This February I had the very good fortune to be supported to attend the 43rd ILAB Congress held in Pasadena, California. My thanks go to the the trustees of the Woodburn Foundation, who made it possible for the ABAA to support four booksellers new to the trade to be in attendance. I was joined by Laura Massey (Alembic Rare Books, UK), Aimee Peake (Bison Books, Canada) and Simon Ström (Sweden). I am also grateful to ANZAAB for supporting my travel to and from the Congress, and look forward to ‘giving back’ to the association that has offered me so much support in my first years of membership. The following article documents my impressions of the San Francisco Antiquarian Book, Print & Paper Fair, the 43rd ILAB Congress, and the 51st California Rare Book Fair held in Pasadena. I hope it gives a sense of what it was like to be there.
As I stood – bleary and jet-lagged – flipping through the well ordered and reasonably priced boxes of ephemera on the Antipodean Rare Books’ stand, the ever gracious David Lilburne enthused about the role of paper and photographs in the future of rare collections. The way he sees it, most of the major collectors have completed their collections in terms of rare books – what they are looking for now are ephemeral items that complement or ‘fill in the gaps’. Of course eventually everyone shuffles off this mortal coil and when collectors die their collections – so painstakingly gathered over decades – are often broken up and dispersed, giving younger collectors the opportunities to add to their own unique collections. But in the foreseeable future David is predicting the continued rise in collecting popularity of paper, photography and ephemera.
David and Cathy Lilburne
Looking around the San Francisco Antiquarian Book, Print & Paper Fair it was hard to disagree. A large portion of stands were completely devoted to ephemeral items, photographs, stereoscopes, glass slides, photo albums, friendship books, autograph books and scrap books. I wondered if my interest in nineteenth and early twentieth century postmortem images would be satisfied here but after a long search I found only one item – a deceased American outlaw. Interesting but not exciting enough for me to pay the four figures being asked. More exciting was a four album set of picture postcards and photographs collected by Captain Occlestone and his wife during their 1910 ’round the world’ tour. This collection was complimented by four holograph journals. Imagine my delight on opening the first one to discover a record of arriving in Brisbane, Australia, followed immediately by my disappointment that Brisbane did not make a good first impression. But civic pride aside this item is truly unique. As Pablo Butcher explained when I returned to his stand the following day, many if not most ’round the world’ photo albums may have captions and even be annotated within the album itself. However it is rare to find a trip with journals that precisely match and elaborate on each album. Who will want it? Any number of collectors might be interested in one or another of the albums depending on their geographic location and collecting interests, but it seems a crime to break the set. It is more likely that an institution might acquire it for the information relating to travel in 1910, the detailed notes on what everything cost, the observations of places and peoples. Or a collector who specialises in material from ’round the world’ tours. If that is your interest, let me introduce you to Pablo…
Pablo Butcher with the Occlestone albums and journals
I spent most of the first day orienting and immersing myself, saying hello to the Australian book dealers who had come all this way to exhibit or to browse, and meeting some of the American dealers. I enjoyed a brief chat with Miranda Garno Nesler of Whitmore Rare Books and absolutely loved her catalogue titled ‘The Pursuit of Equality – Rare books from Women and their Allies’. This is a beautifully curated catalogue with well-known and important works by women and their champions in history. When I asked Miranda to show me one of her favourite items she chose Angelina E Grimke’s Letters To Catherine E. Beecher In Reply To An Essay On Slavery And Abolitionism (1838). As she points out in the catalogue, “[i]n direct response to Beecher’s argument that women’s naturally subordinate role should prohibit their public activism, Grimke published a text that laid critical groundwork for the intersectional feminism of today.” A humble little tome, but rich in content and historical significance.
Saturday morning found me back at the Fair, a little less bleary and ready for business. I picked up a signed copy of Emma Goldman’s 1911 Anarchism and Other Essays and two delightful Edward Gorey books, had several more bookish conversations, and before I knew it the time had come to catch my flight back to LA and arrive in Pasadena for the ILAB Congress.
The 43rd ILAB Congress, Pasadena.
Congratulations to Jen and Brad Johnson of Johnson Rare Books and Archives for curating a fascinating itinerary and for the detailed and thoughtful organisation of this four day event. I’m aware that a couple of things didn’t go quite to plan, but on the whole things went rather swimmingly and, being new to the ILAB Congress experience, I had my mind seriously blown each day.
Day #1 – Registration, The ILAB Book Fair Symposium, Welcome Reception
After putting my name down on various lists for tours to come in the following days, and delighting in contents of my Congress book bag (the box of Sees Candy and the ILAB sunglasses were particularly appreciated – California light is very bright), I shyly made my way towards the room for the ILAB Book Fair Symposium. I was sorry to miss the walking tour of Old Pasadena, but I knew I had made the right choice for me even before I learned that the guide for the walking tour neglected to turn up. The Book Fair Symposium was like attending ILAB 101 – through the speakers in Part 1 of the program I was treated to a history of the Book Fair and its challenges and successes in countries as diverse as Australia, England, France, Italy and the Netherlands. ILAB’s press officer Angelika Elstner spoke about the benefits of utilising social media as part of any marketing campaign and suggested anyone feeling a little pessimistic about the future of book collecting read The Revenge of Analog. On the whole Part 1 was educational and thought provoking.
After a short break we were treated to two short presentations about book fairs by non dealers. The first was The Shape of the Fair by Claudia Funke (Chief Curator and Associate Director of Library Collections; The Huntington Library) who rather encouragingly stated, “What I want from a fair is to look at material that matters by a welcoming host.” Ms Funke also pointed out that curators (at least in America) are now subject based rather than media based, and so librarians will collect across a variety of media, AND many librarians are collecting in the recent past. Ms Funke was followed by Ms Susan Benne, Executive Director of the ABAA, who spoke about change and innovation in Rare Book Fairs in the United States. I wish I could say more about Ms Benne’s presentation, but it coincided with a wave of jetlag (I’m so sorry Susan!). What I do recall is that she was bright and engaging, had a snappy powerpoint presentation, and was enthusiastically received.
On reflection what I appreciated most about this first symposium was the historical contextualising of the topic, the views presented from inside and outside the trade, and the wide variety of opinions expressed during the Q&A that followed. Perhaps the question that surprised me the most was whether Book Fairs should be for the trade only – a place where dealer-to-dealer deals are made. This kind of dealing occurs informally during the set up of most fairs anyway and can be perceived to be disadvantageous to the general collecting public. In my limited experience I would not expect to do very well financially if I were relying on selling my wares just to other dealers. Additionally trade-only fairs would seem to work against the one imperative that everyone shares – the need to reach potential customers. Book Fairs open to the public present a terrific opportunity to expose people to the wonder of books, each one “teeming with life” as Rare Book School Director Michael Suarez recently described them in a TedX talk. And at the same time we dealers are exposed to the most wonderful people – people who are passionate about a particular subject, historical period, type of typography or binding or printing. In Australia, the Melbourne Rare Book Week culminating in the Melbourne Rare Book Fair successfully cultivates awareness and appreciation of rare and antiquarian books and printed works on paper. I came away from the symposium feeling some national pride in the Rare Book Week innovation and determined to find ways to support the development of young collectors in my home state of Queensland. Watch this space for the Archives Fine Books Book Collecting Prize.
The Welcome Reception that followed at the Pacific Asia Museum was a little like speed dating for book dealers. I met two of my fellow scholarship recipients – the impressive Aimee Peake and the delightful Simon Ström – and spoke with many established dealers and their equally interesting partners. A little dazzled I must admit I don’t remember a word of those first conversations, but the wine was very good, and I tumbled into bed that night with a wonderful sense of anticipation for the days to come.
Days #2, #3 and #4 – The Highlights
The days that followed were rich in opportunities to ogle important and beautiful books and printed material, and to meet many expert librarians, specialist dealers and extraordinary collectors. At the Huntington Library we were treated to a ‘Reverse Book Fair’. Each special collections librarian had chosen two of three of their favourite items – books and printed works that are not usually on display – and we were invited to move amongst each table and ask questions. I was impressed by the passion of each person for the works they had chosen and felt privileged to be able to engage one on one and at such close range with the librarians and their unique and fascinating material. After I finally left the room – and I lingered – the experience “landed in me” in a visceral way and I sought a quiet spot to clear my throat and dash the surprising tears from my eyes. I spent the remaining time quietly moving through the public displays, feeling full beyond measure.
On the first day we were also invited to view two world class private collections, which were each outstanding in their own way: The medical collection of Dr J. Mario Molina and the science collection of David Rips. I loved Rips’ story of how he came to collect books: His dad collected books but he never really talked to his son about what they were or why he collected them. So David grew up surrounded by books but without understanding their significance. In 2002 his dad was given a lifetime achievement award (he invented the invisible bifocal lens in the glasses we wear) and for his thank you speech he thanked Copernicus, Newton, Darwin but sadly not David’s mother, and so the son thought his father started to lose his mind. Later, two weeks before he died, Rip senior gave his son a rare book which is now David Rip’s most treasured item. Rip junior started to collect because through that gift he came to understand that every book in his father’s library was about science and every single author was in their way giving the same message: be an independent thinker, learn what science teaches but don’t be bound by dogma. Learn to think for yourself. In the 10 years since he started, David Rips has collected every first edition in the history of science, in great condition, contemporary bindings and usually with an outstanding provenance. He has paid up to six figures for a single book. The collection he showed us is staggering and he regularly opens his house and shows it to interested groups – from school kids to executives. His punchy message about honouring progress while retaining the capacity for independent thought was no less inspiring for being well-rehearsed and oft repeated.
The rare books tour at the Getty Museum was made all the more memorable by the beautiful location and architecture. We arrived on a hilltop to find a luminous white structure against a deep blue sky. Bright orange ‘birds-of-paradise’ bloomed in the gardens. ‘Colour’ is a collecting principle of the Getty rare books curator David Brafman and I enjoyed learning about his discovery that the symbolic language in a medieval alchemical text was actually a recipe for creating paint. While he spoke my eye was consistently drawn to a large book open to an illustration of the life cycle of a moth. As I circled round the table to take a closer look I discovered it was from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium by Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). Those more educated than me in natural history will already know that Maria is famous as a naturalist and scientific illustrator. The book I was looking at was her major work published in 1705 and for which she became quite famous. For me she was a delightful new discovery and I was impressed to learn that she documented the metamorphosis of moths and butterflies when she was just a girl of thirteen. Hers are among the earliest documentation of the life-cycles of insects, and helped in their time to dispel the widespread belief that bugs spontaneously emerged from mud. In contemplating the work of this seventeenth century teenager I was reminded of French feminist philosopher Hélène Cixous’ call to women to come to writing in order to create a contract with time. Cixous would have to acknowledge there were “no flies on” Maria in this regard (for international readers “no flies on” is Australian slang dating back to the 1840s signifying someone is quick and/or eager to act. And in case you didn’t get it I’m also riffing off the fact that Maria was one of the first entymologists).
There was so much more: the tour of Gamble House, one of the most outstanding examples of American Arts and Craft style architecture; the William Andrews Clark Museum, home to the most comprehensive collection of Oscar Wilde material ever assembled; The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick Library and the Petersen Automobile Museum. There are also two spaces worth mentioning for their social function during the Congress: the buses where one could sit next to and converse with numerous colleagues (and where I met the fourth scholarship recipient – the delightful Laura Massey); and the Presidential Suite at the Westin Pasadena that was open to all early in the morning and late at night. For those familiar with the theatre it functioned as a ‘green room’ – the place where cast and crew can gather, relax and interact. And that is exactly how it was utilised – one evening it was like the ‘after-party’ party room, another night you might find a team of industrious booksellers folding dust-jackets and slipping them onto Nevine Marchiset’s historical index of ILAB that was to be distributed at the Gala Dinner. In the mornings in the Presidential Suite bleary eyed book dealers poured coffee and regaled each other with recent and ancient tales of joy and woe as they reassembled themselves for another day of touring. In her maiden speech as the new ILAB president on the Gala Night Australia’s Sally Burdon also acknowledged the role this space played in making the entire Congress a success and congratulated Jen and Brad on the innovation.
Gamble House (front door)
The ILAB General Assembly & the California Rare Book Fair
Sadly my notes on these last two events are sketchy as I succumbed to a rather debilitating chest infection and virus. Too, too boring and sad. I attended the General Assembly in a foggy daze and ‘hung in’ because I was genuinely interested to hear about the things that the committee is focusing on. I spoke briefly and enthusiastically about the ILAB mentorship program (I have been participating as a mentee since April 2017), and the commitee’s youngest member Pavel Chepyzhov (Bookvica) made an impression by speaking about the ILAB internship program. Last to speak was Frank Rutten (Antiquariaat Brinkman) who presented a video promoting the 44th ILAB Congress which will be held in Amsterdam in 2020. Frank promises it will be fun and instead of travelling by bus congress delegates will be ferried about by boat!
The 51st California International Antiquarian Book Fair was situated in the Pasadena Centre. One of the largest and most prestigious of international fairs it was a wonderful showcase for some of the most beautiful and important books and works on paper available on the market today. Here as in San Francisco there were photographs, letters, journals and ephemera, but the emphasis was firmly on books and printing. I would have loved to have spent every moment it was open visiting each and every book seller but was only able to make it in for short ‘bursts’ of exploration. In spite of (or perhaps because of) my feverish state I managed to have some wonderful conversations and I would particularly like to thank John Howell, John Windle, Heather O’Donnell, Kay Craddock, Jonathan Burdon, Rob Shepherd and Stuart Bennett for engaging with me. David and Cathy Lilburne who I mentioned meeting in San Francisco also attended the Congress and Fair and were always there for me with advice, camaraderie and introductions to new people. Likewise Sally Burdon, Martin Nagle, Jennifer Jaeger, Douglas Stewart and Tira Lewis. I am aware it is dangerous to start naming people – there simply isn’t room to acknowledge every single wonderful acquaintance made. I will however go right ahead and mention a few more: Nicholas and Jenny Dawes, Derek McDonnell and Rachel Robarts who completed the Australian contingent, Kate Mitas who I had the pleasure of first meeting at CABS in 2015, Angelika Elstner and Paul and Janet Mills who travelled further than anyone else to join us from Capetown, South Africa, and Lisa Unger Baskin, collector extraordinaire of works by women (authors, binders, printers) and who I have been following on Instagram for the past year or more. Yes, it was a fan girl moment (thanks Laura Massey for the introduction) and I KNOW Lisa will remember me because of the spectacular coughing fit that overtook me as we were saying goodbye. Would it have been better to stay in bed? Common sense says yes, but then I wouldn’t have met Ms Unger Baskin!
Laura Massey & Lisa Unger Baskin
Overall the experience of attending the 43rd ILAB Congress was enriching beyond measure. I am convinced that the role of the rare book dealer is as important as it ever was in helping private collectors and public institutions build collections that foster independent thought and contribute to our understanding of human progress. I continue to be in awe of rare book and specialist collection librarians. I know that all I do not know could fill an ocean of books, but I am comfortable with that because learning anything in this profession is a lifelong endeavour. More importantly what I do not know may well fall within the expertise of a colleague and all I need do is reach out to find answers to my questions and the questions posed by my customers. However I am not complacent and in my opinion there is much work to be done to foster young collectors at home and abroad. In the end I have come home with a couple of modest purchases, a head full of ideas and plans, and a new passion for William Blake (John Windle’s catalogue has not been far from my hands for the past two weeks). Not as hung-over as planned, but definitely intoxicated with new knowledge, new relationships, and new possibilities. The 44th ILAB Congress will be held in Amsterdam in 2020 and is optimistically in my diary. If you are a rare book dealer I hope to see you there. If you are a collector perhaps we will meet at the Amsterdam International Antiquarian Book and Map Fair that will open as the Congress concludes. As Frank Rutten delighted in telling us, all we have to remember is “44/2020”. See you there.
Dawn Albinger at the Clark Library (photo by Angelika Elstner)