A diamond-encrusted first copy of Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s inside a birdcage presented by Lux Mentis.
Photo: Courtesy of Lux Mentis

Highlights from the 2024 New York International Antiquarian Book Fair

Among the most covetable items are a portrait by Sylvia Plath and a diamond-encrusted first edition of Breakfast at Tiffany’s

If collecting is pure passion, antiquarian books and prints hold a special place in this spectrum of desire. While art collecting is perhaps a flashier endeavor, its introvert sister, book collecting, attracts those who operate in rather intimate and insulated networks. Some as historic as ancient civilizations and others, rare first editions of the modern literature canon, books endure as materialized embodiments of a past that still holds a veil of mystery. The annual marker on any tireless bibliophile’s calendar is the the ABAA New York International Antiquarian Book Fair which opened its 64th edition on Thursday at its usual home, the Park Avenue Armory.

First American edition of Isak Dinesen's book Out of Africa presented by Locus Solus Rare Books. Photo: Courtesy of Locus Solus Rare Books

With around 200 book dealers from nearly 20 countries including Argentina, Denmark, Hungary, Japan, and the United Kingdom, the affair is a feast for the eye and the mind—and occasionally for the touch. The printed matter is the fair’s connecting issue, spanning from ancient maps to gem-quality memorabilia, fan dream film and concert ephemera, scientific and religious publications, intimately-penned letters, museum-quality art, and of course books. Bound with exceptional artisanship and illustrated by the likes of Marc Chagall, the tomes on offer range in history, narrative, artistry, and value.

The collectibles are bookended by a range between a few hundreds of thousands of dollars and a mere $50, speaking to a crowd that is highly knowledgeable and precise in their search. The particular essence of the affair indeed stems from catering to a niche desire to collect printed media that has survived the test of time. Often times intimate in scale and made with delicate materials, the books zoom the collectors to centuries back in remote lands. In other cases, a first edition of a Truman Capote or James Joyce fulfills a literature buff’s appetite to connect further with the title that changed their life.

Marc Chagall's Bible presented by Philip J. Pirages Fine Books and Manuscripts. Photo: Courtesy of Philip J. Pirages Fine Books and Manuscripts

While touching is occasionally allowed across the aisles, chats about a plethora of passions—from basketball memorabilia to Byzantine-era manuscripts—and passing of particular stories behind each item is commonplace. “Books have changed tremendously over time, and so have the editions, but here is a chance to experience the time they were first printed,” the fair’s Chair, Sunday Steinkirchner, tells Galerie. “You can read books in many ways today, but we offer a change to have the book in your hand.”

She believes among many habits affected by the pandemic is the way we engage with printed materials, partially based on the public’s altered relationship to touch. “Yet here we are, back in full potential,” adds Steinkirchner about the unending human tendency to experience the world through physical contact. “Most of our collectors want to feel a rare book or print by hand before they pull the trigger and acquire it.” Perhaps the most important element of the ritual is the dialogue a collector builds with a bookseller who ideally comes full equipped with meticulous details about an item’s history. Privacy is common among many book collectors who often times speak a similar language shared by their particular dedication for a period, style, or genre. Taking the first step may seem intimidating for the novice. Steinkirchner however notes that there “is no wrong way to start collecting—you just need a bookseller that you trust they will guide you along the way.”

A portrait by Sylvia Plath presented by Type Punch Matrix. Photo: Courtesy of Type Punch Matrix

The neatly-arranged booths indeed feature names familiar to many yet in materials uncommon for their recognition. The most striking exemplar is Type Punch Matrix’s offering of a portrait by Sylvia Plath, priced at $135,000. Holding Cubist and Fauvist cues, the colorful portrait was painted by a 16-year old Plath in 1948 while she was contemplating on becoming an artist. The figure’s gently-tilted head, introspective hand gesture, and the geometric constellation of various hues in pastel tones somehow speaks to Plath’s complex rendition of the human psyche in poetry. A few steps away, at Peter Harringon Rare Books’s booth, Ted Hughes, Plath’s longterm partner with whom she shared an emotionally-tumultuous relationship, is emblazoned on the first edition of his NOVEL, The Iron Man. The 1968-dated print is signed by Hughes himself for his daughter with Plath, Frida for whom he wrote the book after her mother’s passing by suicide.

For collectors whose object of affection is letters, University Archives has at hand a letter written by Gaugin from Martinique to his friend Émile Schufffenecker on August 25, 1887 on a stationary from his days of working from a Danish tarp company. Ridden with illness and poverty, the artist confesses his desperation which leads to selling his paintings to finance his recovery in a rapid hand gestures. Picasso is another European old guard available at the fair in an unexpected genre, poetry. The Swiss gallery ART…on Paper exhibits the 1937-dated Sueño y mentira de Franco” (The Dream and Lie of Franco) which includes two sheets of prints with 18 singular images and poetry by the artist who painted his masterpiece Guernica in the same year.

Enamel painting of the Beatles' "St. Pepper" cover presented by Voewood Rare Books. Photo: Courtesy of Voewood Rare Books

A diamond-encrusted first copy of Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s inside a birdcage presented by Lux Mentis. Photo: Courtesy of Lux Mentis

A mid-century Manhattan glamour is on a roll at Lux Mentis’s booth where a diamond-encrusted first copy of Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s rotates inside a birdcage. Dressed in a flamboyance fitting to the author’s uptown savior, the sculptural presentation houses the black goatskin-covered title, adorned with 1,000 white diamonds that total around 30 karats, inside a black-painted ebony cage. The $1.5 million jewelry was assembled in London this year to celebrate the centennial of Capote’s birth. Another 20th century icon, Chagall is the protagonist in Philip J. Pirgaes’s booth with a Bible he illustrated in black and white, in contrast to his signature jubilant palette, dressed in a black mosaic morocco designed by bookbinder René Haas. Chagall was commissioned by art patron Ambroise Vollard in 1931 to render his own imagery of the holy story and the job even took him to Palestine to firsthand experience the story’s scenography. Eventually, he published 105 biblical engravings in 1956 after Vollard’s passing, including 105 which was published on the time’s legendary modernist Parisian art journal VERVE magazine.

London’s Voewood Rare Books brings Rock and Roll to the book lovers’ haven. The Dutch duo The Fool’s 1967-dated enamel painting was commissioned by The Beatles for the central cover of their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club album. The hallucinatory landscape with fervent fireworks, a sun melting into a river, and trees blending with the rivers was however shelved after the imagery was deemed to be too psychedelic by the band’s creative team. The fact that the painting comes with Ringo Starr’s autograph and that The Fool later painted the mural of The Beatles’s legendary Apple Boutique in Marylebone are among numerous stories behind the painting with the $150,000 price tag.

Original "David Hockney Will Come" poster presented by Sims Reed Gallery. Photo: Courtesy of Sims Reed Gallery

After launching the festivities with a reception attended by Patti Smith at Soho’s coffee and wine bar Bibliotheque earlier in the week, the fair will treat both the bibliophiles and the oenophiles with guidance by the bar’s wine director Scott Woltz on Saturday at 5pm. Under the dome of the Armory’s ornate architecture, the wine and literature pairing event will spark both the taste buds and the minds.

The fair remains open at the Park Avenue Armory through Sunday April 7, 2024.

Cover: A diamond-encrusted first copy of Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s inside a birdcage presented by Lux Mentis.
Photo: Courtesy of Lux Mentis


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