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    Decorative Arts Diary
by Brook S. Mason
Fabergé nephrite bellpush by Hjalmar Armfeldt
at A La Vielle Russie
German composite etched Maximilian Field Armour for man and horse
ca. 1515
at Peter Finer Arms & Armour
Art Deco "Buddha"
pendant at Asprey & Garrard
Gallery entrance hall boiserie
at Bernard and Benjamin Steinitz
Louis XVI style grand piano
at the Maximiliaan House of Grand Pianos
Edwardian silver Epergne
at Marks Antiques
Giovanni Maria Benzoni
Flora and Zephyr
at Robert Bowman
Jaguar safe with gold handles
at Stockinger Safety First Class
Palm Beach, the storied resort of glamour and greed, has a new accolade pinned to its name. Now the town has secured the number one U.S. niche on the global art and antiques circuit. David Lester's fourth annual Palm Beach International Art & Antique Fair, which ran Feb. 3 to Feb. 13, 2000, is clearly the top show in terms of quality in this country. By only its third day, substantial fair sales had been racked up by a number of the 82 dealers.

Betting on demographics -- such as an average household net worth of $5.5 million on the 16-mile long island -- Lester cleverly scheduled his fair at a peak time when the seasonal influx of wealthy Latin Americans, Europeans, New Yorkers and even Midwesterners makes the population of 9,814 swell to upwards of 30,000. "The real height of the season is right now," said Irene Grant of the Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce.

It's the heavy international holiday traffic that makes this fair unique. As everyone knows, whether it's at the humble beaches of Wildwood, N.J. or the regal precincts of Palm Beach, holiday makers spend money profusely. Here, the main difference is in the weighty pocketbooks. Sotheby's president Alfred Taubman, appearing not to care about the investigation of his firm's alleged involvement in a price fixing scheme, was shopping here one evening. Also on the scene were Randolph and Veronica Hearst; the Cuban sugar tycoon Pepe Fanjul and art patron Raymond Perelman, who just gave $15 million to the Philadelphia Art Museum. Brazilians, Germans, Swiss and French were also cruising among the French Impressionists and fine furniture.

Even on a spectacular sunny February Sunday with temperatures in the low 70s, the beaches were empty and the fair aisles packed.

A conversation with a Chicago couple who had just plunked down over $15,000 at A La Vieille Russie for the latest must-haves of the millennium reveals just how fervent shoppers can be. They had purchased two Fabergé objets d'art from the time of the Russian czars: a lavender enameled bell push for summoning servants and a malachite green match case.

"Because it's our first time at this fair we came with a shopping list," says the wife of the communications entrepreneur, tresses dyed à la Hillary. What's on the list besides Fabergé? "Degas and Bonnard," she replied before heading down the cavernous halls of the 55,000-square-foot tent.

So it's not impulse buying but rather matter-of-fact shopping, the kind that dealers crave and decorators covet. Here in Palm Beach, serious sales receipts mean the six-digit kind. Take arms and armor dealer Peter Finer. A lone Latin American businessman ordered $250,000 in weaponry from Finer's 400-item-plus inventory. During his 30-minute shopping spree, this customer swooped up a German double-headed sword, ca 1590; a Spanish 16th-century sword; a French suit of armor with a bronze hilt sword and a rare Italian vanplate. For you novices, a vanplate fits over the hand while hefting a lance. "He was filling out his collection, adding important European pieces," observed the Warwickshire dealer. Earlier, Finer sold a set of 1780 Scottish pistols to a Maine resident for over $10,000.

Viewers were three deep at the 11 jewelry counters at the fair, despite the fact that Palm Beach's Worth Avenue boasts 17 in that trade. It's a guns and gems kind of crowd. "They want art deco diamonds but Belle Époque is also popular," said Paul Hollis of the venerable London firm Asprey & Garrard. These shopping groupies were also seeking practicality. A Latin American walked away from Asprey's with five diamond broaches that conveniently convert into a tiara for more than $50,000. "Both black and white South Sea pearls are mandatory along with swimming pool size diamonds here," noticed Geoffrey Munn of the London jeweler Wartski. Yet the crowd is different from New York's Upper East Side matrons. "They're nonchalant, dressed in T-shirts and jeans, but they buy," said Munn.

Another millennium purchase is boiserie -- French 17th- and 18th-century wood paneling, usually elaborately carved. Last year Parisian dealer Bernard Steinitz left Palm Beach with 50 installation orders for the distinctive wallwork. This year he's pushing a 1650 room robustly carved and gilded, complete with roundels filled with Arcadian landscape scenes. The price for such paneling is usually in the six figures, though it varies according to assembly (sometimes doorways have to be reconfigured). Robber barons like J.P. Morgan favored this décor, as do such celebrated collectors today as Jayne Wrightsman (Steinitz sold and installed the boiserie in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that was donated by the Wrightsmans).

Call this buying bunch the J.P. Morganettes. Just as Morgan arranged financing for the electric utilities, thereby engineering a veritable power revolution, these collectors are backing this century's own sweeping high-technological change. In doing so, they are taking a cue or two from their namesake in buying his manifestations of opulence while traveling.

"These days when young men become rich, they want to show their financial achievements by a certain style of living," said Steintiz, with his hand sweeping towards some 18th-century paneling in French blue, of course. "It's a natural choice; the French have been doing this for centuries."

French neo-classical furniture from the 19th century and Italian furnishings also appear to be prized. Ariane Dandois of Paris sold a settee for $75,000, a round hall table in ebony and pewter for $95,000 and a pair of Piedmontese mirrors carved with grapes for $85,000. "These clients want continental things for their second home," claimed Dandois in explaining the spate of purchases.

Pianos, of all things, are in demand, too. But then this fair is touting Maximiliaan Rutten, a 34-year-old Dutchman who opened a Manhattan art-case piano dealership eight years ago. "Clients are seeking a piano that's really an artwork in itself," said Rutten. He sold a Steinway with marquetry inlay for $165,000 as well as an English Art Deco baby grand in quilted maple with ebony banding for $65,000

Alan Rubin of London's Pelham Galleries, who routinely shows at such prestigious fairs as Maastricht, Basel and Grosvenor House, wrote up a dainty harpsichord, its case painted in a symphony of ribbons, lace and faience designs, for a cool $165,000. "It had been owned by Barnard College," explained Rubin, adding that the piece had been meticulously restored. Since he can play the instrument, he demonstrated its tin-like tone to a bevy of interested clients.

A short while back at New York's tony International Fine Art & Antique Dealers Show, clients were snapping up massive dining room tables with little regard for a sometimes petty pedigree, such as the table merely attributed to the once-lesser Philadelphia cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe that sold for a surprising $350,000.

Well, Palm Beach is where they finish outfitting their dining rooms. London silver dealer Anthony Marks said buyers are taking away major silver centerpieces. They're called epergnes, and one such is a 1789 concoction of eight pierced baskets in silver priced at $110,000. "Dining is in and an epergne adds to the entire dining experience," said Marks, who last year racked up sales in the seven figures here. He then pointed out a sale made half an hour earlier: a set of 12 pierced silver Tiffany bowls with inserts of etched glass for $28,000. The bowls are multi-functional; they can be used for dessert or as finger bowls, another symbol of a bygone era.

Sculpture is also a major millennium purchase. Robert Bowman sold a Flora and Zephyr (he's the god of the North wind) in marble by the Roman Giovanni Maria Benzoni for $350,000. It went to a Floridian. This London dealer also sold a number of small animalier bronzes, like a retriever with a pointer by Pierre Jules Meme for $12,000. "They're buying for a second or third home, so they want something serious and signed but not too expensive, under six figures," said Bowman. "Sometimes, clients want a piece just for the desk."

Last but not least, a staggering number of shoppers ordered the requisite accessory for such luxury from the Munich-based enterprise Stockinger Safety First Class. This company gives new meaning to bank vault security. Their safes are not the stodgy, dull version but the hi-tech kind in dazzling emerald green, brilliant yellow or just about any color with gold-plated handles and electronically coded locks.

It's not a take-it-with-you kind of purchase, according to Stockinger expert David Cedor. "We send a team from Europe to the home to measure all of your jewelry. Does the brooch drawer need five or six compartments? Should a special section be created for antique pistols?" The drawers are not flimsy receptacles but rather custom made and lined in dyed ostrich.

Why the popularity? "These days, you're not even safe going to the bank," said Cedor emphatically. Considering that 80 fair goers signed up for the safes priced from $50,000 to $120,000, he should know. Chalk it up as just another J.P. Morganette purchase.

BROOK S. MASON writes on antiques and the decorative arts.

In the bookstore:
Evaluating Your Collection: The 14 Points of Connoisseurship by Dwight P. Lanmon

The History of Furniture: Three Thousand Years of Style, Form and Design by John Morley

Silver: History and Design by Philippa Glanville

Faberge: Imperial Jeweler