June 6, 2023

One of New York’s best window shopping weekends is back, as the four-day New York International Antiquarian Book Fair returns to Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory on Thursday.

Far from an old-fashioned aristocratic cabinet of curiosities, ‘the fair’, as regulars call it, can feel like an overwhelming explosion of history, beauty, charm and surprise. Prices range from sticker shocking to extremely affordable. Hardened bibliomaniacs and casual browsers are welcome.

Nearly 200 dealers from 17 countries will bring home numerous recognized treasures, such as a copy of Shakespeare’s Third Folio (more rare than the First Folio, as many are thought to have been lost in the London fire of 1666) and at least a dozen rare editions of James Joyce’s ” Ulysses.”

But there are also pulp novels, letters, documents, posters, pamphlets, menus, children’s games and other items, many with the marks of famous hands, such as a 1954 hand-colored book about cats by an as-yet-famous Andy Warhol, from George’s library. Balanchine and Tanaquil LeClerc ($75,000). Or famous feet: A pair of tap shoes worn by Donald O’Connor in “Singin’ in the Rain” is being offered for $3,500.

Each item on display, whether impeccably preserved or intriguingly weathered, tells its own story. Here are some highlights.

In April 1963, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., while imprisoned in Birmingham, Ala., wrote a letter to eight white clergymen urging him to seek justice in the courts, not the streets. The original design by Dr. King, written on slips of paper and bits of toilet paper and smuggled out of prison by his lawyers, was lost. Trader James Cummins offers an early typed draft taken from the files of Dr. King’s literary agent, Joan Daves. According to scholars, eight draft versions of the letter are currently known. But this one – rather than the others, the dealer claims – is the only one “available” on the market. “It is clear that the ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ was the most important written document of the civil rights era,” wrote scholar S. Jonathan Bass in 2001.

Dealer Bernard Quaritch Ltd. will claim one of the last manuscript copies of Marco Polo’s “Travels” into private hands, at a price of more than $1 million. And at Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps you’ll find the even more gawkable (and, at $395,000, slightly less expensive) “Harmonia Macrocosmica,” described by the dealer as “the most desirable of all celestial atlases” and the only one produced during the golden age of Dutch cartography. Published in Amsterdam in 1661 by Andreas Cellarius, the atlas contains 29 spectacular hand-coloured, double-page plates illustrating competing theories about the motions of the sun, earth and stars at a time when there was much debate. On the frontispiece, Nicolaus Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, and two turbaned figures (possibly including the astronomer Abu Abdallah al-Battani) stand together by Urania, the muse of astronomy, some pointing as if to say, “Hey, I said so it is!”

Before there was Adnan Syed and ‘Serial’, there was Elizabeth Canning. On New Year’s Day in 1753, Canning, an 18-year-old London handmaid, disappeared without a trace and stumbled back to her mother’s home a month later, claiming to have been assaulted, kidnapped, and imprisoned in a brothel by two women, including Mary Squires, whom she identified as ‘a gypsy’. Honey & Wax offers a file of letters, pamphlets, clippings and books related to the case ($22,500), describing it as one of the first “unsolved mysteries” to captivate the public, with a strong scent of the themes of race, gender and sexual violence surround many true crime stories today. At the time, the interest was so great that the public was divided as to whether anyone believed Canning’s story or that of Squires (who was sentenced to death and later pardoned). As one newspaper put it, “The first question in the morning was, ‘What news about Canning?'”

Several dealers offer entire collections curated by notable figures, including a selection of 4,000 books from the private library of Eric Idle, one of Monty Python’s founders, of Johnson Rare Books and Archives. (They are sold individually, from $75 to $8,500 each.) Type Punch Matrix brings 100 personally subscribed books from the member library of the “21” Club ($25,000), Manhattan’s legendary speakeasy-turned-restaurant. Highlights include a vocal score to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!”, written by Richard Rodgers, and a copy of “How to Travel Incognito”, by Ludwig Bemelmans (the creator of “Madeline”), featuring a Bemelmans scribble of an arm that goes up a martini glass.

In 1941, the Nazis established the infamous camp at Theresienstadt, in Czechoslovakia, which was used to further claim that Jews were simply being “resettled in the East”. German propaganda presented it as a ‘spa town’, where residents practiced various trades, organized cultural activities and, to some extent, self-governed. As part of the deception, the Nazis allowed the establishment of a Bank of Jewish Self-Administration, which issued paper money depicting Moses holding the Ten Commandments. Eric Chaim Kline Bookseller offers a complete set of seven notes ($1,250) designed by Peter Kien, a Czech artist and poet who died in Auschwitz in 1944. Upon arrival in Theresienstadt, Jews were forced to exchange their possessions for this currency, which had no real value other than paying certain “taxes”. The goods in the camp’s ‘shop windows’ – most of which had been confiscated from prisoners – were not for sale.

Today, the specter of artificial intelligence can stir fear in the minds of the bookworms who pack the fair. But in his 1949 book Giant Brains: Or, Machines That Think, American computer scientist Edmund Callis Berkeley took a more optimistic tone. “It seems to me,” he wrote, “that they will take as great a burden from man’s mind as the burden which the printing of writing has taken from man: a great burden lifted.” A first edition of Berkeley’s book is one of dozens of items included in “AI: The Hidden History,” a collection of books, documents, and artifacts offered by Christian White Rare Books ($125,000). The collection includes material from such leading figures as the mathematician Claude Shannon (known as the father of information theory) and the philosopher David Lewis, as well as from (ahem) women who were active in the field.