The Elgin Marbles, Benin Bronzes, Pharaonic remains, the list of British ‘souvenirs’ from overseas ventures is long and controversial. Amongst the most prolific of these Culture Vultures was Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1942), a Hungarian-born explorer employed by the British in India.
In total Stein made four expeditions to China, the three main ones largely in and around the ancient Buddhist state of Khotan in Xinjiang between 1900 and 1916. On the plus side, he helped bring to light the relics of a great ancient civilization which might otherwise, over time, have been widely dispersed or lost completely. On the other hand, he bought for a pittance and removed industrial quantities of manuscripts, textiles, and paintings that perhaps should have remained in China.
Stein published the results of his expeditions in two forms: the official reports, multi-volume large format works full of scientific reports, and destined primarily for libraries, which appeared many years after the expedition; and eminently readable, well-illustrated narrative reports intended for the public (and to raise funds).
One of the scarcest Stein books is Preliminary Report of a Journey of Archaeological and Topographical Exploration in Chinese Turkestan, 1901. This was Stein announcing his presence as an explorer to the World. Copies rarely appear on the market, especially in such good condition.
The expedition that really made his name was his second, 1906-1909. It was on this expedition that he met the Buddhist monk who had discovered the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas, a sealed-up treasure trove containing some 50,000 manuscripts. Stein pretty much bought the lot. The official account didn’t come out until 1921, but the two-volume Ruins of Desert Cathay, was published in 1912. The present copy is particularly desirable as it is an inscribed presentation set to Sir James Dunlop Smith, private secretary to the Viceroy of India from 1905 to 1910.
For less detail, the best book to get is On Central Asian Tracks, 1933. In this book Stein provides a narrative for his three great pre-World War I expeditions. The present copy is exceptional in that it is not only in its dust-wrapper, but also inscribed by Stein. In Stein’s third expedition of 1913-16, he returned to the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas for a second helping, before venturing into Persia where he made important discoveries at Sistan.
As with other explorers along the Silk Routes, Stein took a great interest in the campaigns of Alexander the Great, and Stein was able to indulge his interest at the expense of the Government of India. The narrative of this is journey is found in On Alexander’s Tracks to the Indus, 1930 which marks a turning away from China. Our copy is the earliest issue with a gilt medallion to the upper cover.
Stein’s final expedition was to Iran; the account was published as Old Routes of Western Iran, 1940. This encompasses explorations along the borders of Baluchistan, Kurdistan, Turkey, and Iraq. The present copy is a good example in the pictorial dust-wrapper and with the medallion to the upper cover denoting the earliest issue.