The 49th Annual Winter Antiques Show, Jan. 17-26, 2003, at the Seventh Regiment Armory, Park Avenue at 67th Street, New York, N.Y.
The bosomy Massachusetts mermaid weathervane hanging just inside the entrance to the Winter Antiques Show seems the supermodel of choice for this year's show: Just plain folk, she ain't. A sexy expensive siren, she is. If there were any doubt which way the high-end antiques market wind is blowing -- i.e., keeping up appearances during a shabby economy, etc. -- consider that the chairman of the whole shebang is Arie Kopelman, whose day job is president of Chanel USA. Co-chairs of the opening night gala were the husband-and-wife team of dress designer Diane von Furstenberg and media mogul Barry Diller, while two separate high-wattage parties were hosted by Elle and Elle Décor.
How to make something old sell like something new? Dress it up -- and get it in the gossip columns. Summing up the particularly well appointed booths this year, Kopelman used a familiar rag trade motto: "Retail is detail." Bolstered by major sales of Americana and antiques taking place that week at Sotheby's and Christie's, the show can count on almost every major dealer, collector and wannabe attending. This year they expect 25,000 during their ten-day stint.
And sell it may. The opening weekend sales and attendance this year -- back at the Armory after a post 9/11 encampment at the Hilton Hotel -- was up 15 percent and Kopelman predicted $1 million in profits from the gala benefit evening -- all of which goes, as it has for 49 years, to the East Side House Settlement, the century-old South Bronx charity.
There was really only one obvious sign of the new "bust"-- the last-minute no-show of London's Richard Green Gallery. Ordinarily a winter show regular, local gossips credited the gallery's absence to its entanglement with disgraced Tyco executive Dennis Kozlowski, who has been charged with tax evasion on art purchases from the gallery -- as if Green had to avoid a New York appearance lest he be unceremoniously gifted with a subpoena.
But at the end of the day, the hype, the parties, the scent of scandal, even the posh booth décor is mere veneer. It's the quality of the art that counts and everything here -- courtesy of 70 international dealers -- is the real deal. Each object has been vetted for authenticity (which is more than you can say for some of the attendees, but you knew that).
"Rule Americana" is pretty much the motto of this show, with about 30 percent of the objects from the U.S. (Though anyone with a taste for high-end Asian, British, Italian and French needn't go home hungry.) A related sense of patriotism seems to be behind this year's star loan exhibition, too, which comes from the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vt. Dubbed "American Dreams, American Visions," the show is located smack inside the front door (the aforementioned carved wood weathervane hails from here) and reflects museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb's gloriously eclectic collection of Americana and American folk art -- quilts, a carved wooden table and chair by Tiffany, a rare early-18th-century painted Harvard Chest and Mary Cassatt's portrait of Electra as a child with her mother.
Pride of place in the fair layout goes, as always, to New York dealer Leigh Keno. Located diagonally across from the Shelburne, in what looks like a recreated Colonial room -- complete with six-over-six windows stenciled with his logo -- Keno has installed a serious cache of treasures. He was particularly keen on his rare Queen Anne carved mahogany marble-top center table from 1750, and a "fresh to market" 18th-century portrait of a youngster with a pet squirrel by Daniel Badger, brother of the more famous Joseph. "We're thinking it could have been a member of the Badger family," says Keno. "It was in a private home all these years and only needed to be slightly cleaned. The stylized tree and the boy's slightly cocked pinky are trademarks." The portrait carried a price tag of $320,000 and sold on opening night.
Professor-like, Keno also playfully pointed out the differences between two rare early 18th-century roundabout chairs, one hailing from Newport and the other from Boston. "These were really considered 'guys' chairs' in their day," Keno explained. "The Newport one seems slightly more refined, but the Boston chair has some extraordinary carving." As opening night fast approached, a visitor to the Keno booth could witness a kind of Yankee Family Values moment, as Leigh's dad went up a foot-ladder to adjust the lights while brother Mitchell, in a plaid shirt with hammer in hand, put the finishing touches on the installation. Brother Leslie Keno was elsewhere, presumably at the Americana sales at Sotheby's, where he is a specialist.
Other major Americana is up for grabs at Carswell Rush Berlin, where several pieces are attributed to master cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe -- including a Grecian-style mahogany sofa and six Federal side chairs with similar carving. At G.K.S. Bush, a Boston-made Queen Anne bonnet-top highboy from the mid-18th-century carried a price tag of $325,000 -- due to its retaining its original finish. Peter Tillou Works of Art from Litchfield, Conn., also boasted a superb Queen Anne highboy in Connecticut cherry.
It is same era, different side of the war at the booth of Taylor B. Williams, where four prize enamels depicting "distinguished 18th-century Englishmen" are on view -- including that loser, Cornwallis. Probably made in Liverpool, they're a prime example of the "transfer printing" technique which was also used on Wedgewood. Williams, who didn't want to publish a price for these pieces, did mention that he hoped to sell a same-era enamel depicting a great Irish beauty Maria Gunning ("the Madonna of her day") for about $5,500. The dealer, who long ago gave up his Chicago shop and does a lot of business through his website, said, "My life is fairs," And he's thrilled to be back at the Armory.
Native Americana is amply represented by Morning Star Gallery of Santa Fe. One prize exhibit is a spectacular suede war shirt woven with crushed porcupine quills and adorned with allegedly "donated" female locks of hair (price: $300,000). Nearby is something of a companion piece: a turtle-shaped suede East Sioux pouch from 1820, also beaded with porcupine quills. "Anything before 1860 in this market is extremely rare if it's in the US," says director Henry Monahan, "All the great early stuff is in Europe."
If you want to talk "early," head to Les Enluminures, the Paris and soon-to-be Chicago outfit that specialize in medieval art. With $22,000, you can have either a few key pieces of Chanel couture or a pair of lindenwood saints (St. John and St. Catherine), ca. 1500. Another wonderful piece is the illuminated crucifix, dated 1250, by an anonymous Catalan (price: $95,000). And encased in a glass box is a truly spectacular selection of rings from the Renaissance, Middle Ages and Antiquity. It's hard to resist the gold Merovingian "architectural" ring, with a bezel in the form of an arched temple. It's from 7th-century France, and carries a $23,000 price tag.
Though there are treasures at every turn in this show, nothing quite prepares you for coming face to face -- or nearly -- with the seven-foot-tall, 14th-century Neapolitan marble tomb effigy which is standing erect at Peter Finer, the celebrated English dealer whose stock in trade is elaborately carved antique pistols, swords, helmets and medieval suits of armor. The bas-relief marble sculpture depicts a knightly member of the Ferretti family, vassals of the Angevin Court, ca. 1357. It was found, Finer, says, in a church on the continent. "But he had all his papers. You have to be so careful these days." You can go home with this brave-heartbreaker for $450,000.