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David Lilburne, who owns Antipodean Books, Maps & Prints on Garrison’s Landing with his wife, Cathy, is the newly appointed president of The Ephemera Society of America.
What is ephemera and why should it be more than ephemeral?
It’s a small record of life at a specific time period. These pieces of paper tell the history of a time. If you’re reading books, you’re reading just a person’s version of history. People don’t understand ephemera. It’s not necessarily expensive. We have a whole heap of postcards here that start at a dollar. It’s not a place that has $1,000 pieces and up, it’s $1 and up. If you want a Toulouse Lautrec poster, a real one, there are $10,000 items, but you can always find something for a dollar.
Do you collect ephemera, or just sell it?
I have a 35-year-old collection of 4,500 pieces of paper related to tea, including packaging, invoices, photos, stereopticon views, trade cards, advertising, tokens, diaries, letters, pamphlets, postcards, posters and maps, all from before 1950. I have tried hard to stick to paper only, but every now and then something extraordinary turns up outside those parameters. The last time this occurred it was a Chinese tea chest that was shipped to New York in 1800. My other dedicated collection is of Hudson River ephemera, as well as maps.
I also collect current ephemera. For example, when COVID-19 disrupted our lives, I began collecting posters advertising events that were never going to occur.
What Do People Collect?
Advertisements, airsickness bags, baseball cards, billheads, blotters, board and card games, bookmarks, bookplates, broadsides, business cards, calendars, cigar bands, cigarette cards, greeting cards, invitations, luggage labels, maps, menus, paper dolls, postcards, posters, puzzles, sheet music, stock certificates, tickets, timetables, valentines, watch papers, wrappers
How has the digital world altered collecting?
It’s made it much more available. Until recently, it’s been a backwater; people love ephemera but it takes time to go through. The internet opens everything up. For example, in front of me now is a wood-carved cover of an album, engraved down to the millimeter; someone stood there and carved the whole cover. If you put a photo online, people go: “Ooh, I want it.” If I send you this photo, you’ll start salivating, even as a non-specialist. It’s completely different from just hearing about it.
How did you wind up doing what you do?
My dad, who was an obstetrician in Perth [Australia], was a collector. He had worked at an old bookshop, and he bought books at auction. I grew up in a house full of books. Australians — we travel. After I graduated from university, I went to the U.K. and my dad said: “While you’re in London, why don’t you pick me up some books?” I met Cathy in London and we started looking for books together, then started Antipodean Books there, in 1976, when London was the center of books.
We moved here in 1982, and have been buying and selling here since then, after finding that British customers wanted different books than American customers. We’re now up to speed on both. Books led us to ephemera. When you start looking at these books you wonder: “Where is this?” Then: “What about pictures of the time?” Then prints, then: “Hey, this piece of paper was put out when this voyage took place.”
Has the pandemic been good or bad for your business?
It’s actually been very good, as everybody seems to be using the time at home to clear out their houses. Last year, we were caught in Australia, with travel restrictions keeping us there a lot longer than planned. But everybody was ordering online, so workwise it was as good as if we were here. We’re heading back soon, coming back in March, in time for the Ephemera Society Fair [in Old Greenwich, Connecticut].