This past weekend, the Park Avenue Armory hosted the sixty-third annual New York International Antiquarian Book Fair, a springtime celebration of all things on paper. Vendors from as far as Japan and Argentina flocked to the Armory this year, and bibliophiles and collectors rejoiced in this literary Garden of Eden. 

Produced and managed by Sanford L. Smith & Associates, the fair ensures that the items on sale—rare books, manuscripts, pamphlets, photographs, illustrations, autographs, maps, letters, relics, and more—are bibliographically accurate and authentic. This is hardly a new concern. The fair’s big-ticket item this year was a complete collection of Shakespeare’s four Folios together with the first volume of his collected poems, priced at $10.5 million for the whole lot by Peter Harrington Rare Books (London). The First Folio was printed in 1623, seven years after the Bard’s death, under the title Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies, Published according to the True Originall Copies, by the booksellers Edward Blount and Isaac Jaggard. The directors of the project, John Heminges and Henry Condell, both friends and colleagues of the playwright, sought to publish the book to set the record straight: bootleg versions of Shakespeare’s plays that the pair described as “stol’n and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by frauds and stealths of injurious impostors” were in steady circulation. The First Folio, however, presents the works “as he [Shakespeare] conceived them,” as Heminges and Condell advertise in its opening pages. It includes some of Shakespeare’s most celebrated plays, all previously unpublished, such as The Tempest (1611), As You Like It (1599), Macbeth (1606), The Winter’s Tale (1611), and Julius Caesar (1599). Without the publication of the First Folio (listed individually at $7.5 million), the original texts may have been lost forever. 

William Shakespeare, edited by John Heminges and Henry Condell, Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies, Published according to the True Originall Copies, 1623. Photo: Peter Harrington Rare Books. Pictured together with the other three Folios. 

The Second Folio, on sale for a cool $550,000 here, played a provocative role in the English culture wars of the 1630s. In 1632, William Prynne, a leading Puritan polemicist, published Histriomastix: The Player’s Scourge, or Actor’s Tragedy, decrying the decadence of theater and the broad distribution of such enticements to sin in folio form, specifically citing Shakespeare’s Second Folio as a “playbook” that was “now more vendible than the choicest sermons.” Prynne also insinuated that Henrietta Maria, the Catholic queen of England who enjoyed performing on the stage, was a whore, and for that libel, King Charles I ordered Prynne’s ears cropped and sentenced him to life in prison (in fact this was only the first time Prynne was to suffer this kind of corporal punishment).

The luxuriously bound pocket-sized edition of The Knight in the Panther’s Skin (1943), printed for the Georgian Legion of the SS. Photo: PY Rare Books.

Each book in the Armory undoubtedly had a compelling story to tell, but one of the more interesting I encountered was that of a pocket-sized 1943 edition of the Georgian national epic The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, listed by PY Rare Books, a vendor from London specializing in first editions from the Russian literary tradition. One would assume that the small book, luxuriously bound, was printed for a wealthy Georgian émigré or someone similar. It had, however, a darker history—printed in Berlin for the Georgian Legion of the SS. As émigrés who opted to join the Nazis to fight the Soviets or as POWs who were coerced, the Georgian SS soldiers were issued the pocket-sized epic as a way to remember home while on the frontlines. And indeed, the publication may have had an unintended consequence: such memories were likely among the reasons for the ill-fated mutiny of the legion’s Queen Tamar Battalion (named after the twelfth- to thirteenth-century Georgian monarch for whom the epic was written) against the Nazis in the waning days of the war on the Dutch island of Texel. With this and other offerings from a vast selection of Russian literature, from “pirate” editions—printed for illegal circulation in the USSR—of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (London, 1962) and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (Frankfurt, 1957), to pre-twentieth-century works by Chekhov (a signed first edition of Novellas and Stories, 1894) and Aleksandr Pushkin (a first edition of Eugene Onegin, Chapter VI, 1828), PY Rare Books proved a highlight of the fair. 

Albrecht Dürer, Knight, Death, and the Devil, 1513, Engraving. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Antiquarian Book Fair hosted vendors specializing in a range of other items and ephemera as well. Among the eye-catching prints was a 1513 original of Dürer’s Knight, Death, and the Devil, one of the artist’s meisterstiche, listed for $150,000 by Barry Lawrence Ruderman, based in San Diego. The knight poses as a defender of the Christian faith, trotting onwards after a successful hunt, undaunted by the temptation of the Devil and the impermanence of life, symbolized by the hour glass held by the rotting corpse of Death. In The Life and Death of Albrecht Dürer (1945), the German-Jewish art historian Erwin Panofsky understood the print to represent the “active life” of sixteenth-century Christians, the lifestyle embodied by Psalm 23:4: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” The stark detail of the print, which Dürer achieved through masterly hatching and crosshatching techniques, serves as a prime example of the Renaissance’s devotion to anatomical realism.

The specialty of Barry Lawrence Ruderman, however, is cartography. The impressive booth display hosted a collection advertised as “The Most Impressive Dutch Wall Maps of the 17th Century,” featuring four such maps of Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas, each decorated with numerous intricate engravings showing scenes of local wildlife and naval conquest. Landscapes of each continent’s most famous urban centers populate the maps’ outer edges. Produced in Amsterdam in 1682 by Nicolaes Visscher II (1649–1702), the maps are not dedicated to a Dutch or Scandinavian ruler, but rather to King Charles II, praising his growing empire. Another map was more relatable to the average fair attendee: a 1775 print of the second plan of New York City, contained in Hugh Gaine’s almanac of that same year. In this we saw a mostly uninhabited Brooklyn, an early grid of what is today the Financial District, and the “Road to Boston” heading north, bisecting Manhattan (otherwise known as Broadway).

Winslow Homer, “Hard Tack” in Life in Camp, 1864, Uncolored lithographs, published by L. Prang & Co., Boston. Photo: John M. Wisdom.

For those more patriotic bibliophiles, William Reese Company, out of New Haven, offered a wide range of Americana from the Revolutionary and Civil War periods. Billed as the Continental Congress’s “crossing of the Rubicon,” a pamphlet written by the colonial legislature “Seting [sic] forth the Causes and Necessity of their taking up Arms” stood out as the precursor to the Declaration of Independence, published in July 1775 in Philadelphia to rally the colonies against the Crown in the wake of the battles at Lexington and Concord. From the Civil War, we saw an exceedingly rare pocket-sized volume of lithographs by Winslow Homer, titled Life in Camp, depicting humorous daily scenes, such as “Hard Tack,” a caricature of a big-headed Union soldier failing to chew an absurdly large, dense biscuit. Even America’s enemies could find something worthwhile in this booth: a 1919 pamphlet by the Communist Party of America, entitled Call for a National Convention for the Purpose of Organizing the Communist Party of America. Only two other copies survive, one held by Moscow’s Comintern Archive. 

The popularity of this annual fair serves as a testament to the vitality of the book. If you missed this year’s, save up some spending money, mark down the end of April in 2024, and come to New York to witness what is one of the greatest gatherings of books in the world. 

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