Forget the technology stocks. Right now we have staggering highs in Americana. At the 45th Winter Antiques Show, long a barometer of pricing and style trends, $450,000 was paid for a Sioux hide shirt and leggings. Then someone plunked down $225,000 for a hide shirt, American Indian, too.
Clearly, the hottest niche market is native American dress. But peace pipes and beaded cradles (the forerunner of the Snugli) were also eagerly snapped up by collectors in the first few days of the show held at Park Avenue's Seventh Regiment Armory, Jan. 15-24, 1999.
Who are the buyers? "Wall Street traders, land developers and decorators," replies dealer Henry C. Monahan of Morning Star Gallery. He sold the 1885 Arapaho hide shirt for $225,000 within the first two hours of the show. The shirt is distinguished by its pictograph design of stars and birds and "a fine wear patina." In pale blue and intended for ghost dances, it's the tee shirt of its time. Also sold were three Lakota pipe stems with bowls and a single pipe stem, each priced in the $15,000-35,000 range as well as a cradle with brilliant yellow beading for $38,000. Awaiting a buyer was a rarity -- a Navaho blanket poncho for $425,000. This Santa Fe dealer says there are only 30 such examples in existence.
It was Ontario dealer Donald Ellis who sold a Sioux hide shirt for a stunning $450,000. Emblazoned with porcupine quills and a pictograph of war figures across the chest, the outfit includes leggings and has 12-inch-long fringe on its sleeves. Ellis notes an increasingly sophistication on the part of clients. "Collectors are becoming more demanding in terms of rarity and condition," he says. Also in the past two years, the fastest growing client base has been museums. To date, he has sold to the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
With nine dealers -- including Morning Star Gallery, Donald Ellis, Joshua Baer, Channing, Hyland Granby, Giampietro, Guthman, Frank and Barbara Pollack and America Hurrah -- showcasing every manner of such garb, the specialty has never before been so strongly represented at the ten-day show.
To accompany such native American fashions, there are a slew of paintings depicting cowboys and Indians. Peter Tillou of London and New York has got a true showstopper -- The Crows Attempting to Provoke an Attack from the Whites on Big Horn River by Alfred Jacob Miller -- for a hefty $8.5 million. That price for the nine-foot-long painting makes it hands down the most expensive item in the fully vetted show.
Considered the "explorer artist" for being the first such professional to go the farthest west, Miller accompanied the Scotsman, Captain William D. Stewart, on a foray in 1841. Stewart commissioned the painting and then shipped it home to Merthy castle, where it hung until this year. "It's a masterpiece and completely fresh to the market," points out Tillou, who has returned to the winter show after a 27-year absence.
Also well-stocked with western art is Gerald Peters of both Santa Fe and New York. Fans of Miller could pick up a small painting of his for only $225,000. A panoramic John Mix Stanley On the Trail from 1871 is marked at $2.5 million, and there is a Frederick Remington scene of a pack train done in haunting muted greens for $2.5 million. In addition, Peters has outstanding Remington sculpture, The Wounded Bunkie, two soldiers on horseback in bronze, for $4 million.
Equally strong is folk art, which hit the doldrums in the late '80s but is now enjoying a spirited resurgence. A record nine dealers are showing the once-lesser art. Plus, there is an unprecedented amount on the block at both Christie's and Sotheby's this week, and auction house specialists as well as dealers say it's now a decorator-driven market.
Among the pivotal pieces in this folk art revival are weather vanes. Chicago dealer Barbara Pollack sold a sculptural bull made of copper and pocked with bullet holes. Apparently it's considered customary for country folk to fire on the lofty vanes. In the past, dealers aggressively restored such damaged works, leaving them bullet-hole free. "That's what makes this one so distinctive," notes Pollack about the work, which is priced at $49,500.
New York dealer Giampietro has the top flying vane -- a massive Merino bull in copper for $98,000. On opening night, he wrote up a hold on a horse and sulky vane made by J. W. Fiske of New York in 1880 and priced at $55,000. Even 19th-century paintings dealer Hirschl & Adler was sporting a goat vane for $175,000. And Olde Hope Antiques has a rarity -- a quill vane. Because of its numerous period repairs and the occasional missing feathers, the price is a mild $21,000. This dealer features another folk art novelty, a martin house complete with cupola and gold finial for $28,000.
Other fiercely popular niche markets include the ubiquitous scrimshaw. Hyland Granby brought a total of 75 scrimshaw pieces with prices running up to $25,000. The sperm whale teeth with all manner of engravings are eagerly sought by collectors, and this Massachusetts dealer achieved perhaps the highest price on record for a lowly kitchen utensil. It was $25,000 for a scrimshaw pie crimper. Last year, crimpers were only $18,000 each, so that's a 38 percent price hike.
Another equally important niche market is needlepoint. Steep prices have been realized at auction, but now the fair is a key venue for prize pieces. Stephen & Carol Huber, who deal exclusively in such fare, sold 30 pieces in the first four days. Among them were a wool and silk pastoral scene with deer, sheep, dogs and four figures by 14-year-old Polly Burns in 1768 for a cool $175,000. A Philadelphia sconce on a gilt and silk embroidery in its original shadowbox went for $75,000.
Collector Geoffrey Paul, owner of the Griswold Inn, who picked up a few pieces from the Hubers, says, "It's the perfect accessory for colonial furniture."
Dealer Leigh Keno, who last year sold a Chippendale tea table for $4,000,000 within the first 15 minutes of the show, also reported brisk sales. On opening night, he quickly wrote up a Boston card table priced at $125,000, an exuberant gilt mirror topped by a patriotic eagle for $135,000 and a New York sideboard at $145,000. "The dinning room piece has got all the bells and whistles -- inlaid satin wood panels, bottle drawers and perfect proportions," notes Keno. Of course, he also sold a piece of folk art -- a painted fire screen for $35,000.
But it wasn't only Americana scoring new pricing benchmarks. Biedermeier was also racking up some impressive figures. Karl Kemp, who presides over a bevy of Austrian and German Empire furnishings, packed up a Viennese walnut burl console for $16,000 and a desk for $30,000. Two sleek chairs based on Percier & Fontaine designs went for $18,400.
Lighting also struck new highs. Kemp sold a French art deco ceiling fixture dripping with glass fringe for $48,000. Over at Cathers & Dembrosky, a collector claimed a monumental Greene and Greene lantern, a rectangular form in copper and art glass from 1907, for $250,000. Plus, a rare Dard Hunter ceiling fixture from the Roycroft Inn went for six figures. Why so much interest in mere lighting fixtures? "People are comfortable spending money for unique pieces," says Beth Dembrosky.
London's Fine Art Society is touting the latest stylish specialty, Gothic Revival furniture. On hand is a bedroom set by Charles Bevan costing $127,500 for six pieces. The enormous bed alone is an elaborate inlay of sycamore, amboyna, mahogany, ebony, purplewood, birch and pine. "Americans find the scale is perfect for their huge houses," says Andrew McIntosh Patrick from the London gallery who last year completely sold out such period furnishings.
Interestingly, the show's loan exhibition from the New York State Historical Association hits all the high marks -- splendid native American Indian wares and yes, folk art -- the hot watchwords of the antique season.