 1942, in a simple typographic dust jacket, went to Jonkers at £1050 and from the man to whom that book was dedicated, J.R.R. Tolkien, came a good 1954-55 Lord of the Rings set, the last volume, The Return of the King, a first issue, which went to P. Harrington at £12,750.
With a small puncture hole in a corner of the upper cover but otherwise very good, a copy of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone of 1997 was sold at £5400.
Mossyface (1922) - £4800.
Biggles Flies Again (1934) - £1600.
Biggles of the Camel Squadron (1936) - £700.