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by Brook S. Mason
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The traditional fair world’s answer to Art Basel? Hands down, it’s the 57th annual Winter Antiques Show now on view at the Park Avenue Armory, Jan. 21-30, 2011. Last night’s vernissage drew the kind of record crowds and feverish buying that rivets contemporary art collectors to the Swiss fair. The show boasts mega-star offerings, with price points climbing to $6.5 million for a John Singer Sargent portrait at Adelson Galleries.

Spotted in the throngs savoring the art and antiques at 74 dealer booths were museum curators, socialites and celebs, including Coach creative director and design collector Reed Krakoff, Broadway star Hugh Jackman and domestic diva Martha Stuart. At the booth of Tiffany specialists Maclowe Gallery, Peter Brant was watching Stephanie Seymour trying on jewelry.

With the Dow Jones Industrial Average surpassing its pre-Lehman Brothers June 2008 level, there is much talk about a new market buoyancy, in distinct comparison to the dreary days of ’08 and ’09. Blockbuster price tags at the show include a $5 million Copley, a $5 million Frederic Remington bronze and a $3 million Whistler portrait along with a monumental 19th-century Angel Gabriel copper weather vane tagged at $1 million.

Could $5 million be the old $750,000 tier? It sure looks that way. Now hooked rugs by just plain common folk, New Englanders to be exact, command $65,000 at dealers Elliott & Grace Snyder of South Egremont, Mass.

Native American art and folk, once deemed Americana’s stepchild in terms of value, are emerging as the front-runner in sales. Ontario dealer Donald Ellis clinched sales for two Eskimo masks for a total of $ 4 million to two different North American private collectors. Both masks had belonged to Surrealist artist Enrico Donati.

Then Olde Hope Antiques hailing from New Hope, Pa., racked up three sales within one hour of the opening. Buyers favored a mid-19th-century weathervane in the shape of a cavorting fireman, measuring practically five feet high, for $285,000 and an 1825 Vermont painted one-drawer chest aflame with a fiery tonality for $285,000. The vane carries a weighty provenance: it had belonged to the prominent folk art collector Bernard Barenholtz. "There’s a marked sense of confidence on the part of collectors," says Patrick Bell of Olde Hope.

Other vanes of note are with New Haven dealer Fred Giampietro, who is touting a monumental 1872 angel Gabriel weathervane for over $1 million, along with a full bodied 1867 Lady Liberty clutching a 12-star flag for $650,000. Further signs of the potency of folk can be spotted with Hirschl & Adler. That Manhattan gallery, which is more known for prime American neo-classical paintings and antiques, is showcasing a pair of Adirondack chairs with gnarled branches and twigs, their arms made of birch roots. Painted white, the objects are pure genius on the part of Stuart Feld, Hirschl prez.

In comparison, London folk dealer Robert Young favors a more primitive look, as found in a 1770 English shepherd’s chair with wings of wood, priced at $22,000. Especially enticing is the shelf of miniature animals for an 1860 German Noah’s Ark complete for pachyderms and extending right down to a pair of grasshoppers and ladybugs for $22,000. "We’re now seeing more clients under 40 and there’s been a pronounced shift of buyers with Europeans now dominant," says Young. Four years ago, Americans made up the majority of Young’s client base.

Design is more prominent, too. "We even extended the datelines right up to 1969," says Arie Kopelman, retired Chanel USA CEO and Winter Show chairman. In addition, Kopelman masterminded the sculptural design at the entrance, which has "a modern, contemporary feel" and its own light show, telling of a hipper vibe.

Dealers offerings laced with top tier 20th century design, such as a captivating Phillip Lloyd Powell and Paul Evans 1953 Constellation wall sculpture of iron, bronze and glass for $85,000 at Lost City Arts of downtown Manhattan. "The glass is fused with paper," says Jim Elkind, who heads up Lost City. Also on view is a 1972 Sheila Hicks fiber wall hanging for $45,000. Hicks, who lives in Paris, is about to be celebrated with retrospective at Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art. Other design dealers include Peter Petrou, Hostler Burrows, the former Antik, Liz O’Brien and Geoffrey Diner.

At D.C. dealer Diner is a rarity, a Winold Reiss 1933 oil study for a mosaic design in the Cincinnati Union Terminal railroad station. Titled Worker with Adze, Surveyor, Railroad Worker, it’s pure WPA, with imagery of denim-clad figures, steel girders and early locomotives, all rendered in a distinctive palette by the Russian immigrant painter. The price for such a unique work stocked with post Depression vocabulary is north of $500,000.

Speaking of paintings, dealer Warren Adelson is showcasing a veritable war chest of Americana favorites, from John Singleton Copley’s huge 1800 portrait Sir Edward Knatchbull to Coming Through the Rye, Frederic Remington’s energetic band of cowboys in bronze. Both are $5 million. Nearby, Gerald Peters Gallery features five Thomas Wilmer Dewing pictures, each in a Stanford White gold frame. Prices run up to $1.8 million for the Cornish colony painter’s Petunias.

The Fine Art Society from New Bond Street has ferried over an Edward Burne Jones 1888 stained glass rendition of the Virgin and Child, which is aptly pre-Raphaelite for a reasonable $80,000. It had been created for the Cheadle Royal Academy. But the showstopper at the FAS booth is Whistler’s 1895 oil The Widow at $3 million. "Less than ten of his paintings have been at auction recently," says Gordon Cooke of the London gallery.

Still, lower-priced fare can be found at a number of dealers, including Hans Kraus, who has on show 19th-century albumen prints by Jean Laurent of Spanish armor at as low as $500.

In terms of mise en scène, stealing the limelight is Philadelphia’s Elle Shushan, whose stand is filled with portrait miniatures. Manhattan interior designer Ralph Harvard whipped up his rendition of the decrepit Belevedere Plantation portico of crackled painted columns and dripping with Spanish moss. Inside is a delicate 1814 miniature of naval hero Lt. John Templar Shubrick, who resided at Belvedere. It’s a scene worthy of Tennessee Williams’ brand of Southern decadence and a creative streak you’ll only see at the Winter. Nip in and pluck up a miniature. They’re a bargain.

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