At the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair, not all treasures have spines. One such unbound rarity takes the form of a pointe shoe, signed by prima ballerina assoluta Margot Fonteyn, famed principal of the Royal Ballet. Her large and legible signature stretches across the pink satin top of the shoe, with the date “1966” punctuating the sprawling text. Given the English ballerina’s superstar status, her autograph alone would be enough to elicit bids from collectors (a single pair has fetched thousands in the past). But what makes the object stand out is that Fonteyn’s name is not the only one that appears on the shoe.
Scribbled on the side, just near the heel, is the signature of Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev, arguably one of the world’s greatest male dancers. Famously, the two artists formed a career-defining partnership that spanned the 1960s and ‘70s, making it so that their legacies — like the signatures on the shoe — became forever entwined.
The shoe is now under the care of Nestor Masckauchan, founder of Tamino Autographs. The “highly desirable” collectable — currently listed online for $4,995 — will be available for purchase at the 60th annual New York International Antiquarian Book Fair, which takes over the Park Avenue Armory’s immense Wade Thompson Drill Hall from March 5-8. Over the phone, the collector explained that the double signature marks a rare entry into the archives.
“It’s a rarity. They danced a lot together; they were friends and partners in business and art, but they did not sign a lot of shoes together,” Masckauchan said. “I have seen several shoes of Nureyev alone, and I have seen of her as well, but not really together. I actually have another shoe that is only signed by Nureyev. But together, it’s a bit rare. He died young, and he did not sign a lot of shoes. In the last 14 years, I have seen maybe three shoes signed by him.”
Masckauchan currently possesses the shoe on consignment from a collector who purchased it at an auction several years back. The auction house told the collector that the shoe was previously owned by a friend of Fonteyn. As the story goes, the ballerina gifted the collectable after a performance in San Francisco, surprising her friend with the addition of Nureyev’s signature. The shoe, made by Fred K. Freed, was never worn in a performance, leaving it in pristine condition.
When asked how to know if autographs such as this example are real, Masckauchan explained that provenance is key. In the case of the pointe shoe, being able to draw a lineage from Fonteyn to the ultimate buyer was vital to ensuring the authenticity. And while receiving an autograph first-hand is the absolute preference, Masckauchan noted that the practice of shuffling backstage to snag an autograph has shifted in recent decades, with performance houses opting for pre-arranged signings over spontaneous procurement.
“A lot of the charm that existed in the past is gone because things are changing,” Masckauchan said, speaking about autographs broadly. “Music and books are changing. Now everything is going digital, so that changed the entire world.”
In 2006, Masckauchan, a biochemist by profession, began selling his own small collection of opera and classical music autographs on Ebay, getting rid of duplicates he had acquired since he began sourcing them as a teenager. The gig was supposed to be temporary while he looked for other jobs, but after he launched a website to buy and sell autographs himself, he didn’t look back.
Masckauchan now works with prized institutions like the Metropolitan Opera and Julliard, and he has since expanded his expertise to include other areas, such as film, literature, science and politics. Outside of what is secured in his personal collection, everything that he buys, he sells.
“When I started the company, I said, well, if I do this professionally, and I don’t go back to the laboratory to work as a scientist, I made myself promise that everything would be on the market and that everything would be for sale,” he said. “And that is still the rule 14 years later.”
This stipulation, strict in its execution, has meant that there have been times when the collector had to list something that he would have liked to keep for himself. What to do in these cases?
“I cheat a little bit because I make a higher price when I don’t want to sell something,” he said with a laugh, explaining that the tactic usually works well as a deterrent. But there are still times when this does not pan out the way he’d like. A photo of Maria Callas, for example, escaped his grasp when this strategy fell through — though he hopes that one day he might have the chance to buy it back.
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“I loved it, and at first I made a copy of it, and I put the copy in a frame for a few months, but then I thought that was not a good idea,” he said. “I had sold it, and I had to look at the copy all the time, and I knew it was a copy, so I had to remove it — the entire frame. Up to this day, I do know who has it, and I do know that one day I may recover it.”
For now, Masckauchan will continue to seek out and sell what he knows to be treasures, despite the risk of heartbreak. “There are some things that I really cherish,” he said. “And I would regret it if somebody bought them, and that sometimes has happened.” For those select prized items, he refrains from posting them online, choosing to store them in his office while he can: “I keep them here for enjoyment, and I see them every day.”
Top Image: The 2017 New York Antiquarian Book Fair. Park Avenue Armory. Photo: Meredith Nierman.