Somewhere, on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, lies one of the most desirable rare books in the world.
The book is Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyyat, translated and published in 1860 by Edward FitzGerald. It’s location today? Not preserved in a rare book library, but lying somewhere deep within the submerged and rusting hulk of the Titanic.
“The book was undoubtedly the most ambitious bookbinding ever undertaken by any bookbinder at any period in history,” say Sangorski & Sutcliffe, the British bookbinders who undertook the painstaking process of rebinding the American edition of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyyat in 1911.
“It boasted over a thousand precious and semi-precious jewels, thousands of separate leather onlays and it took the firm two years of continuous work to finish.”
Enclosed in an oak slipcase, the Rubaiyyat’s ornate cover of Moroccan leather inlaid with a depiction of three peacocks, their tail feathers spread dramatically, including gold embroidery in the details, as well as a Persian ud, similar to a lute, designed of inlaid wood and ivory. The small and delicate jewels which encrusted the book’s binding included more than 1,000 emeralds, rubies, amethysts, and topazes, each set separately in gold.
Auctioned for £405 ($57,627 today) in 1912
On March 29, 1912, just twelve days before the “unsinkable” Titanic set sail on her maiden voyage, the book’s British owner consigned the bejeweled Rubaiyyat to Sotheby’s rare book auction in London. Fantastically, due to cautionary spending following England’s recent coal strike, the Rubaiyyat was sold for just £405 (a bit over $2,000 in 1912) to Gabriel Weis, an American. The New York Times reported that the final auction price was barely a third of the book’s worth.
Following the auction, Sotheby’s packed the book and arranged for it to be transported to its buyer in the United States on White Star Line’s newest grand lady, the Titanic, bound for New York.
When Titanic struck an iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912, the ship went down in the icy waters, tragically taking the lives of 1,503 passengers and crew, as well as the ship’s luxurious appointments and all of her cargo.
Somewhere, among the decaying debris of that cargo, lies the Rubaiyyat.
Titanic Sinks with Rare Books in Cargo
This volume wasn’t the only rare book that was lost to the sea that night. Several pieces of parchment from the Torah owned by Hersh L. Siebald also disappeared during the sinking.
A considerably rare first edition of Francis Bacon’s essays, owned by recent Harvard graduate Harry Elkins Widener, along with several other rare books he’d just acquired for his home library, went down with the ship. Widener placed his mother and her maid aboard a lifeboat and then stepped back, later declining his own seat in another boat. His body was never found. In memory of her son, Harry’s mother endowed the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library to Harvard University following the disaster.
The Widener rare book library today remains one of the most famous in the world.
Since the discovery of the wreckage of the great liner in 1985, numerous dives to Titanic two-miles beneath the waves of the Atlantic, have brought up enormous amounts of precious artifacts from the ship, many of which are currently on display at various Titanic museums around the world.
Can the jeweled Rubaiyyat still survive?
Despite efforts to locate this legendary Rubaiyyat, thus far, there’s been no trace of the book among the ship’s cargo.
Many paper products, including money, playing cards, sheet music and letters have miraculously survived after being submerged underwater for 75+ years before being brought up during the dives beginning in the 1980’s.
Paper has survived, however, only when it was discovered stored within heartier containers, such as leather suitcases and handbags. In fact, most leather objects have survived the wreck incredibly well, due to the fact that oceanic microorganisms cannot digest the tannins used in preserving the hide, and thus tend to favor metals and other materials which have disintegrated after so many years.
The precious stones embedded on the book’s cover are likely still present if the book was not somehow destroyed upon impact. Since the book’s binding was in fine leather, even after over 100 years beneath the sea it is definitely possible that if the book is indeed ever found, at least the binding may be identifiable, if not the actual pages within including Eliku Vedder’s beautiful illustrations.
Today’s value? Extraordinary.
If found today, the book’s value would likely be extraordinary. Items recovered from the wreck regularly auction for prices in the tens of thousands and more – a record Titanica price was achieved in 2013 when the violin that played as the ship went down was auctioned for $1.7 million.
Given the Rubaiyyat’s intrinsic value as an antique book, it could easily be worth in excess of $120,000 today – an original soft-wrapped printing of this book sold in 2009 for $30,000 alone, and that’s without the decadent gold and jewels!
This breathtaking volume, coupled with the legendary story of its journey aboard the most famously doomed ship in history, would likely bring a phenomenal amount at auction, with rare book collectors and Titanic enthusiasts in a bidding frenzy.
That is, if the Rubaiyyat can ever be found …