Auction of books by Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton

Sotheby’s in London is selling rare books on polar exploration by Shackelton and Scott

A 100 years ago, in 1915, the third British Expedition to the Antarctic ended when the ship Endurance had to be abandoned by Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew. Shackleton led his men to South Georgia – and safety – against almost impossible odds in what is regarded as one of the great epics of human survival.

In 2002, Shackleton was ranked 11th in a poll of the “100 Greatest Britons”. Yet he had died, in debt and in poor health, in 1922, aged just 48.

Shackleton was born at Kilkea near Athy, Co Kildare, where the local authority has commissioned a statue in his honour due to be unveiled in 2016 – despite Sinn Féin protests.

He moved to London with his Anglo-Irish family at the age of 10 and never returned. His first polar trip – when he was 27 – was with Capt Scott from 1901-1904.


Shackleton placed what is arguably the most famous recruitment ad in history in the London Times prior to setting off to Antarctica: "Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success."

Later this month (on September 30th) Sotheby’s in London will auction a selection of rare travel books relating to the polar explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton. Sotheby’s says both men were also “pioneering publishers and writers” and had “produced some of the most outstanding and rare of all travel books, recounting their great feats of adventure, ill-fated voyages, daily lives and discoveries in the South Pole”.

The auction highlights include the first book printed in Antarctica, Shackleton's Antarctic handbook and a facsimile of the South Polar Times (the newspaper produced by Scott's men in the Antarctic).

In a catalogue note for the sale, Sotheby’s says: “To ward off the boredom (or ‘polar ennui’) of overwintering in the perpetual dark, Shackleton and Scott urged their men to write, illustrate and record their adventures to sustain morale in the highest, windiest and driest environment on earth. Untouched by scientists until the 20th century, Antarctica was the last great wilderness on earth to be explored; the adventurers took typewriters, printing presses, painting and photographic equipment half way across the world to record their experience.”

The highlight of the auction is "the first book printed in the Antarctic", Ernest Shackleton's Aurora Australis (estimate £50,000 -£70,000/€68,652-€96,100) described as "one of the most celebrated travel books ever written".

At most, 100 copies of this book were produced of which about 70 are accounted for today. It contains a mix of "fact, fiction, humour, prose and poetry, and lithographs and etchings by George Marston (the official artist for the British Antarctic Expedition)" and was printed "at the sign of the Penguins", winter quarters of the British Antarctic Expedition, Cape Royds, in 1909.

The book is bound in the original venesta boards (an early plywood) taken from the expedition packing crates and the spine is fashioned from leather horse harnesses.

Sotheby’s says: “That such a beautiful book should be produced on a simple printing press in such testing conditions (the ink would often freeze), is remarkable”.

Another key lot is a copy of The Heart of the Antarctic by Shackleton, published in London in 1909, which is signed by the author and "all of the shore party" and is "an account of the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909" (estimated at £10,000-£15,000). It is Shackleton's personal account of a journey that made him a public hero. Sotheby's says only 300 copies of this book were ever produced and. On his return to Britain, Shackleton was knighted.

The books in the auction are from the library of Franklin Brooke-Hitching a private book collector who has “assembled the most magnificent private collection of English language books charting the discovery of the world over 40 years”.

According to the Daily Telegraph, Mr Brooke-Hitching (72) "says he wants others to have the pleasure of owning the books, but he does not want them to end up in museums, which he fears would not keep them in good condition".

Sotheby’s says that “while many of the books are unique or very rare, all are notable for being in the finest possible condition”.

Separately, in Co Kildare, the Athy Heritage Centre, home to the only permanent exhibition anywhere devoted to Shackleton, has announced that its annual "Ernest Shackleton Autumn School to celebrate the life and work of the great Antarctic explorer in the area of his birth" will run from Friday to Monday, October 23rd to 25th.

The heritage centre's exhibits include an original sledge and harness from the Antarctic expeditions, a 15ft model of Endurance, an exhibition of unique Shackleton family photographs and an audio-visual display. For details and more information about the autumn school see