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by Brook S. Mason
The 20th International Fine Art and Antique Dealers Show, Oct. 17-23, 2008, at the Park Avenue Armory, New York, N.Y. 10065

With stock certificates suddenly topping the list of ditsy purchases, antiques may actually become gilt-edged investments in these financially tumultuous times. And the shopping mecca for antiques par excellence remains the International Fine Art and Antique Dealers Show, organized by Brian and Anna Haughton at the Park Avenue Armory. The 20th version of the fair, which opens tonight, is packed to the rafters with rarities.

What’s most in evidence at this fair is jaw-dropping taste, the kind of presentation of antiques that rarely makes the auction-house scene. Much of what’s on view is deliciously kited out on the gallery stands, and style-wise should be the envy of the more discriminating arbiters like Peter Marino, known for his Chanel store designs, and Lee Mindel, who dips into 20th-century motifs with extraordinary finesse.

Allan Rubin of the Pelham Galleries in Paris, for instance, has trimmed his stand with no less than six gilt mirrors and an 18th-century Italian parasol once belonging to a cardinal. The overall effect is part Versailles, part Vegas, and it’s a stunner.

London dealer Antoine Chenevière’s stand is another winner in the discerning courts of style. An oversized Candida Hofer photograph of an interior aswirl with white curving ramps is an alluring accompaniment to a pair of surprisingly lean, rosewood consoles from 1825 by Giovanni Socchi. Topped with slabs of Sicilian reddish marble edged in gilt beads, the consoles are trimmed with crisp but scant ormolu fittings. They are the height of contemporary chic.

Chenevière, who is known for catering to newly wealthy Russians living in London, is also featuring a show-stopping garden ornament from a Tuscan villa. The massive 1750 terracotta lion sports a vigorous mane and must be seen. In exceptionally good condition, the lion is all the more remarkable since mastering quick-drying terracotta requires lightning speed, and the work must be completed in a single day or less.

Also on view is the ultimate power broker’s desk, measuring nine feet in length. The 1810 Austrian, ebonized and gilded pear wood desk sits on eight paw feet and comes with a bevy of hidden drawers. It’s got a regal price tag: upwards of $500,000.

Nearby, postmodernist fans shouldn’t miss the pair of Christopher Dresser 1894 silver candle stands at the booth of H. Blairman & Sons of London. Amazingly spare in design, the objects include sleek, helmet-shaped match strikers concealing matches. With the price for such cunning deceit only $17,000, they have to be the bargain of the entire fair.

The show floor boasts heaps of Park Avenue taste, like a recent discovery of two matching gilt English consoles with lavish carving and dating from 1735 with Ronald Phillips Ltd, also of London. At $1.6 million, the items are among the more costly furnishings. But the stand also sports a novel 19th-century oak post box to remind one of simpler times. Just as postage stamps here have been inching up in price, this pillar-shaped domed repository for mail is of the costly variety. It’s a cool $55,000 and perfect for those pre-war apartments with their own foyer directly off the elevator.

"Antiques, unlike contemporary paintings, have been immune to speculation," says Jeremy Garfield-Davies, Ronald Phillips director. He believes the best holds its value but "the flaky, and the pumped up" doesn’t. To tempt antiques fanciers, his firm has set up no less than three entire reception rooms. An 1830 French gilt chandelier inlaid with huge cabochon crystals is tagged at $400,000, telling of how expensive the best is.

Still, the show includes decorative arts certain to find favor with modern and contemporary art fans. Chicago dealer Douglas Dawson features a beaded Yoruba royal tunic that makes contemporary artist Liza Lou’s crafted concoctions pale in comparison. The geometric pattern sets off a dazzling coloration of turquoise, magenta, acid yellow and searing lime. The price: $26,000. Also spotlighting a tribal work, both sculptural and erotic -- a highly polished coconut from the Seychelles -- is the Tambaran Gallery from East 82nd Street in Manhattan, a new exhibitor.

For English antiques, Harris Lindsay is showcasing a breakfront by one of the pillars of 19th-century English style, Owen Jones. Although his name is hardly known in this country, Jones was a pioneer in the design, merchandising, interiors and furniture fields. He jump-started the Great Exhibition of 1851, trimmed up interiors throughout the Middle East, designed incredibly complex pieces of furniture, some with ivory and ebony, and authored the ground breaking Grammar of Ornament (1868). His text, filled with all manner of designs, gave entire generations of designers new vocabularies of styles from the Middle and Far East. His Moorish-style breakfront dense with detailed inlay is extraordinary. The price is $750,000.

American fans head in droves to nautical antiques purveyor Hyland Granby from Hyannis Port, Mass. On his stand are marine pictures, tons of scrimshaw and no less than four narwhal tusks. Nearby, the Belgian dealer Axel Vervoordt boasts three narwhal tusks for sale. They could be the new "must have."

Speaking of fine art, the venerable London firm of Agnew’s is touting some extraordinary artworks. Center stage on their stand is a Henry Moore Helmet Head No. 3 from 1960. Strangely compelling, the bronze helmet clasps within it a rather eerie bust. Installed above the bronze is a 1944 Ben Nicholson gouache on card, part Cubism, part fashion design color swatch, and a 1942 Graham Sutherland surreal landscape on paper.

Nineteenth- and early 20th-century pictures are in profusion at the 2008 show. And of course mirrors abound, as anyone can fit an extra mirror in a home, whereas adding a seven-foot-tall painting to the abode is dicier task. Maison Gerard is touting a contemporary mirror edged in twigs cast in bronze by Paris star designer Herve van der Straeten for a mere $18,000.

Interestingly, clocks appear to be an irresistible collectible and Raffety & Walwyn Ltd from London in particular has been racking up runaway sales recently. Some clocks are far more than mere timepieces. Take George Graham, who was the I.T. man of his century and was honored with burial in Westminster Abbey. He numbered all his clocks and watches and pioneered the technology enabling clocks to run accurately for as long as a week before requiring readjustment. On offer is a Graham 1725 grandfather clock of walnut veneer on oak for $425,000.

Another rarity is the Edward East architectural, pedimented table clock dating from 1670, which is one of the first clocks with a spring-driven pendulum works. Encased in ebony, the gilt bronze detail is rich with engraving and its back bears East’s name in script. The price is $500,000. "They were far more expensive in the 17th century," says Nigel Raffety. The firm’s sales have doubled in the past two years. Raffety believes those sales are due to the fact that clocks are now perceived as an alternative investment. Choice clocks also happen to be the wonders of their day.

Despite the gloomy financial markets, dealers, surrounded by such riches, are upbeat in their mood. "People haven’t panicked; the proof of the pudding is things have been sold," says Christopher Kingzett of Agnew’s, referring to his firm’s sales activity in the past two weeks.

Even Bob Israel, who heads up Kentshire, which has opened a pricey Madison Avenue outpost in addition to its East 12th Street shop, also admits to recent sales over the past ten days. Packed up for sale at his galleries recently were Art Deco jewelry, crystal and ormolu scones and Chinese Export black lacquer tables. "It’s not a static market," says Israel.

Still, there’s a back-story to the antiques on view. To some extent, the number of dealers is far smaller. Twenty years ago, the first October fair had 84 dealers. This time, there are 63 participants. Yes, phenomenal sales have been scored in the past. After all, a Bernardo Belloto painting sold here for $14 million less than a decade ago.

But some once regular and prominent participants have vanished. Ariane Dandois, the Paris dealer known for gleaming Empire furniture, which Henry Kravis craved long ago, has shuttered her gallery off the Faubourg St. Honoré; Jeremy of London also closed recently. Other recently demised antiques galleries include the London dealer Hotspur, once a repository of prized 18th-century English and continental furniture. And countless mid-sized and small antiques dealers have also followed suit.

That diminishing trade casts a bit of a shadow on all the gleaming, gilt-trimmed antiques and 19th-century paintings of maidens. In that light, they shine a bit differently.

Martin Levy, who heads up Blairman, has a decidedly positive outlook for antiques. In reference to Sotheby’s recent $100-million sale of Damien Hirst’s work, all recently produced in his highly staffed studio, mind you, Levy believes that now the value of objects created by hand, in an earlier age long before electricity, may be properly reassessed. "Beauty will return," he says.

One hopes that such a time will come before yet another antiques dealer disappears from the scene.

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