Rare Book Monthly
Articles - December - 2002 Issue
A Visit with Jeremy Markowitz at Swann Galleries
By Abby Tallmer
It is a cold November morning in New York City. I am in a pristine white-walled office, high quality light toned wood shelves and easels everywhere, a central reception desk in the front, a stairway leading to the lower floor space (occupied by art auctions as opposed to book auctions) nearby. I can tell that this room is usually fastidiously clean but today it is filled with orderly clutter as every easel and available bit of fabric-lined wall space is occupied by a brightly colored and elaborately decorated early 20th century travel poster. Everywhere I look these posters lure me to travel to exotic places on this damp and drizzly November day. I am sitting at the head of a long wooden table, accompanied by a jovial dark haired man in his early to mid thirties, wearing a suit that he seems only slightly uncomfortable in. This suited young man is Jeremy Markowitz, Specialist in Printed and Manuscript Americana for Swann Galleries, one of the nation’s premiere auction houses.
I am here to interview Mr. Markowitz on a variety of topics for this month’s AE Monthly. Throughout our interview all around us telephones ring and bids are taken for various upcoming sales, especially for the Travel Poster sale which is the one most immediately pending. I make a conscious decision to block out these phone calls and the lure of the travel posters (which could easily occupy me for an hour or more) and get to the purpose at hand: talking with Mr. Markowitz. This proves to be an easy task as Mr. Markowitz is a brisk and engaging conversationalist. We begin, appropriately enough, at the beginning: I ask Mr. Markowitz what got him into this particular line of work. He answers that as a student, libraries always gave him pleasure, especially when “researching early American stuff.” Markowitz worked briefly at the Rosenbach, then pursued a Master’s Degree in History, then sent off a pack of letters to various auction houses. Swann answered, about five years ago. And so the story goes.
I decide to play devil’s advocate and ask him what his title (“Specialist in Printed and Manuscript Americana”) really means. How do you define ‘Americana’, I ask. He is very patient with me. “Well,” he says, “Americana generally refers to the Western Hemisphere. I guess when we use the word ‘Americana’ we are generally talking about material ranging from Columbus to the Civil War, but at times the date range is way beyond that. ‘Printed’ Americana includes engravings, images, and graphics as well as purely textual materials. Generally when I use the term ‘Americana,’” he says, digging himself a little deeper, “I am referring to material with some ‘guts’ to it. The difference between autographs and Americana is the contextual presence that Americana tends to have to itself. Not that autographs can’t be Americana,” he quickly adds in deference to the sale which we are about to discuss. Soon we are talking about both the upcoming Autographs sale and the 100 Rare & Important Travel Posters sale as Americana. “Travel posters, railroad posters, these are Westward Expansion materials. Typical Americana subjects.” We settle on a grossly general definition: “Americana is a very personal thing. It is collector-driven and collector-determined. Whatever collectors want to include as Americana, in a sense, is.”