If you believe only newly rich geeks go out looking for antiques and come home with a contemporary ceramic work in the shape of a pineapple -- for a cool $37,000 -- you're dead wrong. The proof could be found at Brian and Anna Haughton's newest art endeavor, the International 20th Century Arts Fair, held Nov. 27-Dec. 1, 1999, in the cavernous Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue at 67th Street.
Its focus was mid-century moderne, the kind of high-end furnishings, decorative arts and design that has been hot for over a decade, moving from garage sales to pricey SoHo emporiums. In the art-fair arena, the first to cover this territory was Sanford Smith's Modernism show, also held at the Armory, launched 14 years ago. But all that pales by comparison to the Haughtons' International 20th Century Arts Fair.
The gold standard
When this show closed yesterday, the Haughtons (who also serve up the acclaimed international Asian Art Fair in March, the International Fine Art Fair in May and the International Fine Arts and Antiques Dealers Fair in October) could look back on a seminal event that quite literally sets the gold standard for the millennium. To be more precise, the Haughtons created the first vetted show in this country dedicated to 20th-century art and antiques.
Sales at the International 20th Century Arts Fair are a good bellwether of which artists will be aggressively coveted in the year 2000 (and beyond) as well as a benchmark for how high the prices can soar.
By selecting a bevy of top-tier dealers from both sides of the Atlantic and then vetting all of the wares, the Haughtons conferred the academic seal of approval on what had been garage sale chic. Sanford Smith corrals some of the same dealers -- Gansevoort, Maison Gerard, Antik and Historical Design -- the inventory is not scoured over by a bevy of curators and academicians for quality and authenticity.
The Haughtons brought in American Craft Museum curator David McFadden to head up the vetting team, some 22 people strong. They also dressed up the dilapidated Armory in stylish minimalism, draping some 6,000 yards of fabric over and around the booths to create a tent and employing theatrical lighting for effect. "Theatrical presentation is key," says Brian Haughton, a former stage actor.
What are the other hallmarks of success? One lustrous sign is the mere presence of mega-buyout specialist Henry Kravis and his wife Marie-Josee waltzing through the doors at the opening night party last Friday, then cruising down the aisles before shopping at contemporary glass and ceramics dealer Adrian Sassoon.
Interestingly, the Haughtons hosted the opening night party themselves -- while their other fairs all boast opening night benefits that routinely draw in charity-minded socialites. The gossip had it (true or not) that the Museum of Modern Art turned the Haughton's original overture down. Even so, that didn't deter 1,200-plus from showing up. That crowd was remarkably different from the usual Old Guard group. This time it was black turtlenecks and baseball caps kind of guys and they bought up a storm. "We saw a more informal group of clients," said Brian Haughton.
The timing of the fair, opening the day after Thanksgiving, was viewed with alarm by many. After all it's "Black Friday," when millions throng the retail stores racking up record sales for the year.
But the scheduling turned out to be opportune. The heavyweight collectors were in town in droves. Over at Christie's, they spent a cool $11-million-plus at the 20th-century decorative arts sales. In all, 13,000 people managed to visit the Armory with its 47 dealers throughout its six-day run.
New niche markets
Sales at the Armory tell clearly of the new specialty areas. Oddly enough, the hottest niche market on the latest antique circuit is lighting fixtures. Barry Friedman, Maison Gerard, Dankst Mobel Kunst and Henrik Aarestrup were among the dealers featuring such fare. Gansevoort Gallery practically devoted its entire booth to lighting devices from the '20s through the '40s. Even London deco dealer Ciancimino brought over a bevy of French wares. And it paid off, with price apparently being a negligible consideration. A case in point was a pair of wrought iron torcheres from 1925, which Benoist Drut of Maison Gerard wrote up on opening night for a hefty $84,000. Yes, they're signed by no less than Edgar Brandt, the French iron worker whose richly stylized pieces are much sought after at auction.
Overall, Deco was strong. Ciancimino sold a pair of Jean Michel Frank macassar ebony folding screens for $185,000 to a New Yorker. Then at Historical Design a set of wrought iron screens in glitzy gilt by Andre Arbus and Raymond Subes from 1939 were snapped up by a client for a cool $125,000. "He plans to use them as an entrance to a tent for his millennium party," explained dealer Denis Galion. He sold close to three-quarters of the contents of his booth. Why such spirited sales? "People are looking for statement pieces, those that command historical importance and in top condition," added Galion.
When it comes to Danish modern dating from 1930-1965, clients went right to the source -- Dansk Mobel Kunst of Copenhagen. Sales were brisk -- but it's not tacky things like teak TV tables. Gallery assistant Thomas Juncher pointed out that his wares are by the greats of Danish design, artisans like Grete Jalk, who captured an international competition with her spare works. Hans Wegner valet chairs sold quickly at $7,000 apiece, while a walnut and leather sofa went for over $20,000.
Danish silver was also eagerly sought after. London's Silver Fund, the world's largest dealer in Georg Jensen, brought over hundreds of pieces. With total sales approaching the $500,000 mark, Jensen pieces are the must-haves for the millennium. One client walked off with an early Jensen fish dish in the shape of a giant mussel shell for $90,000. "New Yorkers," remarked dealer Michael James, "are very sophisticated about Jensen."
Ceramics, glass, paintings
Contemporary ceramics and glass were hot. By the second day, London dealer Adrian Sassoon sold 29 pieces. Yes, a few dealers sneered at the high proportion of jewelry dealers -- exactly 11, or 23 percent -- but some of the jewelry is art. New York private dealer Charon Kransen brought over innovative designs by some 40 European artisans. And London dealer Tadema was hawking pieces by Georges Braque, Archibald Knox and Jean Despres.
The show only included five galleries devoted to paintings -- Spink-Leger, Agnew's, and Portland Gallery from London as well as Landau Fine Art from Montreal and NB Gallery from Moscow. Spink and Agnews brought predominantly British painters, hoping to snare clients on the basis of the reasonable prices vis a vis American contemporary. Yet, Spink racked up no sales in that category and Agnew's, while selling a dynamite Christo photo/print/mini-installation for $95,000 and a boozy John Wonnacott oil of two men carving a ham at $57,000, also had few sales. Landau took the prize for the top 20th-century painting sales. Miró, Picasso, Leger, Klee and Laurens works were sold. "There's a lack of choice in terms of 20th-century classics in this town," said Landau in explaining his sales.
Then there is the rather surprising case of Portland Gallery. This London establishment showcased the work of a single painter, Jack Vettriano. A former mining engineer, Vettriano serves up sexual narratives in film noir tones. "Sex sells," said the raincoat-clad artist, who portrayed himself as the predatory male in every one of his sexually provocative scenic renditions. He's right on that score; all 20 of his paintings sold for a grand total of $380,750.
In a clever marketing ploy, Portland embargoed sales of his works in the U.K, thereby causing 70 clients to fly in and queue up at 7 a.m. on Friday, no less. "His paintings are a great investment," says English developer Craig Nield, who missed snaring a Vettriano by a sheer five minutes. Needless to say, Portland director Tom Hewlett returned with a stack of orders.
With painters like Vettriano on the floor, there's no mistaking that this fair is a Maastricht or Grosvenor House in terms of quality. Haute Moderne purists might flinch, too, at Carolle Thibaut-Pomerantz's booth, filled with such highly crafted decorative oddities as a Quimper stoneware fish service, whose crude fish design borders on kitsch. Despite their low style -- or perhaps because of it -- such stock sold at $4,500.
One thing is certain; the 20th-century decorative arts are still in assessment. But the Haughton's have made an admirable step towards their evaluation and presentation.