Auctions & Rare Finds

The Great Omar: The Jewel of Sangorski & Sutcliffe

Sangorski & Sutcliffe is an extremely well-known bookbinding firm. Founded in London in 1901, they are especially known for their sumptuous bindings. Learn more about Sangorski & Sutcliffe and see examples of their work in our gallery.

The practice of binding books with exquisite jeweled bindings was popular in the Middle Ages, but Sangorski & Sutcliffe resurrected the craft. Their books were bound in intricately inlaid multicolored leather and often set with real gold, jewels, and semi-precious stones.

Their most famous work was The Great Omar – a copy of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám commissioned by Sotherans Bookshop, a project where the cost of the book was not to be a consideration.

Do it and do it well; there is no limit. Put what you like into the binding, charge what you like for it – the greater the price the more I shall be pleased – providing only that it is understood that what you do, and what you charge for it will be justified by the result, and the book when finished is to be the greatest modern binding in the world. These are the only instructions.”

With that carte blanche, they outdid all previous efforts. Sangorski & Sutcliffe worked for two and a half years to create a sumptuous binding containing over a thousand jewels. The front cover was adorned with three golden peacocks, with their tails made of inlaid jewels and gold, as were the vines winding around them.

When the book was finally completed in 1911, it was listed for sale at £1,000 and shipped to New York for display. The trouble began when customs demanded a heavy duty on the shipment and Sotherans refused to pay. The Great Omar was returned to England, where Sotherans had it sent to Sotheby’s auction. It sold to an American named Gabriel Wells for £450, less than half of its initial reserve amount. The first ship scheduled to transport the Great Omar sailed without the book, so it was packed safely into the very next option, a luxury liner called the Titanic. The book went down with the ship in 1912. In a twist of fate, a distressed Sangorski drowned as he tried to rescue a drowning woman a few weeks later.

The Great Omar by Sangorski & Sutcliffe
The Great Omar by Sangorski & Sutcliffe (image credit Wikipedia)

Sangorski & Sutcliffe continued successfully after the loss of Sangorski. Sutcliffe created a second copy of The Great Omar to replace the first. As soon as it was completed, it was stored in a bank vault for safety. Unfortunately, the bank, vault, and book were destroyed in the bombings of World War II.

The firm passed into the hands of Sutcliffe’s nephew, Stanley Bray, in 1936. After his retirement, Stanley created the third Great Omar to his uncle’s original specifications. This final copy lives in the British Library still today.

Sangorski & Sutcliffe still lives on as part of Shepherds bookbinding. You can learn more about their history and about The Great Omar on their site.

The Great Omar received a lot of attention in 2022 when the BBC ran an article about it, engaging a new audience with the Sotheran’s amusing Twitter account:



1 Comment

  • I have a preface to first edition of
    The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edward Fitzgerald – it is I believ ein Blue leather with case cover illustrations inside are black and white.

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