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|Decorative Arts Diary
by Brook S. Mason
|For Americana buffs, there's only a single place to shop and one particular time. It's the Winter Antiques Show at the Park Avenue Armory, which opened last Thursday and runs to the end of the month, Jan. 20-30, 2000.
Long considered the kick-off event of the winter social season, opening night of the 46th annual show was different in one respect. Yes, the aisles were packed with collectors, connoisseurs and WASP wannabes. Many mega traders as well as the newly dot.com rich were scouring the wares of the 72 dealers. But what's different this year is that buyers are high on the biggest boom the stock market has ever seen.
Yet the gala opening is a charity event, in this case for the benefit of the East Side House Settlement in the South Bronx, and the fair is chaired by the CEO of Chanel, Arie L. Kopelman.
"The show is not just about museum quality pieces," says Kopleman, "but also looking for that little something that will finish a room." While surveying the crowd as well as some blue and white Chinese export porcelain carried by Elinor Gordon, Kopleman notes, "With so many people scampering around and shopping, this evening has a real energy." That energy translates into persistent sales and fierce competition.
But then the Winter is no ordinary antique show. Dealers' selections and collectors' purchases tell loudly of new trends and pricing benchmarks for the millennium. And conversely, the absence of certain dealers who have dropped out of the show speaks of a certain vanishing interest. So, the fact that three folk art and painted-furniture dealers, Frank and Barbara Pollack, America Hurrah and Marguerite Riordan, are not participating in this year's fair says to some degree how this specialty is in decline.
For opening night sales when the early entrance tickets are $1,000, the hands-down star is 42-year-old Americana dealer Leigh Keno. The television-watching masses know him for his routine appearances on Chubb Antiques Roadshow, while top-line collectors revere him for his impeccable holdings. Two years ago, Keno briskly rang up $3.65 million for a Philadelphia Chippendale tea table in the first ten minutes of the show. And this year within 40 minutes of the opening, he sold a Philadelphia tiger maple dressing table for a cool $900,000.
Interestingly, the piece dates from 1760-1775 and is Rococo, distinguished by its elaborately carved scrolling. Not so long ago, Americana purists sniffed at this style as just too, too, too excessive. Another important style note is that this robust dressing table still retains its original finish. Actually, the surface is exceedingly worn and somewhat mottled. There's a reverse snobbery now when it comes to Americana and this "original condition" is highly coveted. Call it "antique grunge chic." Keno also sold 11 other pieces Thursday night, making it a pleasant $2.5 million plus evening for him.
The so-called Pilgrim century furnishings from the 17th century are more prevalent this year. "An entire collecting group has awoken to the demand for 17th-century pieces in their natural state," says dealer Anthony Werneke while pointing to a Massachusetts gateleg table. His example is the only one known without later refinishing or even routine waxing, and thus he terms the piece "the Holy Grail of its time." While the table to the non-cognoscenti looks as if it sat on the back porch for a century or two, one collector had no qualms about paying $185,000 for the object.
Aside from furnishings in their never-been-touched-by-later-hands state, the showstoppers are Native American wares. The sales of Westport, Conn., dealer William Guthman deeply underscore how today's collectors demand not just any examples but rather those with a real historical merit. So Guthman sold a Sioux Indian council pipe with a triple of quill wrapped stem for $65,000. The 1868 pipe was fully documented and fresh to the market. "Collectors today are more sophisticated; they want pieces with history," says Guthman.
Ethnography in general is hot. Toronto dealer Donald Ellis rang up $750,000 for a Mesoamerican mask in stone from 200-600 A.D. Why such a fast sale? "The mask has presence," replies Ellis. The buyer? A modern art collector with de Koonings and Picassos en masse. Even a maple spoon carved by an Iroquois tribesman in the 1820s and used for ladling out mush brought $65,000. Plus a collector put a hold on an Arapaho ghost dance cape dripping with fringe. The retail price for the hide garment? $250,000.
Over at Morning Star Gallery, the trade was purely native American Indian. The Santa Fe gallery president Joe Rivera watched a collector claim a trio of Pueblo pots at $50,000 a piece. Then another client snared a Crow dress in black trimmed with carved bone pendants simulating elk teeth. That designer number cost $38,000. Why the rush for Indian clothing? "It's the best kept investment secret of the market," points out Rivera. The goods can triple in value in just three years. Yet, the requisite accessories -- tomahawks -- are still available from a low of $22,500 up to $35,000. Neither age nor usage appears to have dulled their blades.
Scale also seems to be important this year. Massachusetts dealer Hyland Granby sold a massive gilt mermaid figure head from an 1890 steam yacht for $100,000 within the first hour of the show. A couple who reside in Walla Walla, Washington wanted it for their living room.
The smalls of the moment are Nantucket baskets and once again, pie crimpers in scrimshaw that is carved out of sperm whale teeth. Granby searches the entire year for great scrimshaw examples. "The best crimpers are sold within the first hour of opening night," he says. Both men and women snap up the kitchen utensils, priced from $1,500-$25,000. They could just be the critical desk accessories for the millennium.
Setting this pack of 72 dealers apart from the scads of other antique shows are their professional credentials. Take garden ornament specialist Barbara Israel. She's sold to such prestigious institutions as Winterthur and the Baltimore Museum of Art. On her stand is a graceful, life-size Cupid and Psyche by Romanelli for $49,500. It's sold, of course. Of the current vogue for period ornament, Israel says, "It's a repeat of the late 19th-century when vast fortunes were made in communications, railroads and newspapers. Now with the internet money, clients want enormous estates with allées and formal gardens, sometimes covering 10 to 20 acres." Those clients are placing orders for 10 to 12 pieces of garden sculpture, making this market soar.
Amidst the highboys and the obligatory snuffboxes, what's new? For one thing, Mallett of London has joined the dealer roster. Britain's finer purveyor of English and continental antiques has ventured across the Atlantic for one reason. "There's really no other outlet globally for our Bourdon House antiques which are continental," explains Mallet's Henry Wyndham Smith. Their main shop of 14 rooms of predominantly English antiques is on London's tony New Bond Street, while the Bourdon House, consisting of 16 rooms of more eclectic furnishings, is nearby on Davies Street.
Front and center in Mallet's booth is a circular, satinwood breakfast table, extravagantly inlaid with bellflowers and intricate geometric designs by the distinguished English cabinetmakers Jackson and Graham. Dating from 1870, the table found a buyer at $180,000.
Another new dealer, Elle Shushan of the New York-based Augustus Decorative Arts, Ltd., scored a bevy of sales in a new collectible area. By Sunday, Shushan had sold some two dozen portrait miniatures costing from $500 to $9,000. "They're the real bargain of the show," she says.
The Winter Antiques Show is on view at the Seventh Regiment Armory, Park Avenue and 67th Street, New York, New York 10021, Jan. 20-30, 2000. Daily: noon-8:30 p.m., Thursday and Sunday: noon-6 p.m. Admission: $16.
BROOK S. MASON writes on antiques and the decorative arts.