Rare China photobook tipped to sell at auction for more than £20,000

An exceedingly rare 150-year-old photobook on China is expected to fetch over £20,000 when it is sold at auction – having been found by chance.

Pioneering Scottish photographer John Thomson produced the book containing 14 sepia photographs painstakingly printed and pasted into each copy.

The book entitled, Views On The North River, was published in Hong Kong in 1870 and it will go under the hammer at Dominic Winter Auctioneers in South Cerney, Gloucestershire, on October 3.

Views On The North River
Views On The North River (Dominic Winter Auctioneers/PA)

Auctioneer and photography specialist Chris Albury said Thomson’s publishing venture was unsuccessful but did produce a “remarkable” book.

“The weather was very rainy throughout the trip and Thomson struggled to get good photographs,” Mr Albury said.

“This was compounded by the fact that the albumen print process used at that time was liable to fading, particularly near the edges.

“Unlike some of Thomson’s other works, illustrated with more lasting photographic processes, this has not stood the test of time that well.

“There seem to have been virtually no reviews of the book at the time and Thomson hurried on to other more successful projects.

“What is remarkable is that this copy is not only in the original printed boards as issued at the time but has been in the same family hands since publication and bears the original ownership inscription of George Dods, the Acting Colonial Surgeon in Hong Kong.”

Photographs that appear in John Thomson’s photobook Views on the North River
The photobook is expected to fetch over £20,000 (Dominic Winter Auctioneers/PA)

Thomson’s photobook was discovered when the family who owned it brought in some antiquarian books and albums relating to China for valuation.

“Those books and the box of photographs and scrap albums is the best single box of books I have ever unpacked,” said Mr Albury.

“My heart nearly stopped when I saw the title-page for I instantly recognised it as a rarity, but it was only later when researching it that I discovered there are only a handful of copies known.”

A copy is held in the National Library of Scotland, another is at the Hong Kong University Library, a third is in the Wason Collection at Cornell University and two others are privately owned.

Photographs that appear in John Thomson’s photobook Views on the North River
The book was produced by Pioneering Scottish photographer John Thomson (Dominic Winter Auctioneers/PA)

“With no other auction prices to act as a guide it is unknown territory when it comes to pricing,” Mr Albury said.

“Certainly, the photographs valued individually would not add up to a great sum but the rare travel book trade, the rare photographs trade and the art market all collide over something like this, with interest likely to come from collectors, institutions and dealers from every continent, so there is no telling where the price may end up.

“I don’t believe it will get close to the £350,000 paid for a copy of Thomson’s Foochow and the River Min in 2012, as that is a far more magnificent book.

“This book is rarer, and our most expensive photographic item was an album of photographs from the Edinburgh Calotype Club which fetched £190,000 against a similar estimate, so anything is possible.”

Also going under the hammer is a copy of Thomson’s four-volume Illustrations Of China And Its People in London in 1873-4, which is estimated to fetch £20,000, and an album by William Pryor which could sell for £25,000.

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