Behind the Scenes at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair

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Last week, I attended the New York Antiquarian Book Fair as an exhibitor for the third year in a row. The fair is an elaborate and exciting four-day event in which over 200 dealers from five continents display and sell antiquarian books, historic documents and autographs, ephemera, illuminated manuscripts, maps, and other collectible works on paper. It is probably the largest and certainly the most prestigious of its kind in North America. Care to take a trip behind the scenes with me?


The fair didn’t officially begin until Thursday evening, but most of the exhibitors arrived at the armory on Wednesday to set up. There’s always lots of exciting chaos during set-up day. Exhibitors, armory employees, and organizers run around building displays, unpacking, fixing things, and making sure everything is running smoothly. Besides setting up, Wednesday is also a time to interact with fellow exhibitors from all over the world and preview their offerings.

The fair didn’t start until 5 pm on Thursday, but we arrived earlier in the day. I always love seeing how the exhibition space transforms between Wednesday morning and Thursday evening, as wood floors are carpeted, tables are covered, lights are plugged in, and banners are hung. The Thursday night preview is a fancy event with hors d’oeuvres and a bar. Important collectors tend to come on Thursday night, so every exhibitor has big customers they hope to see. During the preview, I enjoyed taking a few minutes to walk around and see the other booths completely set up. My favorite items on display included a huge seventeenth-century map of the world and a medieval bell. The London dealer selling the bell explained to me how the technology used to create the letters around the rim was an early predecessor of the movable-type printing press. Then he let me ring the bell! Also, I always love the medieval manuscripts on display at Les Enlumineurs.

The show continued with full days on Friday through Sunday, but Thursday was by far the most exciting.

The Park Avenue Armory, the fair’s venue, is a gorgeous and historic building with an entire suite of period rooms by Louis Comfort Tiffany and other prestigious designers. I wrote about one of those rooms two years ago, and I also wrote about the armory after a visit to the Winter Antiques Show – one of many other world-class events held in the same building.

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