The New York Antiquarian Book Fair has just celebrated its sixtieth anniversary at the Park Avenue Armory, the unique Manhattan venue in which the fair has been held for nearly thirty years. Two hundred of the world’s best booksellers gathered beneath the barrel-vaulted drill hall roof. For most, the fair proved a solid success — fears that the coronavirus would deter visitors and dampen sales figures largely unrealised. Some dealers, particularly those from Italy and Japan, had made careful contingency plans to ensure their presence and safe return home, and we wish them all well. Timing is everything. Had the fair dates fallen a week later, things would have been very different, with news of institutions calling their staff home and travel restrictions tightening by the day.
We’ve not seen official figures, but visitor numbers appeared healthy across all four days, from the Thursday night opening reception to the relaxed Sunday afternoon browsing. Deals were certainly being done, with the familiar and well-prepared teams from important North American institutions in evidence and hungry private collectors looking with serious intent. As often in New York (and not always elsewhere) dealers could report a good balance of sales to repeat customers on the one hand and to new acquaintances on the other, the latter happening upon unexpected finds with obvious delight. We were not aware of any single stellar deal but almost everyone we spoke to was grateful to be leaving with a well-filled invoice book. Another notable feature, and one observed elsewhere in the last couple of years was a more youthful and diverse crowd, promising a sustainable future for the rare book trade.
There were other storm clouds on the horizon besides coronavirus not least the status of the venue itself. Built during the Civil War for the Manhattan volunteers of the Seventh regiment answering Lincoln’s call for more troops, the Armory combines breathtaking dimensions with opulent reception rooms fitted out by Gilded Age luminaries (including Louis Comfort Tiffany). More precious still is its location in one of the wealthiest quarters at the heart of the city, allowing drop-in custom from many who might otherwise never have discovered rare books. Such central venues have been lost to most of the other cities across the globe hosting book fairs, making the New York fair a rare commodity in the trade. How long the fair will be able to stay there is now in question. The Armory’s management has been promoting large scale cultural events such as opera at the expense of the traditional art, print and bookfairs which have hitherto prevailed in its bookings calendar. The book fair has already been forced to move from a convenient slot in April to one in March (making it uncomfortably close to the California fair in February and turning what was an early spring fair into a late winter one) and now it is not sure whether the fair will remain at the Armory after 2021. The Antiquarian Booksellers of Association of America is working hard to find a solution.
But what of the books at the fair? There was a good balance of old and modern (not always the case at American fairs, where modern firsts have sometimes appeared to dominate). With considerable booth-rents, dealers always bring their very best and that’s an impressive feat to pull off. At least two dealers: Camille Sourget (Paris) and Daniel Crouch (London) were simultaneously exhibiting at TEFAF Maastricht and we can only salute their stamina. There were some exceptional highlights shining brightly even against New York glitz. Jean-Baptiste de Proyart (Paris) brought a copy of Yves Klein’s pamphlet, Yves Peintures (1954) accompanied by a letter from Klein explaining his theory of colour for the atomic age, the whole interpreted as Klein’s artistic manifesto ($222,000); Sophia Rare Books (Copenhagen) showed the Giustiniani copy of Pacioli’s Summa de arithmetica geometria proportioni et proportionalità (1494) ‘the most influential work in the history of capitalism’, in an original binding ($1,350,000); while Peter Harrington (London) had Wilhelm Busch’s Max und Moritz (1865), widely seen as the prototype of the children’s comic, currently not held by any American library ($60,000).
Of course, there is now uncertainty as to the viability of the international book fairs planned for the coming months and the trade is responding robustly via ILAB and the national trade organisations, exploring postponements and alternative dates. We cannot know what the near future will hold, but the rare book trade has a deep history of resilience in the face of crisis, bolstered by an international sense of common purpose. For now, we are simply happy to record that New York 2020 was a definite success.
The New York Antiquarian Book Fair
March 5-8, 2020.