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NEW LAMPS FOR OLD
by Brook S. Mason
 
The Winter Antiques Show, long known for its traditional Americana -- the brown furniture favored by our original colonists, Chinese Export porcelain coveted for fine dining by 18th-century Americans and early Yankee flags, sometimes seen today with mega prices -- boasts a new guise for its 55th installment, currently on view at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, Jan. 23-Feb. 1, 2009.

Today, this country's most venerable fair has extended its dateline and in this new inclusionary age, art and antiques made as recently as 1969 are included while a bevy of the 75 dealers touts a wider variety of wares than ever, with some items priced well under $1,000.

Clearly, the new time frame pays allegiance to the trend towards greater eclecticism in interior design as well as the critical need to draw in the contemporary art crowd. Indicating the nod to more contemporary material is the first-time presence at the show of the Tribeca-based Antik, featuring the kind of 20th-century Scandinavian design that is exalted for its spare elegance. Even the show’s special loan exhibition, courtesy of the Corning Museum of Glass in western New York state, features objects as late as the rocking 1950s and ‘60s.

"It's about time that later material was showcased," says Kim Hostler of Antik. "There's a new economy now," agrees Robert Young, the London dealer who specializes in English and continental country furniture and folk art, whose booth has some examples that are quite reasonably priced. Both their comments echo changing taste as well as new buying patterns.

Despite the appalling financial climate, attendance has been good and business is being done. "Sales have been across the board," says Catherine Sweeney Singer, executive director of the Winter Show. Hooked rugs, carved American eagles, redware ceramics and Danish furniture are flying out the door, confirming the continuing appeal of the event.

The show provides, as usual, an almost unparalleled breadth and depth of fine objects. For those short on time, here are ten not-to-be-missed examples amid the early Americana chairs and highboys and gilt pier mirrors.

1. With the appointment of Thomas P. Campbell, oft called "tapestry Tom" by insiders, as director of the Metropolitan Museum, his specialty finally commands a new respect among contemporary art fanciers. To tempt the latest generation of collectors, the London and New York-based dealer Eddy Keshishian has a pair of Richard Anuszkiewicz tapestries that were woven in France in 1970.

A student of Josef Albers, Anuszkiewicz came to prominence in the Op Art movement of the 1960s, and his tapestries, like the ones on view patterned in purplish mauve, bright lime and tobacco, provide maximum wall power per square foot. Yet the price is a reasonable $140,000. Keshishian’s pair of Anuszkiewicz tapestries is from a small edition; they are number four of seven.

2. Textiles are generally a total snore for contemporary art collectors: too dusty, too dreary. But Manhattan dealer Cora Ginsburg has got an entire three-piece outfit certain to please the hipster crowd. Dating from 1829, the white linen costume is patterned with wool diamonds and hearts along with plump devils clinching pitchforks. It was part of the Mummers tradition, when working class men performed plays and dances. Trimmed with fringe and bearing on the accompanying cap the initials TF, perhaps for Tom Fool, this vibrant costume isn’t headed into fashion designer Tom Ford’s closet, as an American museum already snapped it up.

3. In a sign that some Americana dealers are hedging their bets in the new economy, Manhattan celebrity antiques dealer Leigh Keno, well known for his appearances on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow with his twin, Leslie Keno of Sotheby’s, has reframed his East 69th Street enterprise, giving it the new name Leigh Keno Traditional * Modern (including the star character linking old and new).

Confirming the wisdom of that radical change, his first sale at the Winter Antiques Show was an exotic chest of drawers from 1965, crafted by Fabio de Sanctis and Ugo Sterpini in walnut with bronze mounts in the shape of mermaids, horses and gargoyles.

At the gala vernissage, Martha Stewart was spotted ogling the chest, which had last been exhibited in New York in 1966 at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, the forerunner of the Museum of Arts and Design. The piece went for $55,000 as soon as the show opened, and interestingly, it’s headed out to the summer home of a collector of 18th-century Americana.

Fans of classic modernism should also note the vigorous abstraction from 1951 by James Brooks on the wall of Keno’s stand. Its presence there is another indication of the way that savvy antiques and design dealers are reaching into the fine art world to extend their own offerings.

4. Demonstrating the allure of Native American Indian artifacts for contemporary art collectors is a raft of prized material in the booth of Ontario dealer Donald Ellis. Don’t miss the 1880 Western Apache mask-and-headdress made of hide and painted wood. With its ghoulish black hide helmet surmounted by a headdress with green paint -- curiously bearing a resemblance to the patina of aged copper -- this bit of ethnography foreshadows Jean-Michel Basquiat’s take on urban savagery. And the price, $115,000, seems somewhat modest given the uniqueness of the example. Also well worth studying are a pair of early snow goggles carved from walrus ivory by a Punuk Eskimo way back in 500-1000 AD.

5. With President Barack Obama underscoring his political and historical ties to Abraham Lincoln, Lincolniana is bound to soar in value. Of note with Kenneth W. Rendell Gallery is a Lincoln letter releasing a 19-year-old from custody, dating from Jan. 14, 1864. Though the price is $47,500, a less costly document is one merely signed by Lincoln in 1863, which is only $17,500.

6. Millennium design fanciers with their penchant for a palette of beige and taupe relieved by black against a minimalist background are certain to applaud the stand of Hans P. Kraus Jr. The vintage photography dealer has cleverly opted to replicate Edward Steichen’s and Alfred Stieglitz’s then-revolutionary 291 Gallery setting. Startlingly prescient, as creative director of 291 Steichen emphasized simplicity and a monochromatic palette that framed early photographs in a subtle, soft celadon tone. The period lighting, overhead fixtures in the shape of black derby hats, predate French modernist design.

On view are images by Steichen himself and those photographers exhibited at 291, like Julia Margaret Cameron and Frederick H. Evans. While prices hover in the $1 million range for works by Steichen and Stieglitz, lantern slides by Frederick H. Evans (1853-1943) are a relative bargain. A master of landscape and architectural images, Evans was a legendary Pictorialist and a pioneer promoter of photography as a fine art early on.

Especially captivating is Evans’s 1890 Gloucester Cathedral Cloisters, with its stunning architectural detail from Gothic times. It costs a mere $9,000, while Evans’s platinum prints command as much as $650,000. Also catch Steichen’s haunting image of sculptor Auguste Rodin as well as a portrait of William Merritt Chase.

7. Scrimshaw, whale teeth and bone whittled and carved by early Yankees shipping out on whaling expeditions have long been deemed the de rigueur desk-top accessory of captains of industry, U.S. presidents (JFK collected it) and Americana buffs. Massachusetts dealer Hyland Granby has practically a shipload of those collectibles. On hand are scrimshaw swifts for winding yarn, and pie cutters, too. Back in the gogo ‘90s, Wall Street traders snapped up pie cutters with prices up to $45,000 each on Granby’s stand. Now, with the economy going south, sales seem to be slower for this specialty. Even so, Granby’s examples are particularly fine.

8. After trudging through so many booths filled with traditional antiques and paintings crammed into gilt frames, Antik provides a refreshing antidote. The stand is covered in Viennese architect Josef Frank’s spunky floral wall paper in rose and lime green, the perfect foil for classic Swedish and Danish period furniture.

A 1942 birch drinks cabinet by Axel Einar Hjorth is really a riff on Jean Michel Frank with its front designed in segmented squares. At only $28,000, this piece of furniture is the height of chic and a relative bargain. Lining the top of the cabinet is a series of Bernd Friberg ceramics, long cherished by Modernist fans.

9. Weather vanes are more abundant that ever, perhaps a nod to the fact that Jerry Lauren, brother of the wealthy fashion purveyor Ralph, forked over a whopping $5.8 million for a vane in the shape of an American Indian at Sotheby’s three years ago. At the fair, the most unusual rendition has to be at the booth of Miami Beach dealer G.K.S. Bush, and it’s in the shape of a female tennis player.

Plucked up immediately by a collector was a vane shaped like a peacock with London dealer Robert Young. It cost only $9,500, but then that vane is English and dates from the early 20th century. Young also has a winsome zinc shooting target in the shape of a rabbit amid his English country furniture and folk art. "Sales are brisk," says Young. It could just be that antiques without the pretension of high style are deemed more appropriate in this new age of austerity.

10. The loan exhibition from the Corning Museum of Glass, "The Fragile Art: Extraordinary Objects," sets a new standard in the courts of style. No less than the talented Massimo Vignelli designed it. For those who can’t journey to the museum itself, what’s on display at the fair are 50 stellar glass examples spanning four continents and more than three millennia.

The display boasts Egyptian flasks, early Venetian goblets, Sandwich glass candlesticks and Harvey K. Littleton’s 1965 vessel, a modest, expressively shaped bowl that is an homage to abstract painting in reds, pale blue and chartreuse. Littleton was a leader of the American Studio Glass movement and his work should be elevated right up there with sculpture and painting.


BROOK S. MASON is U.S. correspondent for the Art Newspaper, and also writes for the Financial Times and other publications.



 



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