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‘Now, 90 per cent of our business is online’: Rare books to satisfy the mind

Dublin booksellers have works by Jack B Yeats, JRR Tolkien and Thomas Kinsella for sale. Meanwhile in New York, a Warhol/Basquiat showstopper expects to sell for $18m

The Covid-19 pandemic brought much suffering to people across the world, but the enforced isolation during lockdowns also inspired some people to take up new hobbies.

The collection of books, rare literary magazines and political pamphlets was one such hobby that gained more enthusiasts during Covid – possibly partly because books and periodicals don’t require as much space as paintings or antique furniture, and can be sent across the world reasonably cheaply.

But the rise of online buying also allowed potential buyers and sellers to dedicate hours to exploring and buying books on international markets. De Búrca Rare Books in Blackrock, Co Dublin, has up to 2,000 books for sale on its website at any one time.

“Before Covid, our business was mainly mail order. We used to print over 1,000 catalogues and post them worldwide. Now, 90 per cent of our business is online,” explains Will de Búrca.


He says that signed material is very sought after at the moment.

“After Irish history and Irish literature/poetry, it’s our third biggest category,” he explains.

De Búrca Books is currently promoting a fascinating collection of magazines and books illustrated and written by Jack B Yeats.

One of Ireland’s best known early 20th century artists – and brother of writer WB Yeats – Jack B Yeats worked as an illustrator before turning to oil painting. He also designed sets for the Abbey Theatre and wrote novels, poems and many plays.

Of particular interest to collectors of historic literary magazines is the complete collection of Broadside (€12,750). The literary magazine was published in a limited edition of 300 each month, from June 1908 to May 1915, by his sister, Elizabeth C Yeats at the Dun Emer (later Cuala) Press. Each issue contains at least three original woodcut designs by Jack B Yeats, with over 250 drawings in total.

“Some of the smaller drawings may also be found as Cuala prints or greeting cards, but the majority of the larger illustrations (mostly 125-176 mm in size) have never been reprinted,” explains Will de Búrca.

He says the original set of Broadsides will remain the only source for this collection of Jack B Yeats graphic art, and suggests that changes in print technology wouldn’t do justice to these plates if they were reproduced.

The subject matter ranges from the West of Ireland to Cockney life in London. The literary content includes old Irish ballads, sea shanties and poems, some of which are believed to be by Yeats himself under pseudonyms.

A copy of a Jack B Yeats play, The Treasure of the Garden (€1,375) with hand-coloured illustrations by the artist, and the three volumes of Jack B Yeats.

A Catalogue Raisonné, of the Oil Paintings by Hilary Pyle (London: Deutsch,1992, First edition) (€675) are also among the items in the Jack B Yeats collection for sale. Pyle is the world’s leading authority on the art of Jack B Yeats.

Ulysses Rare Books on Duke St in Dublin city centre attracts tourists and locals alike to peruse its collections of books on Irish literature.

“We do a good tourist trade because of our central location and more recently, we have expanded beyond Irish literature into children’s literature and general literature,” explains David Cunningham, who has been running the shop with his sister Aisling since the 1980s. Their father, Enda Cunningham, previously sold rare books in the nearby South Great George’s St market arcade.

New arrivals in Ulysses Rare Books include a first edition set of The Two Towers – the Lord of the Rings Trilogy by JRR Tolkien (€18,500), and the first UK edition from 1894 of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (€595). A limited signed edition of Cities of the Plain, by Cormac McCarthy (€1,500), is also a recent arrival, as is Thomas Kinsella’s The Táin (1985), with illustrations by Louis de Brocquy (€395).

Finally, the collaborative painting Untitled by legendary New York-based artists Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat will be one of the absolute highlights of the Sotheby’s Marquee of Contemporary Art auction in New York this month.

Between 1983 and 1985, the unlikely duo created about 160 works together often painting in tandem “à quatre mains”, and making some of the largest works produced during their respective careers.

“Andy would start one [painting] and put something very recognisable on it or a product logo, and I would sort of deface it,” explained Basquiat at one point.

Their collaborative work was made into a play entitled The Collaboration, which ran in London’s West End and in Broadway in 2022/2023 and is currently being adapted into a film.

Untitled, which is about 10 feet high and 13 feet wide is one of the largest piece of work from the series of collaborative paintings. Basquiat was 24 and Warhol 56 when it was created. It comes to auction on May 13th for the first time in nearly 15 years, with an estimate of $18 million (€16.8m).;;

What did it sell for?

A plaster model of the Venus de Milo

Estimate: €400-€800

Hammer price: €420

Auction house: Victor Mee

The Lilac Seller, Sir Frederic William Burton

Estimate: £10,000-£15,000

Hammer price: Unsold

Auction house: Bonhams

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment