This article was originally published in Antique Trader
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For 24 years, the San Francisco Antiquarian Book Print and Paper Fair has drawn bibliophiles together to refine their collections. This year’s fair, Feb. 4-5, 2012, was held at the Exhibition Concourse, a beautifully restored railroad station, south of San Francisco’s City Center. The Concourse’s exposed wooden rafter and lighting provided exceptional ambiance for the 174 exhibitors who were offering illuminated manuscripts, rare first editions and highly sought after posters, prints, and postcards.
This year’s fair was the first under the experienced hand of Nancy Johnson Event Management. Johnson has been in the book business since 1977 when she opened a bookshop called The Library, now known as Nancy Johnson Bookseller.
Her inventory of 75,000 titles is devoted to in- and out-of-print reference books on antiques and the arts. She’s been in the business since she was 16 years old. Her father, Walt Johnson, a noted coin collector and exhibitor, started the Collector’s Extravaganzas, antique fairs held since 1969 in Des Moines, Iowa; Denver, Colorado; and coming this fall Salt Lake City, Utah. Walt Johnson accompanied her on her trip to San Francisco and will continue lending a hand at the Hillsborough Antique Show, a regular event that Nancy Johnson also manages.
The report from fair exhibitors was positive. Many complimented Johnson on being well organized, a quick problem solver, accessible, and friendly. Highest praise came for Johnson’s effectiveness at getting the word out and attracting the right individuals. Rosemarie Rustico of San Francisco’s W. C. Antiques described the first day as “killer busy.” The second day was a bit easier (Super Bowl XLVI might have had something to do with that).
The 2012 Fair in San Francisco is a companion show to the much larger Antiquarian Book Association of America’s International Show, this year held in Pasadena, Calif. The two events alternate between Northern and Southern California each year and are held within a week of one another. This affords many exhibitors two opportunities to sell the goods they brought, some from the East Coast, Canada and England.
“These shows” said James Bryant of Carpe Diem Books in Monterey, Calif., “always allow us to sell books on California and the Old West.”
Jen Zabriskie of The Book Shop of Covina, Calif., in Southern California agreed. “Booster Bindings always sell well. They have highly decorated bindings and covers which encouraged people to move out here at the turn of the last century. You know, ‘Go West Young Man.’ We always get a real mix of people, many of them finding ‘wish list’ items.”
The general consensus was that both ends of the market were selling well. An illustrated science book from 1750 went for $1,100. People this year seemed not to agonize over spending $10 to $20 on decoratively bound books of otherwise no great distinction.
“The upper end, high quality, good condition books sell.” Bryant continued. “The market is much more demanding today.” Bryant has been in the business for about a dozen years. He insists that people are more attracted to the visual content of the books and have moved away from the text. So if your tome is packed with illustrations, you are likely to have it move off the shelf faster.
Bill Bastick of Asian Steppes Antiquarian Books in San Francisco sold a book on Japanese prints, also a few titles on Southeast Asia, Hawaii, and some Russian books—all going for $20 to $200. Bastick always has an eye out for important volumes on the Orient and most recently books on Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Tibet and China.
One title Bastick offered for $1,000 was “The New Conquest of Central Asia, Vol.1” was written, in part, by Roy Chapman Andrews as expedition leader. It describes his journey to China and Mongolia between 1921 and 1930, when and where the dinosaur fossils and eggs (now housed at the American Museum of Natural History) were discovered. It was at a place they called “Flaming Cliffs.”
During an exchange at the show, Steve Blackmer of Sonoma’s Chanticleer Books wanted that very same book and put forward a sum below the asking amount. They got closer on price (all in fun) but Bastick still has the book.
Having a specialty is essential in the rare book trade. Dealers must know what’s on the market, what it’s worth, how high the demand is, and definitely who might be interested in buying it. So many of the transactions taking place at a rare book exhibition are done by avid collectors who are intentionally visiting the fair to see what specific vendors have for sale this year. The exhibitors themselves are also buying. Many have squirreled away in the back of their heads the connection between Mr. John Doe from back home and this important book by Roy Chapman Andrews.
In 2009, dealer Dan Whitmore quit his job and decided to start his rare book business. Whitmore is now 31. Among the books he exhibited was a first English edition “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley, published in three small volumes and priced at $110,000. A first edition in two volumes of James Fennimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans” was offered for $12,500. An autographed Oscar Wilde went for approximately $20,000. But he also had on display James Ramsey Ullman’s “Banner in the Sky,” a book about kids climbing the Matterhorn for $75.
Whitmore read and loved it as a child and hopes to excite others about its wondrous content. A passion for what you’re selling is essential for success, as all long-time book sellers know.
In a stunning display, Paul Dowling of Liber Antiquus, Inc. of Washington, D.C. had one of the finest rare books in the show, “Theatrvm civitatvm et admirandorvm Italiae” (Theater of the Cities and Wonders of Italy), published by the atlas maker Joan Blaeu of Amsterdam in 1663. The “Theatrvm” is a two-volume set that celebrates the magnificence of Rome and the Papal States.
The volumes are bound in exquisite matching bindings of contemporary Dutch vellum, ruled and tooled in gold. Both the bindings and the books themselves are in excellent condition and preserve much of their original freshness despite being almost 350 years old.
The work includes 118 large engraved plates comprising maps and breathtakingly beautiful views of Italian cities. Most of the illustrations are double-paged. However, there are also two large composite plates of the raising of the Vatican obelisk in St. Peter’s Square (an engineering marvel performed by Domenico Fontana in 1586). The dome of St. Peter’s, still under construction in the 16th century, can be seen in the background. Another composite plate depicts the Renaissance and Baroque villas in the sprawling countryside of Frascati, then as now famous for its wines.
The “Theatrvm” is rarely encountered on the market, due in part to a disastrous fire that swept through Blaeu’s establishment in 1663 and destroyed most of them. “I have located only four copies of this book in the United States,” said Dowling, “All are in institutions and one of which is grossly defective. Of the many books produced in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries to record and celebrate Italy, this is one of the most magnificent.”
With a smile, Dowling also added. “And it’s the perfect gift for anyone who loves Italy … especially the villas and wines of Frascati!” The two-volume set is priced at $75,000.
Phillip J. Pirages Fine Books & Manuscripts had on display several front pieces extracted from a French Book of Hours, dating from 1420. The original book was completed in a copyist’s studio having been commissioned by a wealthy patron. It was divided up decades ago. Each of these beautiful vellum panel leafs contain an exemplary hand painted miniature surrounded by the illuminated (with gold leaf) scrolls. The prices ranged from $3,000 to $5,000 a piece. Pirages’ website, by the way, is a must for anyone interested in learning about medieval manuscripts and rare books.
Visual treats of a much more recent era were also on display. Judith Rafferty Fine Art of Portland, Ore., offered prints from the 1930’s ranging from $125 to $400. Among the items leaving other print booths were a Japanese drawing, an Abe Lincoln portrait, and a 1930s travel poster of Alaska, all for around $500. Anyone interested in antique maps may consider the excellent work being done by philanthropist and map collector David Rumsey.
Several postcard dealers also had large displays. Although I’d promised myself to stick to reporting, I put down my notebook and camera and went through 100 plus Catharina Klein postcards offered at Ken Prag Paper Americana.
Resources available to antique book collectors
- Antique Trader Book Collector’s Price Guide: Organized into 14 categories, and arranged alphabetically by author
- Dogs in Books: Celebrates the role of dogs in literature, featuring more than 30 famous dogs
- The Life and Times of the Real Winnie-The-Pooh: The Teddy Bear Who Inspired A. A. Milne