Old and rare children's books

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 January, 2013, 4:31am

Lorence Johnston wants me to smell an old book. He tilts a hefty brown tome at least 30cm long with the binding facing away and gently flips the pages towards me. I expect a mustiness but I get a warm cigar-like smell with faint vanilla. "That's a 300-year-old book smell," he says.

Johnston is the owner of Lok Man Rare Books, which specialises in collectibles. The volume he's been showing me is A Description of the Empire of China and Chinese-Tartary, a guidebook compiled by the Jesuit historian Jean-Baptiste Du Halde in 1735.

Johnston's children's books enjoy a steady popularity. Parents like to buy for christenings or birthdays and later present the collection when the kids are old enough to take care of the books. A customer might also buy for a father who has especially fond memories of The Little Prince as a child.

For the collector, children's books present a challenge: they are scarce. "It's very hard to find children's books in good condition since they are given to kids. They get scribbled in," Johnston says.

They also have the added value of drawings by prized illustrators. Lok Man carries several books with drawings by Arthur Rackham, who hails from the "golden age" of British book illustration - the early 1900s - and collaborated on everything from Mother Goose to Alice in Wonderland. "His style used lots of detailing. If you look closely you can see the fairies in the tree trunk. The faces of the animals come alive without being outrageous, without being Disney," says Johnston.

He also finds and restores children's books that have had illustrations cut out and sold as prints by dealers, who can make more money than selling the complete book. Says Johnston: "I would never do that and I'd kill anyone who tried."