Fishing Lines: Piranha Teeth's collection bites the dust

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The Independent Online

If you're one of those whose idea of spending heavily on a book means buying it in hardback, you would have had a bit of a shock last week. I'm still recovering from an auction of fishing books where many sold for over £10,000, and two went for five times that amount.

In fact, it cost buyers a fair bit more than that. The auction was run by Bonhams at their swish New Bond Street sale rooms. For non-Londoners, this is an area where most goods in the shop windows don't have prices. ("If you need to ask, you can't afford it.") Bonhams make sure they keep up with the Guccis by charging a 20 per cent buyer's premium, meaning those £50,000 books actually cost £60,000.

Still, those who can afford to pay more for one book than I've spent on all the cars I've ever owned probably don't worry too much about the odd 10 grand. And nor did the man who owned all the books in the first place.

Come on down Sir Jocelyn Stevens, the former chairman of English Heritage and one-time rector of the Royal College of Art. Journalists will know him from the days when he was plain old Jocelyn, and managing director of the Evening Standard and Express Newspapers. He also owned the innovative magazine Queen, which he bought for himself as a 25th birthday present. Like you do.

In his newspaper days, he boasted a ferocious reputation (Private Eye nicknamed him Piranha Teeth), but the monster had a redeeming side: he went fishing. He acquired this interest during his childhood in Scotland, and more recently from living in Hampshire's Test Valley.

Living alongside one of the world's most beautiful rivers inspired him to start a book collection. But he didn't pop along to the local Waterstone's. He collected only rarities. I'd like to say that he scoured antiquarian bookshops worldwide on his quest. But he didn't. A specialist bookseller did the legwork. I guess when you're trying to protect Stonehenge, trolling the shelves of Biddie's Old Books is probably one luxury you can't afford. Anyway, buying secretly, he compiled a library beyond the dreams of avarice.

It included a first edition of Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler, a book that has gone into more editions than any other work except The Bible and the works of Shakespeare. Sale price: £50,000. He owned a copy of George Scotcher's The Fly Fisher's Legacy, a circa 1819 book so rare that the British Museum do not own a copy. It sold for £46,000. Then there was fishing's oldest book, Halieutica, from 1478 (£18,00); the first French and German books on fishing (£14,000 and £9,000).

The library wasn't just fishing. He owned Ichthyologie by Markus-Elizier Bloch, a stunning 12-volume, 16th-century work with the pictures enhanced with silver to make them reflect the sheen of fish scales (£36,000) and even a 16th-century treatise on turtles (£16,000). The whole library went for £722,000.

But why stop? Sir J said he bought his last book in 2002, "and there wasn't a lot to hunt down". Huh! It was noticeable that, for all his fine books, he never had a copy of Keith Elliott's Catch More Shark.

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