The Curse of “The Great Omar”

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The luxurious but cursed Great Omar version of the “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.”

There once was a time when bookbinding was a craft and an art form, not a mechanized process at the end of a press run. This tale of such bookbinding is fraught with the unrelenting pursuit of perfection, passion, tragedy, perseverance, and plain old rotten luck.

Our story begins in 1901 with the renowned British bookbinders Sangorski and Sutcliffe, who resurrected the Medieval art of binding books with intricately inlaid multicolored leather set with real gold, jewels, and gems. As fortune would have it, their services were sought out by Sotheran’s Bookshop in London, who asked them to create opulent binding for the “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” which soon became known as “The Great Omar.” The only instructions from Sotheran’s manager were that “it has to be the greatest example of bookbinding in the world…. put what you like into the binding, charge what you like for it, the greater the price, the more I shall be pleased; provided only that it is understood that what you do and what you charge will be justified by the result.”
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The bookbinding workshop of Sangorski & Sutcliffe, c. 1912.

Designed by Francis Sangorski, the sumptuous binding required more than 2,500 hours of labor and took more than two and half years to make. The cover was adorned with three golden peacocks, with tail feathers made from inlaid jewels and gold. Completed in 1911, “The Great Omar” was indeed a masterpiece. Sotheran’s priced the book at £1000 and shipped it to New York for display.

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That is when everything went awry. U.S. Customs demanded an exorbitant fee for the shipment, which Sotheran’s refused to pay, so the book was sent back to London to be auctioned by Sotheby’s. The highest bidder was an American who sadly offered less than half of the initial reserve amount. Nevertheless, arrangements were made to ship “The Great Omar” back to the U.S., but the book literally missed the boat scheduled to transport it. Soon after, Sotheran’s arranged to have their masterpiece carried on the maiden voyage of what was then the world’s largest, most modern, luxury liner—the Titanic. All went well, until the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank, carrying “The Great Omar” to the bottom of the sea. Six weeks later, tragedy stuck again; Sangorski drowned while trying to rescue a drowning woman.
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The maiden and final voyage of the Titanic, April 15, 1912.

After the death of his partner, Sutcliffe took Sangorski’s original drawings and worked with his nephew, Stanley Bray, to create a replica. As soon as it was done, “The Great Omar II” was locked in a British bank vault for safekeeping. There it remained until the London Blitz of World War II when the bank, the vault and the book were bombed to smithereens. All that remained were the jewels.
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The Battle of Britain, September 7, 1940.

Off and on over the ensuing decades, Bray worked on a third “Great Omar,” finishing it in 1989 and presenting it to the British Library, where it remains today along with Sangorski’s original drawings and bookbinding tools.

Reflecting on the book’s tragic history, Bray remarked shortly before he died in 1995 that he wasn’t the least bit superstitious “even though they say that the peacock is a symbol of disaster.”