By DAVID GROSSBERG

— Autograph February 2009

Mounds of ephemera cover the tables at Hal Lutsky’s Concord, Cali., Vintage Paper Fair

Paper, paper, everywhere! Paper fairs are one of my favorite places to find vintage items. Held across the United States, they are a seemingly undiscovered treasure trove not yet overrun by autograph collectors. As a place for all things ephemera, paper fairs can help make your autograph collection much more complete.

Victorian Era Business Card

If you are framing your autograph with an accompanying item or photo, then don’t miss the next paper fair. Perhaps you are looking for an old campaign ribbon or a postcard related to a signature you purchased—there’s a good chance you’ll find it. Or maybe you want an old Ford advertisement to frame with your autograph of Henry Ford—a paper fair will surely have that.

A carpenter billhead from 1868

You can find photographs, postcards, greeting cards, advertisements, calling cards, billheads, trade cards, magazines, matchbooks, seals, old letters, books, cigar labels, local history items, pinup art, political memorabilia, labels, brochures, and yes, sometimes autographs—but this is only a partial list.

The best part for most collectors is the hunt for elusive quarry. A search on eBay isn’t nearly as much fun as perusing a stack of pulp matter that might be hiding the item you’re looking for. UACC President Michael Hecht, a paper fair aficionado, said “Paper fairs are like hunting for buried treasure.”

Stacks of items to find at paper fair, including vintage playbills

When you first enter a paper fair, it can be a bit overwhelming. Large tables hold the dealers’ wares, boxes upon boxes of postcards, piles of unsorted brochures and old letters, posters on the walls, albums upon albums filled with miscellaneous artifacts, display cases filled with the dealer’s pricier goods, and a plethora of photographs of both “instant relatives” and the famous. The fair is truly a repository for all the miscellaneous vintage paper in this world, trying to find itself a proper home.

A popular show throughout California is Hal Lutsky’s Vintage Paper Fair. After 20 years of working as an accountant, Lutsky became a paper show promoter. The career change came after he purchased 50,000 postcards at an auction for $100. According to Lutsky, postcard collecting is the third biggest hobby behind stamps and coins. He eventually sold his accounting business, became a dealer and then moved into the realm of promoting paper shows, as the result of other promoters retiring.

Lutsky believes that paper fairs began in the 1950s and ’60s. They started primarily as postcard shows and then expanded into other areas of ephemera.

Political documents, including the signatures of Bill and Hillary Clinton

The emergence of eBay presented challenges to paper fairs, as it has for many other areas of collectibles. “When eBay started roaring it really took a bite out of the show,” said Lutsky. “It took some time for the shows to recover and find their footing.”

The popular auction site may have hit shows hard in the beginning, but it seems the experience of being among tangible items in person is what’s keeping them around. And meeting a dealer in person makes negotiating a bargain much easier. “eBay peaked several years ago,” Lutsky said. “Some people don’t like the auction format. You might have to dig for an hour to find what you want at shows, but generally things are cheaper.”

The great push and pull process of bargaining with the dealers is part of the fun for me. I have purchased personalities ranging from Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle to former astronaut Robert Crippen, both at very good prices.

Lutsky’s shows usually feature about 100 vendors. If you are expecting to find autograph dealers at a paper fair, it’s best to call in advance to see what dealers will be there. “A lot of dealers tend to still have miscellaneous autographs,” said Lutsky. “There is always a lot of political paper and movie memorabilia, too.”

Steven Hoskin of Steven Hoskin Autographs

The prevalence of paper dealers has overlapped into other collectible-related areas. Bustamante Enterprises has promoted antiquarian book fairs in California for the last decade. According to show coordinator Sheila Bustamante, ephemera began appearing in their shows seven to eight years ago. More specifically, it’s the book dealers that have started bringing it to the book fairs. “Book dealers that have expanded into paper have turned it into a mainstay,” said Bustamante.

At a recent Bustamante Book Fair in Santa Monica, Calif., I met dealer Steven L. Hoskin of Venice, Fl. When I asked his opinions of vintage papers at book fairs, Hoskin said, “Collectors come to these shows in search of books, autographs and ephemera that draw them closer to the people and events they find important. It’s a very personal, hands-on experience—much different from searching the Web.”

Autograph collecting has multiple layers if you look at it through a microscope. From pens, papers, postcards, photos, books to the many autograph genres, autograph collectors have a variety of mediums to complete their collections. The ephemera collectors share a common love of paper items with autograph collectors—we just haven’t met.

UACC President Michael Hecht looking through folders of items

Most paper fairs are not well advertised, so it can take some work to find them. To find one near you, google paper fairs, paper shows and ephemera shows. At www.booksourcemagazine.com, there is a good listing of shows across the country. The Ephemera Society of America also has an informative website (www.ephemerasociety.org). The society is dedicated to the collecting and preserving of ephemera.

An 1870 grocery billhead

With low admission prices, treasures to find and bargains to be had, you owe it to yourself.