Scarcity value

Maggs Bros, a firm of antiquarian book dealers founded in 1853, has occupied a handsome Georgian townhouse at 50 Berkeley Square
in Mayfair since 1938. In the 1870s, the building earned a reputation as the "most haunted house in London". And down in its musty, dusty basement, all clanking pipes and disused Victorian cooking apparatus, you can see why such an urban myth might have taken hold.

However, Hugh Bett, who has worked at Maggs for 35 years, is briskly dismissive of the legend. "There's no ghost," he says flatly, when I meet him at No 50.

In any case, the reason I'm there is to talk to him about a collection of rare books about the Middle East, many of them from the 18th and 19th centuries, that the firm has just put up for sale. Bett acquired the collection of more than 950 volumes from the family of the late Sir Donald Hawley, a British diplomat who began his career in the Sudan Political Service before working for the Foreign Office in Cairo, Baghdad and the sultanate of Oman.

Hawley was a Foreign Office Arabist pur et dur, and his collection reflects his interests in what Bett calls the "great age of the Arabist explorer". Besides the inevitable copy of T E Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, there's a first edition of the four-volume L'art arabe (1877) by the French archaeologist Émile Prisse d'Avennes and an 1820 copy of Giovanni Battista Belzoni's Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries Within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs and Excavations in Egypt and Nubia.

Maggs has put the collection up for sale for £600,000, and Bett says he is "hopeful" of selling it as a complete set. "I'm going to give it a year or two," he tells me. His colleague Titus Boeder is equally confident of selling a smaller collection of books about China that he bought from an anonymous former employee of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank.

Although the internet has affected the trade in rare books (not least by forcing dealers to redefine what they mean by "rarity"), Boeder remains optimistic. "Auction prices have rocketed in the last year," he says bullishly. "And books about China, at least, have become scarce."

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the muslim brotherhood