One of the great pleasures of the New York Antiquarian Book Fair in New York every April is its certainty. Life has its ups and downs but somehow each April the leading dealers, institutions and collectors find a way to get past life’s debris to rally around the material on which the field thrives; rare, beautiful and unusual works on paper. In some years events in the real world crowd out the joy and pleasure in the Park Avenue Armory, in others the skies are clear, the daffodils are out, and smiles are everywhere. The 2016 NYABF goes into the records as a very strong event, as David Lilburne of Antipodean Books explained, “a throwback to ten years ago when all felt right with the world.” For John Windle “it was the fair at which the stars lit up the sky, my best NY Fair ever at just under $500,000.”
Dealers have been setting prices for decades but increasingly, and this year emphatically, many dealers adjusted prices into logical relationship with market conditions and saw their sales jump. It turns out many, probably most, North American buyers have their own opinions about fair value and we saw over the four fair days in April, that when the prices offered matched acquirer expectations, the sales occurred quickly. My own experience was similar.
In my category, material relating to the Hudson Valley, there were many appealing choices, some I committed to immediately and others I suggested I’d return to discuss the following day. When I came back those items were gone. It was that kind of fair.
Bill Reese reported strong fair results: $1.3 million, his second best fair over his storied career as a dealer. Donald Heald, who has managed the New York Fair for more than a decade, reported “happiness across all the aisles.” Attendance increased from 4,300 in 2015 to 5,600 in 2016.
This book fair is always an amalgam; first domestic and foreign dealers, then dealers in categories - ephemera, maps, manuscripts and books; next material by subject: science and medicine, early exploration, Americana, fiction, book arts, printed images, objects and charts. One collector called the fair “a learning experience. There was a lot going on.” That it was.
Bill Reese suggested that American dealers have learned to write better story-descriptions to explain their material and this is helping their sales. “They understand they have to contextualize each item.”
Selling collectible paper is both an art and a process. Not so long ago all talk was about whose clients were on the floor. Today what’s on the shelves is even more important because it’s increasingly an information-based market. Personal relationships continue to be very important but for new collectors the need to learn is paramount.
Greg Talbot of Lawbook Exchange saw the fair through a different lens. “It was strong and I’m sure many others have described it that way. We marketed a pre-show list to clients and many, who couldn’t attend, bought from it. Material we promoted also sold. The strength was in the high end.”
Another dealer sold important material to institutions early and then sold only a single book Saturday and nothing further on Sunday. “My clients expected some consideration and I obliged.” Discounting seemed more expected. “This is the world now.”
The show had a back-story as well. It is widely known that the powers at the Armory are looking for shows that stay longer and appeal to a younger audience. As of May 1st the New York Antiquarian Book Fair does not yet have a firm offer for their April show in 2017. There is some discussion about a possible weekend date in March but that is also tricky. Other shows have lodged themselves in March and probably won’t adjust without a fight.
In any event, any proposal for the Armory is said to be for only two years so any solution will probably be temporary. By, if not before 2020, the fair will be in new premises unless the field successfully campaigns for a new long-term commitment.
And this is unsettling. The collectable paper field has been adjusting to an aging audience, the explosion of Internet listed material, and the emergence of massive on-line databases that clarify rarity, importance and value and these changes and adjustments seem to be working out. But the next five years will be especially crucial and the storied, convenient Armory could provide stability through what will invariably be a period of continuing adjustment. Already the ABAA has answered one concern: attendance. This year’s 5,600 is a 30% increase on attendance in 2015. In fact, the Sunday numbers were strong enough that the armory’s representative briefly slowed the entry pace to avoid overcrowding. Overcrowding? It seems that the audience, by the Armory’s calculations, is at least somewhat robust and if given time to develop additional strategies the show promoters could build the audience back toward 10,000.
Simply stated, the rare book field deserves to continue to be at the Armory although the audience may be older than the one consultants see in the armory’s future. And that’s okay. Rare books are part of the future too and will continue to be culturally significant. I say give the ABAA numbers to hit and they’ll hit them.
In the meantime, about half of what I bought in New York has arrived. It was a lovely trip and, from this collector’s perspective, an excellent buying opportunity. So I’m looking forward to next April.
There were two other book fairs, both which were busy. I'll be writing about them in the June issue of Rare Book Monthly.