A set of autographed Winnie the Pooh first editions, brought to last weekend’s Toronto International Antiquarian Book Fair by Paul Foster, a UK bookseller.
The atlas is about the size and shape of a small pizza box. It costs $275,000.
It contains a complete map of North America—or the parts of it, at any rate, that were known to Europe’s colonial powers in 1733, when the map was engraved. The various territories displayed were hand coloured to reflect their ownership: red for English, blue for French, and so on. Modern cartography had still not quite arrived, so New York state and Ontario are slightly squished, and Florida is a wedge. You couldn’t navigate with the atlas; it has outlived its usefulness by at least two centuries. Even so, it’s a lovely and historically important object, one of only a few in existence (one of which is viewable online). Its current owner, the New York City–based book dealer Donald A. Heald, pointed out the item’s entry on his price list, where its astronomical value was printed in black ink.
Heald flipped pages in the atlas with a pen in his hand, apparently unworried about the slim possibility of a catastrophic ink explosion leaving indelible stains on an object that costs more than a really nice car or a so-so house. “It’s really not difficult to live with it,” he explained, by which he meant that the atlas, despite being old, wasn’t too delicate to handle. The pages are thick, with an almost textile quality. Even so, in the middle of showing the volume off, he took a pre-moistened towelette out of a suit-coat pocket and carefully dabbed the oil and dirt off his hands.
Heald was one of about fifty dealers who brought books to last weekend’s Toronto International Antiquarian Book Fair, which took place from Friday to Sunday. By all accounts, it was the first such international fair to have happened in Toronto in fifteen years.
Canada has a number of small antiquarian book fairs, including one in Ottawa and one in Vancouver, but these events are attended mainly by dealers from within the country. Last weekend’s Toronto fair was unusual in that it attracted dealers from the UK, Europe, and the States. The TIABF’s organizers claim that there hasn’t been an international antiquarian book fair in Canada since 1995, and several dealers at the event said likewise.
The fair took place in a smallish room in the basement of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Dealers sat next to their books in booths with burgundy-coloured curtains for walls.
Paul Foster, a bookseller from London (England, that is), had brought a selection of what he called “top of the tree” materials, including four first-edition Winnie the Pooh books, with dust jackets, signed by A.A. Milne. They were priced at £29,000 (or about $47,200) for the set. Foster, a large, good-natured guy, said he’d been selling books for twenty years. His prior job was as a drummer in a rock band, but he’d had to give that up.
A Map of the British Empire in America with the French and Spanish Settlements Adjacent Thereto, brought to the Toronto International Antiquarian Book Fair by Donald Heald, of New York City. Its price is $275,000.
Battledore Ltd., of Kingston, New York, brought along a collection of various editions of Quotations from Chairman Mao, better known as The Little Red Book. Prices ranged from $250 for a later edition to $50,000 for a first edition in a custom-tooled leather case. The Little Red Book is as little as its nickname would suggest, and so the high-end editions were selling, literally, for more than their weight in gold.
For obvious reasons, sellers of these types of books spend a great deal of energy seeking out and cultivating a very special kind of buyer. “It’s really the right book for the right person at the right time,” said Helen R. Kahn, a bookseller from Montreal. (A small but significant percentage of rare book dealers seem to like to use middle initials, for reasons we weren’t able to ascertain.)
Adrian King-Edwards, co-owner of The Word Bookstore in Montreal, had tailored his offerings to Toronto buyers by emphasizing Canadiana. He’d already sold a $500 edition of Leonard Cohen’s The Spice-Box of Earth.
But what he was most excited about was a new acquisition. “I just got this last week,” he said, indicating a single sheet of paper in a protective plastic sleeve that had been placed, for good measure, inside a glass case. It was a blank piece of Adolf Hitler’s personal letterhead.
He conceded that it was extremely difficult to attach a value to such a thing. He’d tagged it for $1000.
King-Edwards, like Foster, broke into the rare book business almost by chance. He said he’d been a literature student at McGill when he first started selling books, and that he did so, initially, out of his apartment. One day the Chinese laundry next door went out of business, and a “For Rent” sign appeared in the window. “It looked like a good opportunity,” he said. “And I’ve been there ever since.”
Buyers likewise seem drawn to rare books by forces beyond their control. Many of them covet volumes on particular subjects. At another booth, a man who said he was an investment banker made a substantial purchase of things related to arctic exploration.
Another buyer wandering the room―a tall man in a nice suit, with glasses and long hair he wore in a carefully, intentionally disheveled ponytail―looked like someone who would be shopping for rare literary first editions, but this turned out not to be the case.
“Botany,” he said. Particularly books with hand-painted illustrations, preferably pre-lithography. (Lithography, a printing process, was invented in 1796.)
“Oddly,” he said, “I don’t really have that much interest in living plants.”
Photos by Nancy Paiva/Torontoist.