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AS GOOD AS IT GETS
by Brook S. Mason
 
Despite the Dow taking a mini-nose dive of 200-plus points the day before and the city’s unemployment rolls horrifically grazing the half-million mark, nary a shadow of financial turmoil marked the opening of the 56th annual Winter Antiques Show on Thursday evening, Feb. 21, 2010.

In fact, the aisles were filled to the brim with the heavyweight Americana crowd, people like Sallie Krawcheck, who heads up Global Wealth at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, domestic diva Martha Stewart, author Carolyne Roehm, and Jamie Drake, decorator for Mayor Bloomberg. Polo-playing publisher Peter Brant was there, of course, as a sponsor of the event and publisher of The Magazine Antiques, along with a bevy of socialites sporting the little black dress along with estate diamond earrings and more.

The early ticket tabs of $2,500 and $1,500 didn’t dampen enthusiasm one single bit. Long considered the kickoff of the social season, the "Winter" is so de rigueur that even John Thain showed up, despite being ousted as Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch unit honcho last year. He has a passion for antiques and while Americana strikes a dominant note at the Winter, British and continental antiques, including tip top arms and armor with dealer Peter Finer as well as antiquities are on the floor.

"The main thing is people made an effort [to attend] just like they did 50 years ago and that’s what really matters" said Billy Cunningham, the New York Times octogenarian photographer whose sense of stylish intuition has been knocking far younger generations of fashion-world insiders totally flat for decades.

Within seconds red dots broke out all over the stand of London dealer Robert Young, who trades in English and continental folk art and furniture. To a great degree his sales of "treen" (think 17th-century wood chow bowls, only priced at over $5,000 apiece) and rustic period furniture, as well as those sales by New Haven folk art dealer Fred Giampietro, which included a pig weathervane for a cool low six-figure price, speak of a new austerity, a return to reminders of a simpler life, one in which dire news was restricted to poor wheat crops rather than shaky derivatives and cash-poor economies.

Further affirming the buoyancy of the Winter Show at a time when traditional antiques fairs are dropping like flies, the fair dealer roster remains exceedingly bullish. It’s an impressive 72 dealers strong, attesting to the prowess of show chairman Ari Kopelman and director Catherine Sweeney Singer. Even the flowers and hors d’oeuvres remain suitably lavish in this era of thriftiness.

However, missing from the dealer roster is the rock star of Americana, Leigh Keno, who cut his teeth at the age of ten at the Brimfield Antiques Show and went on to such glories as selling a Philadelphia Chippendale tea table for a cool $4 million right here on the Winter floor. Leigh has crossed to the other side of the road and now heads up his own auction house, dubbed Keno Auctions, which debuts this spring in Stamford, Conn. Also sadly gone is Elinor Gordon, the queen of Chinese Export porcelain, who recently died.

In their place are two decidedly non-Americana specialists. One is Jim Elkind, who heads up Lost City Arts and specializes in Harry Bertoia sculptures long favored by Eero Saarinen and now practically a craze. On view is Bertoia’s 84-inch-tall Dandelion from 1960, which is a whopping $250,000, and Elkind already has interest. "His ‘Dandelions’ bring the highest prices, as he did very few of them and they’re so delicate," says Elkind.

In a nanosecond last night, Elkind sold a craggy Paul Evans 1965 forged steel cabinet for $75,000. Also snared then were 1929 plaster of Paris maquettes of eagles for the exterior of the Empire State Building for $60,000. His buyers? "The multiple-home kind," replies Elkin. "I’m in the black now and the show is the right fit for me," he says.

The other newcomer is Peter Petrou from London, whose esthetically pleasing mix of 20th-century design, ethnography and period furniture scored steep interest.

As if the antiques and art weren’t astonishing enough on their own, some of the dealers have gone in for presentations that are themselves simply show-shopping. Take early photography specialist Hans P. Kraus Jr., son of the famed book dealer. He has cleverly created an entire room evocative of the ancestral home of William Henry Fox Talbot (1870-1877), the groundbreaking British inventor of photography. There’s a replica of the photographer’s Lacock Abbey oriel window from one of his early images. On loan are objects from that 12th-century Wiltshire home. Abstract and conceptual art buffs will appreciate Talbot’s evanescent 1839 Roofline of Lacock Abbey. An image of St. Mary’s Church is tagged at $350,000, telling of its scarcity. "They are two of the finest Talbots I have ever handled," says Kraus.

Philadelphia miniatures dealer Elle Shushan also looked to the past in conjuring up her stand. She recruited architect and designer Ralph Harvard to paint a sitting room in the 18th-century Boston home of Harrison Gray Otis. It’s the perfect setting for her delicate miniatures, many of painted ivory, which were the Facebook of their day.

For sheer style and top-notch painting, best stand award has to go to Hirschl & Adler. The firm is sporting a suitably patriotic painting, a Rembrandt Peale 1821 portrait of our first founder, George, as well as a Benjamin West rendering of Cupid, just in time for Valentine’s Day and American Impressionist landscapes.

Paintings were moving swiftly and Adelson Galleries whisked off a mega-Mary Cassatt oil, Little Girl in a Large Red Hat, ca. 1902. Not so far away, Gerald Peters Gallery sold the Gaston Lachaise 1922 bronze Three Peacocks.

Encouraging words come too from Old Print Shop, Inc. dealer Harry Newman, who says, "So far are sales are four and half times what they were the entire last year." He sold an American 18th-century almanac, a Henry Walton 1840s lithograph and a Frank Benson etching.

Nearby, Connecticut Americana dealers Peter and Jeffrey Tillou, a father and son team, are sporting gleaming mahogany highboys, gilt mirrors and patriotic weathervanes, the kind of furnishings old-line WASPs crave. "Already, we’ve sold two weathervanes, one a banner and the other a horse, a Hepplewhite side chair with original surface and a small group of American watercolor portraits, and there’s a hold on John Vanderlyn’s 1824 painting Santa Claus, which ispriced at $125,000,"

"It’s all positive," says Jeffrey Tillou. With a rare St. Nick carrying toys for good girls and boys, the Winter is off to a roaring start, proving the Dow is no real signpost for art and antiques fans.

Additional reporting by Margery Kurtz


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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