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The priceless beauty of old things
IN a corner of the space taken up by China in Print - Asia's leading fair of rare books and manuscripts - a sharp eye would notice a map that Singapore's historians would lust after.
Featured in Theodor de Bry's Grand Voyages, an account of European exploration, it was published in 1607, and is the oldest known map in the world that features Singapore in it.
It depicts a little known Dutch-Portuguese naval battle that took place in 1603, and Singapura - as it was known then - is shown joined to the Johor mainland. Pedra Branca and Bintan can also be seen.
Beautiful old things are hard to come by, and discoveries like this were aplenty at the recently concluded exhibition in Hong Kong.
Already in its sixth year, the annual China in Print is a must for collectors of antiquities, as it gathers all the best museum-quality books, maps, prints and photographs on Asia in one venue.
Organised by Bernard Quaritch of London, it brought together over 30 of the world's leading specialist dealers, selling items from as little as US$50 to almost US$1 million.
One of the most valuable artefacts on display was a book featuring magnificent woodcut illustrations of scientific instruments designed by the Jesuits for the Emperor of China. Dated 1674, the book is valued at US$750,000.
There was also an original notebook belonging to British crime novelist Agatha Christie, dating back to the period of 1948 to 1951 - the only manuscript existing outside of her estate.
Though neither sold at the fair, what is notable is that it is impossible to find such pieces outside museums.
According to the director of the fair, Andrea Mazzocchi: "Over a thousand people visited this year, a significant increase from previous years, with also a higher percentage of buyers rather than just visitors."
He adds: "Collectors came from Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand and mainland China, and of course plenty of Hong Kong residents including expats from America and Europe."
Mr Mazzocchi also noted the fair was visited by numerous young collectors, particularly attracted to illustrated books and visual material: "This new generation of collectors and their evolving tastes will define the market trends for the next few years."
Apart from the big-ticket items, there was much for the casual and serious collector to browse through.
There were beautiful Japanese woodblock prints, leather-bound antique books on travel, colourful guide books showing what Hong Kong, Penang and other places looked like a hundred years ago, colonial caricatures, lovely vintage travel posters and amazing maps.
One favourite was a double-sided cheat sheet on silk for the Imperial Chinese civil service examinations.
One dealer, Lorence Johnston of Lok Man Rare Books Hong Kong, noted: "The energy of the fair increases every year and this time was no exception, especially with more visitors from outside Hong Kong. For the book-lover, the sheer variety of high-quality books and maps, and the expertise of the exhibitors, in one place just for these three days is unsurpassed."
Yves Azemar of Indosiam Rare Books Hong Kong added: "There were more visitors this year and the fair was full every day. People came from Hong Kong, China, Singapore and elsewhere in South-east Asia. And there were more young enthusiasts as well, which is a good sign for the future."
- Details of the exhibitors can be found at www.chinainprint.com