There's still treasure out there
Bring out your old postcards, report cards, dinner menus. Look for old photographs, books and concert posters.
Garry Austin and other fans of ephemera will be in the mood for vintage collectibles on Sunday, Oct. 21, during the 38th annual Antiquarian Book and Ephemera Fair. Sixty dealers of old, cool stuff will gather at the Washington Avenue Armory in Albany and sell books, manuscripts, autographs, maps and other things people often find hidden in their barns, attics and basements.
Austin, who owns Austin’s Antiquarian Books in Wilmington, Vt., is helping to organize the event. He said treasures are yet to be discovered in American homes, and hopes people will bring their curios to the fair.
Austin talked about antiquarian ways during a short question-and-answer session with The Sunday Gazette.
Q: Just what does “ephemera” mean?
A: Ephemera essentially is everything that has been created for a particular purpose. A classic example would be a political poster or your newspaper. Your newspaper is published on a daily basis, and while it can be archived as a historical document, its timeliness is of the day. Those kinds of articles, political posters, report cards and advertisements are created for the moment and then should be discarded. Many times they’re kept for keepsakes, dance programs, programs from graduations, membership cards, hunting and fishing licenses, driver’s licenses. My friend owns John Kennedy’s driver’s licenses. There’s an international organization called the Ephemera Society which has a website and annual shows in Greenwich, Conn., and London.
Q: Why are these postcards, old graduation programs and other things valuable?
A: They’re valuable because they’re snapshots in time, just as an old map is a snapshot in time. For instance, I once had a number of dance cards from West Point for cadet dances from the 1850s. Now, many of these had the names of cadets who would later become Civil War generals or presidents.
Q: Where can people find these things around the house?
A: They have them in dresser drawers, in scrapbooks. For example, if Barack Obama was coming to Albany and somebody could get close enough and they had the announcement that Barack Obama was coming to speak outside the Capitol building and they could get close enough to the president and get it signed, that would be an example of ephemera that took on real value because it was signed by the sitting president of the United States on the date that was printed on it. It’s a temporal snapshot.
Menus are very collectible from political dinners, with a list of the people speaking. It tells a story and also locates somebody at a particular place. Often they’re signed by many of the people who were there. And menus from steamships and trains from the late 19th century and early 20th century. A menu from the Titanic would be worth a small fortune.
Q: And people can bring down their finds for appraisal?
A: Yes. Everything is done for the benefit of the Albany Institute of History and Art. They can bring in items, we charge $5 to have each item appraised. If you bring in a set of 20 books, we’re not charging you $5 each. If you bring in one big book, we’re charging you $5. If people bring in a number of things we don’t say, OK, we’ve got 20 pieces of ephemera . . . it’s to get them to pay attention to what they have, to appreciate what these things are. If you walk into the Albany Institute today, the galleries, you’re going to see train schedules, you’re going to see steamboat schedules, you’re going to see steamboat advertisements for travel up and down the Hudson River.
Q: Do you ever see things that really surprise you?
A: Absolutely. And Albany is filled with real finds. Last weekend, Dennis Holzman of Dennis Holzman Antiques in Albany did an appraisal day and he looked at a collection of 150 Civil War letters. The wealth of material in the Albany area is astounding because it is a seat of government. It’s been an important place in American history since its establishment as Fort Orange in the Colonial period.
Q: Are people running out of things to find? Has everything already been found?
A: That’s a real theme in the book business. If you read the memoirs of the booksellers from the 1890s, when they started writing these memoirs, this is what they claimed, that all the good stuff was gone. And every bookseller who has ever opened a shop has maintained that. However, they keep buying all this great stuff. I will have with me, to give you an example, the discharge of the chief trumpeter of the Rough Riders, signed twice by Theodore Roosevelt as a Rough Rider. Within a year of that discharge, T.R. will be the governor of New York and by 1901 will be president of the United States.
Q: What other items have surprised you?
A: We’ve owned everything from receipts signed by Salem witch trial judges to signers of the Declaration of Independence to signers of the Constitution. Historical autographs are wonderful. Great maps. To look at a map published in London in 1750 and see how it reflects the American colonies — not only are they beautiful objects, but they’re real historic statements. You see prominent places, Albany will be as big as New York City, and bigger than Boston. Things change over time.
Q: What would you suggest people bring for appraisal?
A: Anything that they’re curious about, that they feel could be valuable — family items, old books, picture prints — historical prints being historical pictures or photographs. And there’s an entire category we’ve not even mentioned — photography is most ephemeral.
Q: We’ve occasionally received old scrapbooks at the newspaper, books filled with photos pasted on black paper, people in boats and near lakes, and surviving family members don’t even know who these people are, so they’re passing them on to us. Are these worth anything?
A: Yes. They’re called vernacular photographs and they’re collected as documents to describe what life was like in these resort areas — the boats are important, the fishing gear is important, the clothing is important, sometimes the buildings, some of these great old wooden hotels which have long since burned down. It definitely might be worth something, especially if it has that vacation-resort theme to it, or actually some of the great photographs are photographs of people engaged in work. If you have photographs of 19th century tradespeople doing things, that could be very important.
Q: And people might be able to sell some of these things at the fair?
A: We’ll have vendors there from across the country and they’ll be selling books, prints, maps and photographs. We get a very good crowd for this, we get an average of 500 people and it’s only from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. If someone walks in with a photographic album, we’ll appraise it and they’ll say “I still want to sell it,” we’ll point them toward someone and say “You should go see this person, they may make an offer.” Or they may not be interested. They can sell things there, but they do it privately.
Q: How about sports memorabilia?
A: Sports memorabilia, I tend to stay away from, personally. But there’s a huge market for it. The problem with sports memorabilia is so much has been faked, especially in the modern era, like a signed photograph of Mickey Mantle. The other thing is, so many of these guys are doing signings where you pay them $10 or $20 to get an autograph. There are thousands of Hank Aaron autographs out there.
Q: Old postcards?
A: Old postcards are a world unto themselves. They are collected on so many different levels. They are collected by the artist — Ellen Clapsaddle was one of the great postcard artists and did these cutesy Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day cards. The best postcards are what we call real photo cards, and these are real photographs taken of streetscapes, they show the buildings, they show the trolley cars, they show the train station, they show the people. These are collected and people collect postcards by region. There are people who collect just Lake George or the Adirondacks, or just their hometowns. We’ll have two vendors in the Armory that will probably have with them, without exaggeration, a quarter of a million postcards.
Q: Is there a “Holy Grail” of the ephemeral world? Something many are looking for?
A: There are. The “Holy Grail” in my world, I collect and sell a lot of Theodore Roosevelt. The “Holy Grail” of the Theodore Roosevelt books is a small book he wrote called “In Memory,” and it was written just for his family and it commemorated the day his first wife, Alice, and his mother died on the same day in the same house in New York. He wrote this brief memoir of his wife and his mother, it was privately printed and we only know of about six copies that exist. I had one once and sold it. Today it would be worth in excess of $20,000.