On Thursday, the sixty-second annual New York International Antiquarian Book Fair opened at the Park Avenue Armory after a two-year hiatus. Nearly two hundred prominent book dealers have gathered in the building’s former drill hall, an eighty-foot-high, 55,000-square-foot space built by “the first volunteer militia to respond to President Lincoln’s call for troops in 1861,” as the Armory’s guidebook tells us. Most of the vendors have come from around the United States and Europe, though a few have flown in from as far as Argentina and Japan. The show is not unlike a rare books museum exhibition, except that, in most instances, visitors are actually encouraged to reach beneath the glass and flip through the books on display (and, hopefully, purchase them).

First editions of classics such as Great Expectations (Jonkers Rare Books, Henley-on-Thames), Anna Karenina (PY Rare Books, London), and Frankenstein (Whitmore Rare Books, Pasadena) are expected at a fair like this but still exciting to see in the flesh. (Alas, the last could only be removed from its case for “very certain people”; I was not one of them.) Other dealers, such as New York’s own Bauman Rare Books, present eclectic volumes you might have never heard of before. Among the most intriguing books on display, next to Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy of Advice to Shepherds and Owners of Flocks (1811) by Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton and a first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous (1939), is an elegant volume of over one hundred drawings by Jean Cocteau titled Dessins (1924).

First edition Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, 1878, PY Rare Books.

Long before the French polymath directed the film Belle et la Bête (1945) or wrote the novel Les enfants terribles (1929), Cocteau was a poet, draftsman, and burgeoning playwright on the verge of an opium addiction. Dessins, which contains portraits of composers, dancers, and designers, reflects Cocteau’s involvement with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, for which he designed posters and wrote scenarios for several new works. One of Cocteau’s earliest successes came in 1917, when he conceptualized Parade, an avant-garde ballet scored by Erik Satie with costumes and sets by Pablo Picasso. A few years later, Cocteau dedicated Dessins to Picasso, writing, “Poets do not draw. They untie the knots in handwriting and then retie them differently.” 

Erik Satie in Dessins by Jean Cocteau, 1924, Bauman Rare Books.

Despite this playful caveat, Dessins contains gorgeous drawings of many artistic figures including a bespectacled Satie and Léon Bakst, the set and costume designer of many important Diaghilev ballets, such as Le Spectre de la rose (1911) and Daphnis et Chloé (1912). Cocteau’s spare, loose-lined portraits evoke the style of the colored religious murals he completed later in life for his chapel in Milly-la-Forêt as well as for the church of Notre Dame de France in Covent Garden, London. Among the most amusing drawings in the book is a chaotic backstage scene featuring a pampered dancer (Nijinsky) being fanned with a towel and spied upon by Diaghilev through his famous monocle.

Illustration from Dessins by Jean Cocteau, 1924.

If Cocteau himself was recalled from the netherworld this weekend, he might be thrilled to see a handsome, green-bound first edition of Gluck’s opera score for Orphée et Euridice at the stand of the Parisian book dealer Librarie Lardanchet a few steps away. In 1774, the Bavarian-born composer was invited to Paris by his former student, Marie Antoinette, who ascended to the French throne later that year. In her honor, he reworked (and renamed) his 1762 opera Orfeo ed Euridice, which had premiered at the court of her mother, Empress Maria Theresa, in Vienna. The new version, sung in French instead of Italian, now contained the haunting—and deceptively simple—flute solo “Minuet and Dance of the Blessed Spirits,” which has become a staple of flute repertoire. One of the most recognizable passages from the opera to modern listeners, the solo can be heard throughout countless Orpheus-themed works, including Cocteau’s supernatural film Orphée (1950), in which it plays repeatedly from a radio operated by the character Death.

First edition Orphée et Euridice by Gluck, 1774, Librarie Lardanchet.

There are not exclusively books on display. Also sprinkled throughout the stands are letters, maps, prints, and other, less easily categorized historical artifacts, such as a passport of John Ruskin from 1872 and an enormous thirteenth-century charter, royal seal still attached, of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (both Antiquariat Inlibris, Vienna). James Cummins Booksellers, also based in New York, are selling a never-before-seen 1958 photograph of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in seeming good spirits after moving to Boston. On the back of the photograph is a handwritten note by Plath to her parents, wishing them a happy New Year. Elsewhere, The Colossus and Other Poems (1960) her first volume of poetry, and the only book published under her name in her lifetime, is for sale (Bas Books, London) alongside a first-edition Bell Jar (1963).

A Book of Rhymes by Charlotte Brontë, 1829, James Cummins Booksellers.

Of course, most people at the James Cummins stand crowded around another object sitting its own, heavily guarded case: a tiny handwritten manuscript created by a thirteen-year-old Charlotte Brontë in December 1829. By then she had already experienced the deaths of her sisters Maria and Elizabeth, and had begun writing poetry and stories set in the fictional world of Gondal together with her siblings Anne, Emily, and Branwell, who had been pulled from disease-ridden schools to live at home. Open to the first page and titled “A Book of Ryhmes [sic] by Chrlotte Bronte [sic], Sold by Nobody, and Printed by Herself,” the manuscript contains unpublished verses written in a miniature script that the Brontë siblings may have created by writing beneath a magnifying glass. Yesterday it was sold to an unknown buyer. Will it disappear forever, be donated to an American museum, or find its way back to the Brontë family parsonage, now a museum in Haworth? See it for yourself: the fair remains open through Sunday.

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