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Mr Atabey’s Books

Wherever he went in search of books on Turkey for his collection, Omer Koç was dismayed to find that the mysterious Mr Atabey had been there before him. Then, in an apartment in Paris, all was revealed: the world’s most magnificent collection of volumes on the Ottoman Empire and the Levant - a veritable treasure trove of beautiful books

  • Beşiktaş Palace, by JB Hilaire, an artist in the revenue of the French ambassador. The book is the first editionof Ignace Mouradja d'Ohsson's Tableau Général de l'Empire Ottoman, published in Paris, 1787–90. The first volume is dedicated to Louis XVI. The second and third were delayed by the French Revolution. Burckhardt described it as 'the only perfect source of information regarding the laws and constitution of the Ottoman Empire'

The world of book lovers and book sellers is a small one. That of collectors specialising in a particular field is even smaller. So it was that I first heard of Şefik Atabey soon after I began collecting books in what I thought was a serious way. Whenever I asked dealers in Paris or London if they had books on the Ottoman Empire or the Levant in general, they would invariably mention the name of Şefik Atabey.

“Do you know Mr Atabey?”, “I did have a most desirable copy of that book but I sold it to Mr Atabey”, or “Mr Atabey is the most formidable collector in the field” were remarks I often heard. Those dealers lucky enough to have seen Atabey’s collection, such as the late jean Polak, the late Nigel Wood, Mrs Dupont and the late M Chamonal, spoke his name with awe.

I was becoming more than curious, feeling not unlike a parched man in a desert whom someone else has beaten to every oasis. Atabey and his collection began to assume mythical proportions in my mind. He seemed to resemble Keyser Söze, the fictitious villain of the film The Usual Suspects – with the imporant difference that the collection was most real and Şefik Atabey a gentleman in every sense of the word.

When I finally met Mr Atabey, thanks to my aunt Sevgi Gönül, I found that his collection surpassed anything I had imagined. This was a few years into my life as a collector, and it did not take me long to realise that, after all, I was not that serious a collector. My luck was in meeting him while I was still a neophyte, for gave me what became my guiding precepts.

Like all great ideas, these rules were very simple. First, since as a private collector one cannot hope to compete with public or national libraries, concentrate on quality rather than quantity. Second limit yourself by choosing a subject and a cut-off date. Atabey himself does not collect books published after 1850, believing that the production of books then became too industrial, detracting from their beauty. Third, never hesitate to upgrade a book. a corollary of this is, always be prepared to pay considerably more for a better copy.

Apropros of upgrading, a renowned collector like Henry Blackmer – the sale of whose collection in 1989 really started the market for books on Greece and Turkey – did not believe in upgrading, which is why he had so many shabby copies alongside splendid ones. One well-known dealer who supplied him with books said that when presented with two copies of the same book, Blackmer would always go for the dog copy. Chacun a son sale gout

The complete Atabey Collection of books on the Ottoman Empire, went under the hammer at Sotheby’s. London, in May 1997. Jason Goodwin, author of Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire, spent a day with the books before they were dispersed.

To read the full article, purchase Issue 14

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Issue 14, 1997/98 Objects of Desire
£30.00 / $38.15 / €35.11
Other Highlights from Cornucopia 14
  • Battle for the Bogs

    Anatolia’s new peat gatherers follow a rugged, self-sufficient way of life. But they are taking their toll on the rare flowers of the Turkish moors.

  • Shades of Greene

    Iskenderun and Aleppo were once vital trading posts of the Ottoman Empire. Today they straddle a border and are raffish outposts worthy of Graham Greene. Amicia de Moubray accompanied Iskenderun’s Honorary British Consul on a whistle-stop tour of the two cities. She discovered the legacy of liquorice and the East’s most enticing bazaar.

  • The Pumpkin Eaters

    In the seventeenth century, Evliya Çelebi, the Ottoman traveller, praised the size of the pumpkins of Varna on the Black Sea: a single fruit could weigh up to 60kg. Today in the Balkans, the custom is to slice off the stem end of a ripe pumpkin, scoop out its seeds and pour honey into the cavity. The top is then replaced like a lid and the pumpkin baked in the oven.
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  • To Paris or Perish

    Veterans of the Peking-to-Paris rally know that if you can nurse your car across the deserts, mountains and yak tracks of the great Asian landmass and reach Istanbul in one piece, the final leg on Europe’s roads should be a cruise. Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, an entrant in this year’s 90th anniversary event, sent home a diary of his - and others’ - adventures on this 12,000 mile marathon from Peking to Paris.

  • Frontier Castle

    High on a honey-coloured Cappadocian hillside, a remarkable Frenchman set himself the challenge of restoring the crumbling stone houses in the village of Uçhisar. Today, lovingly brought back to life, they stand tall once again. David Barchard was bewitched. Photographs: Sigurd Kranendonk

Buy the issue
Issue 14, 1997/98 Objects of Desire
£30.00 / $38.15 / 1,228.43 TL
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