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|Decorative Arts Diary
by Brook S. Mason
|The International Fine Art and Antique Dealers Show, Oct. 20-26, 2000, at the Seventh Regiment Armory, Park Avenue at 67th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021.
How are today's art-market choices radically different from those of the glitzy '80s? For an answer, visit the 12th annual International Fine Art and Antique Dealers Show. It reveals the style du jour -- and what it costs -- with remarkable precision.
The fair's opening-night preview party for Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center had the appropriately diverse art-market crowd -- equal parts billionaire and centimillionaire collectors along with socialites and art-world professionals. Financier Henry Kravis and his wife Marie-Josee were cruising the aisles checking out French Empire candelabras at Dandois, while leading decorators like Francois Joseph Graf (he's doing the buyout tycoon's Parisian apartment), Prince of Chintz Mario Buatta, Bunny Williams and Stephanie Stokes were shopping in earnest.
Of course, the town's social x-rays -- the likes of Nan Kempner, Pat Buckley and Blaine Trump -- were out in full force. Dealers, too, were shopping, experts like Allen Rubin of London's Pelham Galleries and Didier Aaron from Paris. The dealers' competition, auction powerhouses like Phillips CEO Christopher Thompson, were also scouring the fair for the latest up-market goods. In total, 1,400 people showed up and $1,000,500 was raised in a scant three hours time.
Oddly enough, despite the economic uncertainty brought by tumultuous price swings on Wall Street and a close Presidential election looming, money is no object.
The go-go '80s were chockablock with impulse buying, but there's a decidedly different approach to mega-shopping these days. It's no longer of matter of just better than average antiques.
What's in style? Serious examples of sheer grandeur underscored by drop-dead historical importance and condition, condition, condition. So you can forget minor Chippendale, and middle-tier French ebenistes, too.
Consider the sale of two magnificent English silver tankards for a staggering $2.5 million at S.J. Shrubsole. "They went to a New Yorker," says Bard Langstaff, Shrubsole senior vice president. Dating from 1686 and incised with chinoiserie decoration (Western evocations of Chinese art-pagodas and coolie-hatted creatures), the tankards strike a common stylistic note at this fair on several levels.
One, significant silver is on a high and it's not the later examples like Victorian pieces that have collectors swooning. "Americans are now seeking earlier silver, especially pre-1840," says Michael Koopman of Koopman Ltd. & Rare Art Ltd., based in London's Silver Vaults. He's banking that a Yank will pluck up a very early and very substantial wine cistern. For washing wine glasses -- it's large enough to chill a half dozen magnums -- the 1707 cistern once belonged to the Earl of Hopetoun and weighs a hefty 426 ounces. Generally, Koopman sells close to 50 percent of his holdings at this show. That's considerably more, dollar-wise, than he does at the nine-day Maastricht European Fine Art Fair, further indicating the American taste for vintage silver.
Two, chinoiserie -- like the decoration on the silver tankards -- seems to be the ultimate millennium signature style. London dealer Mallett has the best example on the floor. It's a Queen Anne bureau bookcase topped by a broken pediment all in crimson with the ubiquitous Chinese figures and pagodas in gold. The price is $675,000. "Such pieces are immensely popular both here and in London," says Mallett director Henry Neville.
Mallett isn't the only vendor pushing chinoiserie. New York dealer Clinton Howell is touting a 1690 secretary lacquered in burgundy with gilt Chinese creatures. The cost is $750,000, in part because the piece is a mate to one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Clients want important pieces," says Howell.
In fact, there's enough chinoiserie on the floor to fill a fleet of Chinese junks. At Brian Haughton's stand are two five-foot-high ironstone vases with pagoda lids by C.J. Mason & Co., priced at $135,000, while Ariane Dandois has a pair of 19th-century Piedmontese screens robustly painted and gilded with Chinese scenes for $220,000.
Further reflecting the vogue for serious antiques is a pair of crystal sconces at Mallett. The 1790 cut-glass wall lights are dressed with pear-shaped drops and pineapple finials. Their unusually large size, close to three feet in height, makes them a rarity. "They are literally the finest of their kind," says Neville. The price is a cool $365,000, and they are not electrified. So, demand beeswax candles when paying.
Plus, Neville has got the ultimate chandelier. Although, it's 20 years earlier --1770 -- it's a strong match for the sconces. Also Adam (think Robert, the great neoclassical designer of English and Scottish country houses), the cut-glass chandelier boasts one tier of eight candle arms and an upper tier with glittering spires. It easily weighs 200 pounds and costs only $340,000. Plus, this one is electrified.
One index to how a single antiques establishment can rack up serious sales is that for 1998-99, Mallett took in $29.7 million and in terms of pretax profits cleared a whopping $8.36 million. So, the New Bond Street antiques shop beat out Simon Dickinson, the Old Masters establishment, in the race for pretax profits, according to records filed by 150 UK galleries at Companies House. Those figures demonstrate the unbridled power of antiques furnishings on the open art market.
Considerable buying was in full swing opening night. At Vallois, art deco enthusiasts plucked up pairs of Ruhlmann lamps, Rateau tables as well as De Feure tables. Two non-matching Printz tables in rugged palmwood were also sold in less than 90 minutes flat. "All went to New Yorkers and not a single one was on Wall Street," reports Cheska Vallois, who runs the Left Bank gallery and its Madison Avenue outpost with her husband, Bob. The prices were in five and six figures with the buyers dropping $100,000 plus per year for the sleek look.
Sales of items like the tables by De Feure, a painter who created furniture for fashion designer Madeline Vionnet, highlight this new level of serious buying. The tables had been owned by fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld. Clearly, provenance matters to this new breed of collectors.
Just as each fair throws a particular style in relief -- deco and chinoiserie this year -- a particular designer is also emphasized. This time, it's Jacques Adnet. With seven pieces at Ciancimino and several at Phillipe Denys, Adnet is on a roll. While his prices used to hover in the $40,000 range, now they soar.
Ciancimino has a sideboard, its white surface with a ribbed decoration, commanding a price of $110,000. It's on reserve. A secretary in rosewood and shagreen (sharkskin) for $225,000 is still available. "The quality is as good as Ruhlmann," says Jean-Claude Ciancimino. All of his Adnet furnishings date from 1930.
Speaking of tabletop items, an index to how quickly prices can soar in a single decade is a pair of Spode 19th century footbaths in the requisite blue and white at Clinton Howell. They are $19,000. Ten years ago, a single one would have cost $1,500. Today, they're used for foliage -- hydrangeas, magnolia leaves and even pinecones.
Prices like those for the footbaths indicate the power of this fair for dealers. Ariane Dandois, who usually makes the Biennale des Antiquaires a must on her fair list, dropped out this year. In part, because she mounted a museum-quality exhibition on Empire. But she's here at this show for another reason. "Americans make up 80 percent of my client roster," says this Rue Faubourg St. Honore vendor.
The antiques Dandois is touting also speak of how the styles have changed radically from the '80s. "The houses are bigger today," she points out. To match the larger more commodious residences, Dandois is serving up furnishings with a particularly robust style and scale. Take a pair of carved and painted Piemontese chandeliers with gilt swags; they're truly baronial at close to six feet in height. They cost $260,000.
Plus, decorators are playing a bigger role. A stunning 90 percent of her sales written up by Dandois are to the decorating trade, including Thierry Despont (who is doing Bill Gates' pad), Peter Marino and David Easton.
Of course, price tags are steeper. Only a few years ago, $1 million topped price charts here. Now, that sum is commonplace and $2 million is more likely. De Jonckheere has got two pairs of Brueghels, each at $2 million. At Philippe Cazeau-Jacques Béraudière, a Degas pastel, Danseuse se coiffant, in delicate lavender, celadon and taupe hues, is $3.5 million.
Also on his stand is Magritte's L'Exposition de Peinture for $1.5 million. Considering that Cazeau sold three Magrittes at the Paris Biennale, one at Maastricht and another at the May Fine Art Fair, this painter is on a roll. "Surrealism is more in vogue than Impressionists now," says Cazeau.
Even Surrealist furniture, no less, is sought after. Brussels dealer Phillipe Denys sold the ultimate example -- a wonderfully rippled sideboard covered in parchment by the Italian designer Valzania from 1940. The price was $75,000.
Dealers like Denys are bringing a greater volume of wares to the fair. Last year, he brought 20 pieces of Danish stoneware dating from 1915-25 by Bode Willumsen, Carl Halier, Patrick Nordstrom and Carin Blum. He sold out. This year, he's got 50-plus examples, priced from $9,000-$50,000 -- and 15 have sold already.
A word to the wise: if you should want any of the top tier wares at the fair, you should scamper over. The millennium shopping habits are apparently distinguished by rapid speed.
BROOK S. MASON writes on the fine and decorative arts.