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"The Jewel in the Crown"

Jeanne Schinto | April 3rd, 2014


Frontispiece of the first edition of an early (1665) treatise on tobacco, Commentarius De Abusu Tabaci… by Danish physician Simonis Paulli (1603-1680). Priced at £3250 (or $5390) by Sokol Books, London, the book also includes sections on tea, coffee, and chocolate and was at the forefront of the debate over the merits and dangers of all these substances.


Jarndyce Antiquarian Booksellers, London, brought a holograph manuscript of George MacDonald’s novel Alec Forbes of Howglen, published in 1865. Brian Lake of Jarndyce said it was the last MacDonald manuscript kept by the family and the only one not in an institutional collection. The price, including its custom wooden box, was $170,000.


The Lindgrens of Rabelais, Biddeford, Maine, whose wares span six centuries of cookery and gastronomy across several continents and cuisines, asked $40,000 for this copy of Irma S. Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking. The first edition in its original cloth and with its very rare dust jacket was privately published by the author in 1931 in an edition of 3000 and illustrated by the author’s daughter, Marion Rombauer Becker, who also designed the dust jacket, which depicts St. Martha of Bethany, the patron saint of cooking, slaying a dragon with a mop. “The price is a function of the real perfection of both the book and the dust jacket,” said Donald Lindgren.


Buddenbrooks, Boston and Newburyport, Massachusetts, wanted $8500 for this pair of Mark Twain classics in French, Les Aventures de Tom Sawyer and Les Aventures de Huck Finn, L’Ami de Tom Sawyer, translated by William L. Hughes and published in Paris in 1886.


This remarkable copy of Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell was signed by Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Hattie McDaniel, and every other member of the 1939 film’s cast, along with its producer, David O. Selznick, and one of its directors, Victor Fleming. The book belonged to the assistant director, Eric Stacey, said Jeffrey H. Marks of Rochester, New York, whose price for it, with dust jacket (displayed alongside), was available on request.


William Reese asked $12,000 for a collection of 56 stereographs by Carleton E. Watkins. The “Pacific Coast” series, mostly views of Yosemite, was published in San Francisco and copyrighted in 1867. Not as well known a fact as it should be, Reese sells goodly amounts of vintage photography. In fact, he began selling it while he was still a student at Yale and dealing rare books out of his dorm room. “I was one of the people in attendance at the Swann Galleries sale in 1976, back when Denise Bethel was there,” he said. (Bethel is now director of Sotheby’s photography department.) “It was a legendary sale because that’s when two big albums of Watkins’s mammoth plates, owned by the University Club, were sold.”


Ken Lopez of Hadley, Massachusetts, said George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London is difficult to find in its dust jacket, as seen here. Lopez’s copy of this first American edition of Orwell’s first book, published in 1933, was priced at $10,500.


Lella and Gianni Morra are based in Venice, Italy, yet they are specialists in Japanese illustrated books, hand scrolls, and prints. This example is a signed circa 1822 woodblock print by Yanagawa Shigenobu (1787?-1833), approximately 16" x 10½", priced at $1200.

Asked how they enjoyed the show, Gianni Morra wrote in an e-mail: “This was our fourth time at the Book Fair in New York and we are happy with sales made as well the new customers and librarians we met.” Asked how they developed an interest in Japan, he said: “Everything began with a personal interest in Japanese design and art. We started dealing in Japanese prints and books in 1980. Our first trip to Japan was in 1981.”

New York Antiquarian Book Fair, New York City

When I noted that a historical document was the most expensive item auctioned during New York Americana Week in January—the letter from “The Twelve United Colonies…” fetched $912,500 (including buyer’s premium) at Keno Auctions, thereby trumping all manner of tables, chests, and chairs—I took it as a sign. I was meant to return to New York City a few months later to cover the 54th annual New York Antiquarian Book Fair.

Sponsored by the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (www.abaa.org) and the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (www.ilab.org), the show featured 204 dealers from around the world and was held April 3-6 in the Park Avenue Armory at 67th Street, the same venue that the Winter Antiques Show uses each year.

Most of the dealers are nominally booksellers, but many also sell documents, manuscripts, maps, photographs, research archives, and much, much more. There are numerous specialists in art books, autographs, posters, watercolors, books about books, and subjects such as cinema, mass media, and design. There are also individual dealers with intriguing specialties such as “wordless novels” (Ken Sanders Rare Books, Salt Lake City, Utah), “faux books” (White Fox Rare Books, West Windsor, Vermont), and “works by children” (Eclectibles, Tolland, Connecticut).

I attended the busy preview on Thursday night, where I saw the librarian of a very rich man in the booth of a prominent dealer, and the two looked as if they were engaging in book talk, not small talk. That first evening is a time for socializing, but many collectors of the first rank and their agents are there primarily to see what their favorite dealers have brought. “There are some very high-powered books on the floor tonight and high-powered people to match,” someone observed.

On Friday I returned for the official opening at noon. It was chilly and a little rainy—perfect weather for a show. Five hours later, retrieving my umbrella from the coatroom, I asked the attendant how his day had been. He looked at me wearily. “We haven’t had a lunch break yet,” he said, speaking for himself and several colleagues. “We’ve calculated that there’ve been about eight hundred transactions so far.” And the after-workday hours were just beginning; the show would go on until 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday was more of the same, I was told, and the consensus was that many people were buying.

“We had a terrific show,” said dealer William S. Reese of New Haven, Connecticut, a few days later. “Some of our best customers were there and bought some large things. We did a lot of business, ranging from three-figure items up to, in one case, a six-figure item that we sold to somebody we had never sold anything significant to before. We actually had the best New York book fair we’ve ever had.” Nor was the wealth being distributed only in his booth. “There were at least three collectors I know of who spent at least a million dollars at the fair and probably more,” Reese observed.

Dealer James Cummins of New York City said he had a very good show too. “A lot of people, a lot of sales, a diversity of sales,” he said. “I’m not a good judge of what makes the economy run, but all the people that were going to be there were there, and so were some people who hadn’t been there previously.” Asked to give an idea of what he sold, he told me, “We sold a Thomas Paine letter to a new client, a first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which is a rare piece, and an archive of material relating to the poet James Merrill. We run the gamut from incunabula up to modern firsts. We have books in English, French, Arabic. We specialize in Arabic books, and we also sold a very rare Koran at the fair.”

Priscilla Juvelis of Kennebunkport, Maine, who specializes in artists’ books, said, “The traffic was steady the whole time. I was selling books at ten minutes to five before the show closed on Sunday. It was pretty amazing. Sunday is usually for tourists. It was a very successful fair.”

Juvelis’s four-book set Witches’ Sabbath by Sandra Jackman attracted a great deal of interest, as did The Bells, a book created by Donald Glaister, one of the world’s preeminent designers of bindings. With a text by Edgar Allan Poe, The Bells, in an edition of ten, sold out at the fair. Another artist’s book, Zero, Cypher of Infinity, a new one by Suzanne Moore, sold well too, said Juvelis. New to me, since I think of him only as a novelist, were artist’s books by William T. Vollman. His most recent is a portfolio of woodblock prints that illustrate his own translation of the first stanza of the Nordic poem Völuspá.

“I like the beautiful and the unusual,” said Juvelis, who had an open shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, until nine years ago, when her husband retired and they moved to Maine. “That’s what I’ve got, and that’s what I seem to be able to sell without a problem.”

The New York Antiquarian Book Fair is the only show
Juvelis does now. “It’s The Event,” said the former ABAA president. “I’m approaching seventy. Standing behind a counter is something I no longer want to do. New York makes it all worthwhile. There’s something about that fair that gets an energy going. It translates into sales. And they don’t happen just at the fair. They may happen before; they may happen after.” She added, “Major dealers, like Bill Reese and Don Heald, bring such extraordinary material, it lifts the whole tone of the fair and gives a boost to the rest of the trade. I’m happy to be ‘renting’ on the same block.”

 Donald A. Heald of New York City, who heads the ABAA’s New York book fair committee, spoke generally about dealers’ results. “We were very pleased with the excellent fair,” he said. “We spoke to numerous people and didn’t speak to a single one who was unhappy. People sold record amounts.” From the buyers’ perspective, Heald also heard many positive remarks. “There were people who told me that they were really anxious to buy; they were asking questions, asking for quotes, asking to be put on mailing lists. So we found that all quite encouraging.”

Every New York story is eventually a story about real estate. This one doesn’t deviate from the pattern. “The fair itself is oversubscribed, and some booths have to be shared by people who would prefer to have a full booth,” Heald said. “That just speaks to the demand that exists for space at this fair. That is to say, more people want to do the fair than we can accommodate. That’s unique, certainly to American fairs.”

Partly, he said, it was because the other ABAA fair venues, in Boston and in California, are in convention centers that can expand “endlessly.” “They’re the same places that have electronics shows and car shows.” But, he said, New York is also “slightly more convenient” for Europeans to reach, and there were plenty of them in evidence behind the counters and in the aisles.

“Two or three European dealers I spoke to said they’d had their best fair ever,” Heald said. “What we see in New York that we don’t see so much at the other fairs is that some people who are very serious collectors come and spend very serious amounts of money. Dealers who do specialized fairs, like Maastricht, which of course is the largest arts and antiques fair in the world, told me they had greater success in New York.”

Heald, whose own specialty is Americana, continued, “The other fairs are a little calmer. Not that the other fairs aren’t great, and I’m happy to do every one of them, but New York is the jewel in the crown.”

Of course, dealers are increasingly feeling the pressure to continue to find and offer great material. In a phone call, one dealer who has had strong shows at the New York book fair in the past attributed his medium-good results this time to his booth’s lack of “a real show-stopper.” Another dealer, James Arsenault of Arrowsic, Maine, said something similar via e-mail: “The show was a bit soft for me this year, largely because I was coming off a very strong outing in California [the California International Antiquarian Book Fair, held February 7-9 in Pasadena] with relatively little time to restock. But I've had some follow-up, and sales in general have been good. I can't complain.”

David Weinberg of the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop, Chicago, has been lucky enough to have been featured in preshow stories in the New York Times for two years in a row. That’s partly because of the general appeal of what he brings. It’s easier for a Times reader or, for that matter, a reader of M.A.D., whose interests may not be rare books to understand the value of, say, a postmortem drawing of Lincoln than a scarce edition of Thomas Hobbes’s Decameron Physiologicum. (My own photos reflect my decision to feature easier-to-understand material, chosen from among the hundreds of more esoteric items I saw at the fair.)

Nonetheless, Weinberg, who said he had “good sales, better than expected, at both this fair and at the autograph dealers’ show [the Professional Autograph Dealers Association’s one-day show, held April 6 in New York City],” must come up with special items for his collectors, such as his Lincoln mourning piece. A woman’s fan, it had chromolithographic depictions of Lincoln and cherubs on one side and John Wilkes Booth and devils on the other, and the fan’s sticks and guards were made of what was then a relatively new commercially available material, aluminum. Most intriguingly, this variant of the fan, produced in 1866 in Cuba and made for the Central American and Caribbean markets, doubled as a weapon. A thin, retractable blade was concealed within it—handy for a woman’s defense. Also concealed was a small container in which one could hide a bit of poison, perhaps to tip into someone’s drink—I suppose that could be either defense or offense. In any case, it’s a sensational cross-collectible if ever there was one, and, unsurprisingly, it sold.

What will become of dealers’ material that’s merely wonderful? Some who spoke to me at this show are trying to find new customers in novel ways. For example, Samantha Hoyt Lindgren and Donald Lindgren of Rabelais, Biddeford, Maine, purveyors of fine books on food and drink, told me that they sponsored three events during Maine Restaurant Week last year. “We were trying to reach people who wouldn’t ordinarily get to see rare books,” said Donald.

For more information, contact the promoter, Sanford L. Smith + Associates, at (212) 777-5218; Web site (www.sanfordsmith.com).


Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2014 Maine Antique Digest

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