Nerding Out at New York’s Antiquarian Book Fair

The 63rd annual New York Antiquarian Book Fair has taken over the Park Avenue Armory this weekend. It’s an overwhelming event, even compared to the more high-profile art fairs that visit New York City venues in the spring and fall. With the participation of almost 200 rare book dealers, the fair showcases thousands upon thousands of books, ephemera, and historic works on paper. While a dealer at a contemporary art fair might have a ready-made sales pitch for their booth’s one or two artists, the booksellers at Park Avenue Armory hold a seemingly bottomless trove of knowledge, both artistically and historically, about every single item in their collection . Walking into the fair feels like trying to see the entire collection of The Met in a day — impossible.

Faced with this infinity of offerings, I decided to focus my visit on a standout presentation. The stand of the Brooklyn-based shop Honey and Wax Booksellers, owner Heather O’Donnell featured a wide variety of books and paper objects, including a hand fan issued on Valentine’s Day in 1795.

To plague and please all womankind; Here’s Gallants sure a plenty!; Choose then a Beau to suit your mind, Or change ’till one content ye,” reads an inscription on the fan. Cupid presents an assortment of unpalatable lovers: “Lover of Himself,” “The Carnal Lover,” and “Lover of the Cash” among them.

The 1795 Valentine’s Day fan (image courtesy Honey & Wax Booksellers)

The 18th-century object proves that dating, however romanticized in the past, has always been “very much a swipe-left kind of situation,” O’Donnell said. “It’s just a beautiful, really funny thing that makes you realize the frustrations that people feel today actually have been going on for quite some time.”

Another fascinating find at the Honey and Wax booth examines the roots of clickbait and celebrity obsession. A multi-part collection explores the Elizabeth Canning trial, one of the earliest true-crime fixations. It’s a telling example not only of the power of mass media, but of prevailing attitudes surrounding race and gender. In 1763, an 18-year-old English maid named Elizabeth Canning disappeared. When she was resurfaced 28 days later, she claimed to have been kidnapped by two men and brought to a brothel, where an elderly Romani woman allegedly attempted to force her into prostitution. Canning said she refused and was subsequently locked in a small room and fed only bread crusts and water (she was reportedly very thin when she returned). After almost a month, Canning said she loosened a board and escaped.

She accused the brothel “Mother” Susannah Wells and Mary Squire, the Romani woman. Squire was sentenced to death, but 36 witnesses stated she was not at the scene and another 26 placed her in England. Canning was ultimately placed on trial for perjury. The case became impossible to decide and the English populace was divided as to Canning’s innocence. 18th-century media fanned the flames, feeding people a constant stream of salacious pamphlets, magazines, and newspapers. O’Donnell displays one such work: A 1754 magazine image which portrays Canning as a well-dressed young woman and Squire as a witch-like old woman, undoubtedly a depiction shrouded in the country’s attitude toward Romani people.

Cole, B. (engraver), “The True Pictures of Elizabeth Canning and Mary Squires,” 1754, London: New Universal Magazine, copper engraving, 7 3/4 x 10 3/4 inches (image courtesy Honey & Wax Booksellers)

A theory emerged that Canning had been pregnant and disappeared to either have an abortion or give birth in secret. Ultimately, Canning left the country, moved to Connecticut, married a Quaker man, and had four children.

O’Donnell exhibits an object from the Connecticut years: The only known letter by Canning. It was written in 1755 to a Mrs. Stokes, to whom the young woman expresses her gratitude. The letter was compiled in an 1888 volume about the case and O’Donnell explained that historians have considered it to be authentic ever since.

“That being said, I am not 100% prepared to say that is Elizabeth Canning’s hand,” said O’Donnell, but pointed out that the possibility of it being fake is perhaps even more interesting. That said, it is incredibly cool, and a weird thing to forge, honestly.

The Canning letter (photo by Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

Another of O’Donnell’s displays traces the development of bookbinding: Printers used to sell pages with blank covers and buyers would bring them to their own bookbinder. As time went on, publishers realized they could bind their own copies and use the covers to market their contents.

A collection traces the development of bookbinding. (photo by Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

Elsewhere, other booths showcased fewer ephemeral items. Virginia-based Marnin Art displayed an assortment of collectors’ books; the artworks reproduced inside far surpass those in today’s familiar glossy coffee-table art books. A 75-edition poetry book from 1938 contains an original Joan Miró etching, signed and numbered. A later Miró book from 1957 includes a design by the artist on the leather cover and matte prints onto the pages of the book.

The 1938 poetry collection (photo by Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)
The prints are matted onto the pages of the book. (photo by Elaine Velie/Hyperallegic)
The 1957 book cover (photo by Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

Other sellers presented even older snapshots of history, including 15th-century illuminated manuscripts at the booth of Switzerland-based Dr. Joern Guenther Rare Books. As these 800-year-old works lie in their temporary display cases, they cemented the main takeaway from this quirky and knowledge-rich fair: There is an endless supply of interesting objects in the world, and apparently not enough space in museums to hold them.

Illuminated manuscripts from the 15th and 16th centuries (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)
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Andrew Naughtie

News reporter and author at @websalespromo