“The New York Antiquarian Book Fair is the most important book fair for rare books in the United States, and possibly in the world,” said Heather O’Donnell, of Honey & Wax Booksellers. “It’s the possibility to see, in the course of four days, every major library, rare book dealer, and collector. If you can only attend one fair, New York is where you are going to go.” On opening night, the fair, which ran from March 9 through March 12 at the Park Avenue Armory on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, had the air of a party: Champagne corks popped as the book dealers, many of whom see each other only once a year, exchanged industry gossip and bantered with their customers in accents that ranged from the plummiest of British English to French, Hungarian, Bavarian, and even local New Yorkese.
The book fair is not just for books: there are antique maps here; lithographs, sketches and etchings; letters from the famous – and even wallpaper. Honey & Wax, a relatively new bookseller based in Gowanus, Brooklyn, had a surprise hit on its hands with a salesman’s sample of German wallpaper from the 1950s. The “Romeo and Juliet” theme of the print attracted the attention of the Folger Shakespeare Library, which pounced on it on the first night, O’Donnell told me. Though it was marked as sold, the booksellers received four other offers for the 15-inch by 18-inch sample. The asking price was $250.
German “Romeo and Juliet” wallpaper sample from the 1950s
Prices go much higher than that for older items or collections with particular historical significance. At this year’s fair, possibly the most expensive items on view were the Alexander Hamilton Collection, billed as “A Show-Stopping Gathering of Highly Important Original Letters, Documents and Imprints (or, the Genius, Passions, and Foibles of the Founding Fathers).” Fans of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smashingly successful Broadway musical, Hamilton, take note: for $2.3 million – scarcely more than you may have paid for your tickets to the show! – you could own this trove of hundreds of documents, which includes a passionate love letter from Hamilton to Elizabeth Schulyer in which he wrote, “You are certainly a little sorceress... and have rendered me as restless and unsatisfied with all about me, as if I were an inhabitant of another world.”
The Hamilton collection is currently in the possession of Seth Kellar, Inc., of White Plains, New York, and University Archives, of Westport, Connecticut. For Kellar, who has attended the fair for the past 15 years, this year’s fair seemed to draw an “a significantly larger and younger crowd.” One of the youngest visitors to his stall was a precocious ten-year-old girl. Kellar recalled, “She had actually just read Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton. I would show her a particular document, like Hamilton’s letter regarding Jefferson and the presidential election of 1796, and she would explain its significance to her parents!” The entire collection, with its documents transcribed, is available online.
If you enjoyed the PBS series Victoria, you might be interested in another historically significant collection with a somewhat smaller price tag – which is to say, $25,000 – that was on view in the stall of Honey & Wax. John Richard Coke Smyth, a 19th-century British painter, showed these 125 watercolors of historical costumes to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1842. The royal couple were preparing to host a grand costume ball at Buckingham Palace, and looking for inspiration for their own costumes. O’Donnell explained: “Smyth showed the watercolors to Victoria and Albert, and Victoria annotated in pencil next to certain costumes, ‘This will do' and ‘This also.’” For his part, Albert drew an entire sketch of his costume, which is included in the collection. “He chose to dress as Edward the Third - the queen went as his wife, Queen Philippa. So Albert, who was never crowned king of England, got to be king for that one night.”
A 19th-century watercolor by John Richard Coke Smyth, presented to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1842.
If you are looking to invest in newly published books with an eye to their future value, Ernest Hilbert of Bauman Rare Books suggests you look for books by authors who are – or who are likely to become – living legends, either for their roles in history or their reputations as writers. “It’s really hard to predict what will become valuable,” he said, but signed books by David Foster Wallace and Cormac McCarthy, for example, are recent books that are now very expensive. Signed copies of Blood Meridian, he said, are expected to hit $20,000, because “it was a commercial disaster” with a very small print run.
One book you might want to buy now, for future enjoyment, if not future investment, is Printer’s Error: Irreverent Stories from Book History, written by Honey & Wax’s co-owner, Rebecca Romney, with J.P. Romney. This anecdotal history of the “downright bizarre” progress of book innovations, from the Gutenberg Bible on, will be published this week by HarperCollins. Add a copy to your collection. Who knows what it may be worth in a few decades - and in the meantime, you can learn a little more about how books came to be such a fascinating and highly valued art form. Just don’t drop your copy in the bath.
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