Forget Alan Greenspan's tales of fiscal woe. Forget the fact that the Dow took a nosedive last week and tumbled 630 points. The haute art and antique market is booming. Abundant evidence is in the stunning sales at Brian and Anna Haughton's International Fine Art and Antique Dealers Show, which ran Oct. 15-21 in New York.
Hey, with sales like $3.2 million for a Vuillard, $250,000 for a pedestrian Chagall and $350,000 for a dinning room table by Duncan Phyfe, once considered the poor man's Chippendale, can the economy really be jittery? Hardly, if you're inside the Seventh Regiment Armory, the priciest shopping mall in the country. It's packed with 72 dealers plying $250,000,000 in antiques, paintings and sculpture. Face it, luxury moves quickly here.
The 11th annual fair is the place to note emerging stylistic trends, new benchmarks in pricing and the latest "must haves." The old luxury litmus test -- English or French, and decidedly 18th century for furniture coupled with a strong provenance -- is passé.
A slew of later styles in new areas of the decorative arts are hot. At the top of the list are Art Deco lamps, no less. Parisian dealers Cheska and Bob Vallois sold a pair of lamps by Alberto Giacometti for $113,000. They were plaster of Paris and once owned by Elizabeth de Vilmorin, the niece of a muse to French artists. Also plucked up from their booth were a Clement Rousseau table lamp in shagreen (celadon-colored sharkskin), a Jean Dunand lamp of lacquer and a pair of lamps in wrought iron by Rateau, with each sale reputedly in the hefty five figures. Vallois, by the way, is opening a New York branch at 27 East 67th Street this month.
At the booth of Ciancimino, a Jean Royere console with attenuated brass legs and travertine top bore a low six-figure price tag and went within the first two days. Only a single year ago, the furniture of this French designer, who was popular in the 1940s, never made it onto the Armory floor. Clearly, today his prices are skyrocketing.
In general, such sales of art deco and moderne confirm the ascendancy of this niche market. But it's not only stylishly sleek pieces being snapped up. Furniture and objects saturated with religious overtones are also coveted.
A case in point is H. Blairman & Sons of London, where director Martin Levy sold close to 20 pieces, predominantly Gothic revival, which is decidedly ecclesiastical in feeling. "This is one area where you can buy documented works for reasonable prices," points out Levy. Gone were a pair of Gothic armchairs and a cupboard in ebonized mahogany emblazoned with the characters of Fame, Fortune, Love and Death in gleaming inlay, priced at $65,000. Left over were mirrors framed like early Gothic altarpieces with spires for holy inspiration. It seems that 19th-century Gothic revival wares have become essential. Call it the country church look.
Also scoring high sales was American Neo-classical furniture by the likes of Duncan Phyfe and Isaac Pippitt, once considered Americana's lesser stepchildren. Why the sudden rush for neoclassical renderings in mahogany, like the three-pedestal dinning room table carved with the requisite acanthus leaves sold by Carswell Rush Berlin?
"Comparatively speaking, furnishings from this period are affordable," says Berlin. The table was priced at $350,000.
Look, a single side chair, Philadelphia Chippendale, of course, went for $1.4 million at Christie's last Thursday, Oct. 14. So, with staggering prices in the sales room like those, the lesser styles look like a veritable bargain. Berlin's sales strongly support that buying trend. By Sunday, he had to completely restock his booth.
Long-time dealer participants are ringing up brisk sales, as are newcomers like Richard Philip, who had a banner weekend. This London dealer quickly wrote up an Elizabethan portrait of two young sisters for $100,000 for an English client and a 14th-century Normandy wood carving of a thoughtful St. John with its original polychrome.
Another strong selling wave is definitely English with touches of the continent. On Tuesday, Alistair Sampson reviewed more than 70 sales receipts for items ranging from George III tables and saltglaze pottery to a set of 17th-century Italian needlework pictures for $127,500. "To Americans, continental and English needlework is a relatively inexpensive," points out Sampson. Stateside, fine colonial girlhood embroidery routinely hits the $250,000 mark.
With only a smattering of picture dealers on the floor, paintings move quickly. As always, French paintings remain the stalwart of the collecting class and this year works by the Nabis were packed up in profusion. For example, at Philippe Cazeau-Jacques de la Béraudière, two works by Pierre Bonnard sailed out of the booth long before the fair ended.
Why the swift sales? "Clients know we bring exceptional works from private collections, not paintings that are recycled through auction houses," explains Jacques de la Béraudière. Priced at $1.8 million, the Bonnard 1942 still life, Nature morte a la bouteille de vin rouge, is typical of the quality offered. It had been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art's acclaimed Bonnard show last year and was widely cited in the literature.
The booth of Galerie Hopkins-Thomas-Custot of Paris looked like someone went on a shopping spree. Gone were two Vuillards, one reportedly priced at $3.2 million. Plus seven other works sold along with a pair of Maurice Denis paintings. Who purchased the Denis pair, La Foret au Printemps and La Foret en Automne, with patterned borders and elusive figures in the woods? "They went to an European client," discretely reports gallery director Waring Hopkins.
Even drawings were in demand. New York dealer Jill Newhouse witnessed feverish buying. Drawings and watercolors bearing the big names -- Picasso, Pissaro, Rousseau and Dufy -- sold quickly, as did works by other French and English artists. "But it's not impulse buying; clients know the market," says Newhouse. Overall, she found that the more important the work, the easier it was to sell. Such an example is a Picasso study for a pivotal painting, The Three Graces, produced at the peak of his classical period, which went to a private client.
What makes the sales so brisk are the visitors, of course. Slews of Wall Street traders as well as the demi-goddesses of the auction world -- Sotheby's Dede Brooks and Christie's Patty Hambrecht -- and the likes of the Sultan of Qatar and Oprah Winfrey prowl the aisles, making this fair a de rigeur event. Not everyone shops, but they all come for the electricity, that charge of witnessing hundreds of thousands of dollars changing hands constantly.
Plus, some of the booths are drop dead dramatic and make the decors of Parisian designer Alberto Pinto, famous for doing up the residences of Arab princes, seem positively pale. Take the stand of Carlton Hobbs, which exudes power. You enter through a 19th-century overmantel with massive caryatids and lion masks, through a dark foyer complete with a brilliantly colored marble inlaid table, into a room that holds only a dozen objects. Front and center is a mega dining room table. Of rosewood with ormulu trim, the table boasts a historic provenance. Napoleon signed the 1805 Treaty of Tilsit on it. The price? A mere $725,000, or what a lucky few spend on an entire house.
The quirkiest accessories sold have to be those at antiquities dealer Michael Ward. They are West African currency -- snake-like shapes or brash flat arrows in iron, rusted of course. Yes, they bear a resemblance to modern sculpture and constitute an effective accompaniment for classical works. But best of all, they cost less than $3,000 a pop. Relatively cheap for a keepsake from this fair.
BROOK S. MASON writes on art and antiques from New York.