This rare Kelmscott Press edition of the works of Geoffrey Chaucer offered by London dealer Maggs Bros with an asking price of £295,000 was among the sales made on the opening night of Firsts London at the Saatchi Gallery. Taking four years to make, it is regarded as the most ambitious book to come from the Kelmscott Press and includes designs and illustrations by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Adding to the value of this example was its original full white pigskin binding which was commissioned for 50 copies from the full edition of 438.

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The event was the ABA’s flagship fair, Firsts London, which took place for the first time at the impressive 70,000 sq ft gallery on the King’s Road in Chelsea following its move across the Thames from Battersea.

More select than previous editions, it hosted 83 exhibitors from October 21-24 spread across three levels with the major rare book sellers mainly located on the ground floor.

Helped along by the venue’s accessible location in the heart of one of London’s busiest shopping districts, the fair got off to a lively start, attracting a decent crowd for the invitation-only preview.

By the close, a record number of visitors had attended (4500), generating more reported sales than at the last event where an additional 50 dealers took part.

Footfall up

Organiser Pom Harrington, who also heads London rare book shop Peter Harrington, said he was “frankly delighted” with the footfall which was close to 30% up on the 2019 edition.

“The fair’s move to Saatchi Gallery has undoubtedly proven successful in attracting museum and institutional buyers, existing and new private collectors, as well as rare book enthusiasts from across the UK,” he added.

ATG cannot confirm whether the fair succeeded in attracting a younger and more diverse audience – a key reason organisers gave for the Saatchi move – but given travel restrictions and other pandemic-related challenges, the increased business suggests the relocation paid off regardless.

The fair has since announced it has secured the venue until 2024 after receiving an “unanimously affirmative response from every participating exhibitor that they would either return or consider returning next year”.

Exhibitor view

Among the exhibitors who expressed satisfaction with the location was Tom Ayling of Jonkers Rare Books based in a large corner booth on the ground floor.

He said the setting of the King’s Road provided “suitably louche surrounds” while the Saatchi offered “spacious, well-lit and attractive galleries” that gave visitors and collectors “a very pleasant browsing environment”.

He was also pleased with the extra space and high ceilings which meant he could exhibit a whole salon-style gallery wall hung offering original illustrative artwork by Arthur Rackham and Jessie M King among others and original Herbert Ponting photographs from Scott’s Terra Nova expedition to the Antarctic.

“We deal in a lot of this material, but rarely have the space to properly showcase such a wide range of it, so we were very grateful to be able to really do it justice,” said Ayling.

Located on the top floor, Nigel Talbot of Covent Garden shop Grosvenor Prints had a more mixed experience. He told ATG he was “extremely pleased” with his turnover – just into five figures – but admitted to being “a bit disappointed” with the footfall over the weekend.

“Being on the top floor a lot of the more senior crowd didn’t make it; I overheard one person say, ‘I’ve been here all day, I’m exhausted and I have only 20 minutes to do the top floor before closing!’ Another got home to find he had missed the second floor altogether but came back the following day to visit us.”

Talbot added: “We were hoping for a younger affluent crowd being at the Saatchi, but this didn’t seem to be the case.”

Sales on other stands ranged from first editions of Ian Fleming to artist books and travel posters while the pick of the top-end purchases made on the opening night was a rare Kelmscott Press edition of the works of Geoffrey Chaucer priced at £295,000 from London dealer Maggs Bros.