Whitman’s own copy of Leaves of Grass, 1856
Book people, they’re an odd lot. Their prize is paper, printed with words profound and lyrical, or just full of personal resonance. The value of rare books is a subjective thing, and like all markets – for art and real estate and all the rest – an item’s ultimate worth comes down to whatever a buyer will pay for it.
At the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, the centerpiece of last week’s Rare Book Week, book lovers united inside the Park Avenue Armory to lust over the scarcest of first editions, along with assorted manuscripts, maps, and ephemera that encompassed a bibliophile’s nirvana. Count myself among this odd lot.
From March 9th to 12th the Upper East Side Armory filled with booths, hawking the wares of over 200 rare booksellers from both sides of the Atlantic. If you were on the hunt for a first edition of your favorite novel, and had a few grand to drop, you needn’t search for long. I found a first printing of The Great Gatsby for $6,000.00 and a few 1939 copies of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep between five and fifteen grand, depending on the condition. There was a stunning compilation of Jim Harrison’s collected works, each one signed, for five thousand. Any one of which would be the prize possession in this mortal collector’s library.
But this being Manhattan there were bound to be anonymous billionaires among us, strolling those same booths, eyeing much bigger game. For that rarified breed of book hunter, searching for titles to fill their gilded libraries, the New York Antiquarian had some serious discoveries. There were ancient texts and maps that soared into the mid six, and sometimes seven, figures. For $450,000 you could own “The Book That Named the New World” – Amerigo Vespucci’s 1504 edition of Mundus Novus. For $150,000 there was Lewis and Clark’s History of the Expedition – the 1814 “first edition of the definitive account” that first captured the American West. And in keeping with the theme of discovery, for $1.35 million there was a 1559 world map, noted as the “first geographical treatise created in Europe for a non-Western audience.” Here was the written word at its most rare, a chance to feel the passage of time at your fingertips. But in the eyes of one reader, here are three booths that vied for best in this greatest of book shows:
Hamilton, he’s so hot right now. Located at the far corner of the Fair was the must-see attraction: The Alexander Hamilton Collection. For $2.3 million, for sale as an entire lot, it was a jaw-dropping trove of all things Hamilton, including a first edition of The Federalist Papers, and innumerable letters and documents exchanged between the Founding Fathers. The seller of the collection, Seth Kaller, of Seth Kaller, Inc Historic Documents and Legacy Collections, noted that the Broadway play has driven interest in this particular Father in unprecedented ways. “I’ve had a Lincoln-signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation,” he said. “But I’ve never had hundreds of people come to the Book Fair especially to see my exhibit.” He noted that George Washington’s Mount Vernon and the Museum of American Finance have both tried to buy particular items, but so far Kaller is holding out for a buyer interested in acquiring the complete collection.
Next, there was another American original of a different sort: Walt Whitman. For $270,000 you could go home with Walt’s own first edition copy of Leaves of Grass. Whitman self-published 795 copies of the first edition of his opus in 1855, and just 200 or so are known to exist. Alongside that stunning screed at the Buddenbrooks Fine Books booth, proprietor Martin Weinkle proudly showed me a second edition of Leaves, printed two years later in 1857. This one was special for another reason: It contained the first ever blurb in the history of American literature. Without permission from his idol, Whitman included a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that proclaimed: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” For a relative bargain, that one was less than a tenth of the first edition, listed at $22,500.
William Shakespeare gets second billing
Finally, any self-respecting rare book fair must have its Shakespeare. From London’s prestigious Sokol Books LTD, there was a pair of beautiful texts from the Bard: for $360,000 a second folio of his Comedies, Histories and Tragedies from 1632, and for $165,000, from 1634, what may be the only available Shakespeare quarto in existence. Working at the Sokol booth and there to help translate for the layman, was NYU Masters student Emma Sarconi, who explained that folios are akin to coffee table books, and hence weren’t ideal for travel, while quartos were about the size of your standard novel, making them more portable and suitable for leisurely reading. Meaning that somewhere four centuries ago, another pair of eyes read those same words and passed the Bard’s book down through countless hands, before it reached my own hands inside the Park Avenue Armory. That is, until it was gently placed back behind glass on the shelf.