Goodbye to amazing autographed book collection

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Book collector Colin Steele… “If I’d have got Tolkien to sign one of the books, you wouldn’t need superannuation.” Photo: Rod Henshaw

WALKING into Colin Steele’s Hawker home, you could be excused for thinking you’ve stumbled into a library. The main living area is flanked by floor-to-ceiling bookcases literally oozing literature.

There are even more collections in the study, spare room and almost everywhere you look.

But not the bedroom.

“We sleep in a room without books,” says Colin. “That’s one of the things my wife (Anna) says she’s never going to do.”

Clearly, he wants to avoid a similar fate to that of 19th century bibliophile Sir Thomas Phillipps, arguably the world’s most prolific collector of books and artefacts.

“His wife left him because she was bedded by books,” Colin says.

While you try to take in the enormity of these incredible collections, Colin says what you’re seeing is just a fraction of what’s left. The rest have either been sent to Melbourne to go under the hammer at auction, while other collections are housed at the Fisher Library at Sydney University and at the Australian National University.

The upcoming auction at Leski’s Melbourne auction house on March 3 will feature Colin Steele’s “Autograph and Book Collection” (lots 502 – 510). It is a bibliophile’s fantasy.

What makes these collections so different is the fact that most of them are signed, either by the author or by the subject of a particular book. And the range of literary genres seems endless.

US presidents, from Roosevelt to Trump, their wives (and the occasional mistress), presidential hopefuls and also-rans; they’re all there, adorned with signatures or autographs neatly inserted into the respective tomes.

Hop across the ditch to the UK and you discover all things English. The British Royal Family collection is breathtaking, from Edward, Duke of Kent (Queen Victoria’s dad), through to Charles and Camilla, encapsulating all the majesty and, of course, the attendant salacious hanky panky that went on throughout those royal years. It’s all there, signed or autographed or containing some authentic link to the subject.

And just to reaffirm the Brits are masters and mistresses of public scandal, there’s a whole collection on Christine Keeler and the famous (or infamous) Profumo affair of London’s swinging ’60s, which makes Bill and Monica look like a relatively harmless grope in the park. Not even close, with or without cigar.

But it’s not all Pommie political proclivities, pageantry and peccadilloes. There’s a veritable assortment of English satire and comedy in the ’60s and an entire collection on the 1966 English World Cup win.

Back to the US, he’s got a selection titled “American Astronauts and the Space Race”. And closer to home, “Australian Prime Ministers, Politicians, Governors-General and Other Public Figures”. You get the picture?

Colin Steele’s affinity with books began as a child in his native England.

“Having been brought up in the north-east of England, we didn’t have any other entertainment in the 1950s. So reading was a good thing to do.”

It was when he began his academic years at Oxford that the notion of collecting books became a reality.

“All the people at Oxford, like (JRR) Tolkien, would wander through the reading rooms. If I’d have got Tolkien to sign one of the books, you wouldn’t need superannuation,” he laments.

Likewise, when he came to Australia he left behind some literary gold, which he gave to friends.

“There were first editions of Ian Fleming which are now worth a fortune.”

Colin Steele’s interest in books continued in Australia and even today, in his mid-seventies, he’s an emeritus fellow at the ANU’s College of Arts and Social Sciences.

He was chair of the National Word Festival from 1983 to 1987 and since then has been convenor of the ANU’s “Meet the Author” events, which has provided countless opportunities to add to his autographed collection.

So why does he now want to divest himself of these treasured collections? The answer is simple.

“We’re really doing this because of what happens when you die. Could they be going to the tip? That’s happened with some other major collections in Canberra.”

And the obvious, irresistible last question: “Do you have a Kindle?”

“Yes,” he replied. “But only for travelling.”

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