At a Rare Book Fair, the Prices Are Steep but the Lore Is Free

There are countless books at the annual New York International Antiquarian Book Fair, of course, but also ephemera of all kinds: posters, pamphlets, calendars, playing cards. The price tags can be eye-popping — by the end of a stroll around the fair, $2,500 for a beautiful old deck of cards started to sound, somehow, entirely reasonable.

For people with modest bank accounts, a tour of the fair amounts to a trip to an exhibit or museum, with dealers happily telling the often fascinating stories behind their wares, even if a potential sale is nowhere in sight. The 59th edition of the fair took place March 7 to 10 at the Park Avenue Armory.

In the photo above, Donald Heald, a book dealer based just a few blocks from the Armory, displays the second edition of an 18th-century book by Louis Renard, with illustrations engraved after drawings by Samuel Fallours. Printed on high-quality Dutch paper, the book cataloged the riotous marine life of the East Indies, very little known to Europeans at the time. Some balked at the images, believing they must be fictional, but scientists have verified most of the species depicted (with the exception, Heald wryly noted, of a mermaid). There were only 100 copies of this edition published, and the price tag for this copy at the fair was $145,000.

Ian Kahn of Lux Mentis Booksellers, in Portland, Me., talks to visitors at his booth, eclectic even by the steep standards of the fair. His display included an edition of James Joyce’s famously difficult “Finnegans Wake” created by the artist Ximena Pérez Grobet, who cut the novel’s text into strips and then knit them back together. The result, Kahn said with a smile, is “every bit as significant and comprehensible as the original novel.”

Many of the books at the fair are not just limited editions, but truly one of a kind. Such is the case with this pontifical made for a bishop in Ferrara, Italy. This type of manual would normally be used for officiating at masses and other events. But this one, dating from circa 1460, was made purely for display, which accounts for why its condition remains so clean and vivid. Vincenzo Ferro of Bibliopathos explained that it’s one of the rare manuscripts thought to be illuminated in the workshop of Giorgio d’Alemagna and Taddeo Crivelli.

When Adam Davis, who sells books and ephemera at Division Leap, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, turned to showcase various items in his booth, he said: “Follow me, and descend into the darkness of American history.” And sure enough, there was the archive of Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough, a pair of Ohio friends who performed as clowns in the early 20th century. Davis explained how McCullough checked into a sanitarium and later killed himself with a barber’s razor after getting his hair cut. Another archive documented the life and times of a man, also from Ohio (“really the eccentric birthplace of American art,” Davis said), who would high dive blindfolded, only to actually lose his vision from the accumulated pressure of the dives on his retinas.

Davis flipped through the pages of this calendar, created by the artist George Knowlton to protest the media’s coverage of the 1971 uprising at Attica prison. The illustrations are screened on to pages of The New York Times.

When you think of the Jazz Age, Houston might not be the first place on which your mind alights. This scrapbook, assembled from 1926 to 1927 and also found at Honey & Wax, documents the senior year of Mary Jane Wiseman, a flapper in Texas. The book had preprinted illustrations in it, but Wiseman and her friends added to them with striking drawings of their own. There are also poems, stories about class outings, and tickets and other souvenirs. The keepsake sold at the fair for $2,500.

More conventional literary treasures could be found at Whitmore Rare Books, based in Pasadena, Calif. Dan Whitmore, the company’s founder, discussed a first edition of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” of which less than 300 were printed in 1855. “This was quite a format for an unknown guy,” Whitmore said. “It was bigger than any other book of poetry.” Whitmore said Whitman had strong opinions about every element of the book’s design, and was closely involved with the printing process. The gold gilded frame on the cover only existed on the first edition; it was removed on future editions to cut costs.

Whitmore’s first edition of T.E. Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” from 1926, is one of only 170 copies that were published with a complete set of illustrations. Lawrence inscribed this copy to his attorney, “with apologies for the trouble it is going to bring him.” It was prescient. As the description of the book on Whitmore’s website says, the lawyer would “ultimately need to handle legal issues related to trust and tax arrangements connected to the book’s release.”

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