On auction: Renowned collector Sunil Baboo's rare books carry a piece of India's history
It was a fascination that led to Sunil Baboo collecting the wrappers of chewing gum bearing flags of different countries in his childhood. Over the year, that fascination turned him into a collector who can’t help but acquire books, letters, maps and prints carrying a piece of India's history. His collection boasts of Sir William Jones' translation of Kalidasa's Shakuntala, the third edition of a Hindustani - English dictionary written by John Shakespeare who was a descendant of William Shakespeare and worked for East India Company, colonial books covering the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and letters written during this period, and his coveted 'Tipu Sultan Collection' that also features a map of Tipu Sultan's dominion as it existed in 1792.
“My collection reflects my personal interest in some of the most fascinating incidents. For instance, we as students of history have come across the incident of greased cartridges as the probable reason that ignited the Indian Mutiny of 1857. In my books, written in two large volumes comprising of about 1800 odd pages by Charles Ball, an American correspondent travelling in India, the issue of the greased cartridge is just about half a column of a page. This tells that there was much more to it and the greased cartridge was a very small part of it,” says 59-year-old Baboo. These books, alongside some letters and maps, are presently being auctioned online by Bombay-based auction house, Prinseps.
“What's interesting about Sunil Baboo’s collection is that he has sought out important parts of Indian History. For example, there is an entire newspaper (London Chronicle) from 1782 that discusses the state of affairs in Indian as told by the East India Company, including details like how a lot of East Indian officers are creating havoc in India and how they need more officers to deal with the local population better. It is not often that you got a chance to pick up a newspaper like that, you have to wait for a decade or two to get a chance to find somebody somewhere who is selling it and then you pick it up. Similarly, there is a beautiful 1758 publication of The Scots Magazine which has a first-person account of the imprisonment of the British in the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta in Fort William where a lot of Britishers were put in a dungeon where they died,” explains Indrajit Chatterjee, founder of Prinseps, and adds that this collection includes books that are 200-300 years old and have been a part of various personal libraries across various countries and have been held by some of the most notable people.
But, how does one trace the journey of a book and judge its authenticity, especially when it is rare? "A lot about the book can be judged from the cover of the book and its binding. Then there is author, publishing date and location and annotations conveying gifted by so and so, in the library of so and so and other details. Luckily, one of the things that can't be forged very easily is age. Regardless of wherever the book is from, even if overseas, the binding and the paper will go through the ageing process which could range from simple discolouration or foxing of pages to stains, hand-written notes (earlier inks used to be acidic and over the years, they would seep into the paper and almost eats into it) and other indications," informs Chatterjee who has organised Prinseps' second book auction and feels that although nascent, the market for books is growing owing to the exposure that people now have about what's valuable and what’s not.
"The market for books and prints is increasing in the country and it is fuelled by large disposable income, curiosity and aspirational values, which was earlier seen in only rich families. Some of our royal families have a very rich collection of books, which are also very well preserved, and the conversations around them gave now provided avenues for many others, who relate with that lifestyle, who want to make some identity for themselves. Being a collector fills your ego quite a bit," adds Baboo. What then made him put these books up for an auction? "As I am turning 60 next year, I along with my wife Alpana are moving towards a new notion of engagement and that is art for us. We want to utilise the money that we get from auction to support artistic talent among tribal communities across India. We are also instituting a company - Rent-A-Art, which will rent original paintings from these tribal communities to corporate houses and other institutions with a simple idea that a reasonable rent on monthly basis would go a long way to provide sustainable financial support to these artists," he concludes.
While 60 lots from Sunil Baboo's collection are on auction at present (September 4 and 5), Princeps is also organising an online auction for prints, which would see prints made by Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Haren Das, V S Gaitonde, Mukul Dey, B C Sanyal and F N Souza. It will also feature a rare signed print by Abanindranath Tagore, which was originally given to Rathindranath Tagore, who was Abanindranath’s cousin, as a New Year present. The print auction will go live on September 11.
How to preserve books?
Baboo has been using mylar, a kind of plastic, as sleeves to keep paper. While he considers humidity to be good for books, he suggests people living in dryer climates to keep a small amount of water in their bookshelves. The water will evaporate because of heat and create a humid environment.
How do we peg a value against these books?
That is why we do an auction. We start with a low price and then the bidding happens and at the end of the day, two people decide what the value of a book should be. So, auction helps in the price discovery process, says Chatterjee and adds that the basic value with which the auction starts is decided on the basis of the relevance of the author, the year in which it was printed, the condition of the book and its rarity. If a book is available in only two or three libraries across the world, it is very rare and if it is available in hundreds of libraries, then it not scarce at all.