|The 21st Century Winter Antiques Show
By Meredith Mendelsohn
“So much of what we do now is about looking for that one antique piece — an étagère or a secretary, for instance, that works in a room like a sculpture,” says Elizabeth Feld, Director of American Decorative Arts at New York’s Hirschl & Adler. “Furniture has changed from being a furnishing to a real work of art. And designers and collectors are using antiques in an interesting way, integrating them with objects from the 20th century.”
Feld, whose father, Stuart Feld, has owned the gallery, which specializes in fine and decorative American art, since 1982, is among a growing number of dealers catering to a different type of buyer today — one who doesn’t create period rooms full of all Federal or Georgian or even Art Deco furniture, as their parents or grandparents might have done, but rather mixes and matches from different eras and places. “Interiors have evolved — it’s totally eclectic now,” says Benoist Drut of Art Deco stalwart Maison Gerard. “It’s no longer the day of the great Jayne Wrightsman, who did rooms full of just French 18th-century pieces.”
It’s no coincidence that one of the most blue-chip shows of its kind in the country — the Winter Antiques Show at the Park Avenue Armory — has been ushering in changes of its tried-and-true formula, which has long centered on tradition. A high point on art world and social calendars (all proceeds have long benefitted the East Side House Settlement, which provides an array of community services in the South Bronx) the show is a historical bastion of classic good taste, luring top dealers, curators and collectors from around the country. But as time marches on and taste evolves, Catherine Sweeney Singer, the show’s tireless executive director, and Arie Kopelman, its chairman (and longtime Chanel executive), who together took the helm of the fair in 1995, have been tasked with the challenge of making it more relevant to a 21st century buyer. One major solution has been to extend the dateline for fine art and decorative arts to 1969 (and in cases of very special objects, even later) thereby opening up the show to top dealers of 20th century design, and enabling existing antique specialists to fill their booths with a small percentage of more modern wares.
The 58th edition of the show, which runs from January 20 through 29, will be the third year with the expanded dateline. “It has really given a new life to the show,” says designer Timothy Whealon, who is known for straddling centuries and cultures with his interiors for New York’s social elite. “I have always gone to see it myself but I have an easier time getting clients interested in it now that I can point out how great an American regional piece can look with modern Scandinavian things. It’s become a much more dynamic well-rounded fair.”
What began in 1955 as a predominantly American and English furniture marketplace, with such venerable late antiquaires as the legendary Americana dealer Israel Sack and the empress of export porcelain, Elinor Gordon, has blossomed over the past three decades into an eclectic group of the best antiques in the world, now broadened significantly by the addition of the 20th century. Sweeney Singer notes that the introduction of vetting in the early 1990s significantly changed the face of the fair, as only the highest quality objects and thereby the best dealers could be included. And while it has long been considered a predominantly American fair — largely because of its association with Americana week, which was created when the auction houses began timing their Americana sales to coincide with the show in the early 1980s — for decades only one-third of the booths have been filled by dealers of American fine art, antique furniture and folk art. Sweeney Singer and Kopelman have been careful to ensure that two-thirds of the booths remain devoted to everything from Egyptian antiquities and Renaissance sculpture to Fabergé and Federal furniture — and now 20th century design.
Better reflecting how people are buying today, adding more 20th-century objects to the fair also lures a younger generation of collectors, and many of the participating dealers have newfound sense of optimism. “There is a younger crowd here now and that’s what everyone in the trade has been hoping would happen for years,” says Peter Schaffer of A La Vielle Russie, world renowned specialists in Russian works of art and jewelry.
“One of the benefits of having younger collectors come in to the show is that they can actually see that a lot of important 20th century work they are drawn to looks back to earlier objects,” says Feld. “And they can see the continuum through the best examples of old and new work side by side. That benefits everyone.” And while there certainly are more 20- and 30-somethings entering the doors now, it is not only emerging collectors drawn to the 20th century. “We have a collector who buys [mid-century] works by Wharton Esherick and he’s also the biggest collector of Shaker furniture,” says Robert Aibel, of Philadelphia’s Moderne Gallery, which specializes in 20th-century design. He has been invited to exhibit in the Winter Antiques Show for the first time this year. “Some collectors have come later to 20th-century design — George Nakashima, for example — maybe because they bought a new house that’s all steel and wood and cement, and then sold off their more traditional antiques.”
And similarly, younger collectors are not just interested in the 20th century. “People still got excited last year about tea caddies and folk art weather vanes,” says Courtney Booth, Assistant Vice President of American Art at Sotheby’s, and co-chair for the second year in a row of the show’s revamped Young Collector’s night. “Basically these are one-of-a-kind things, and this is increasingly attractive to a generation that is saturated by repeat images.”
And in an era of individualism, it has also become more about the uniqueness of an object. “The important thing is not age but quality of design and execution,” agrees Carswell Rush Berlin, who specializes in American furniture from 1800 to 1840, and has been exhibiting at the show for 11 years.
The Metropolitan Museum, among others, most certainly agrees, as examples of objects similar to those held by the museum can be found on the floor of the Winter Antiques Show, from the Duncan Phyfe furniture in the booths of Carswell Rush Berlin and Hirschl and Adler, now starring in a major exhibition of the 19th century’s most famous American cabinet maker at the museum, to the 1970s Japanese slipware by Kondo Yutaka in the booth of Joan Mirviss, who sold the museum a piece that it exhibited in its survey of Korean ceramics last spring. “Stretching the dateline brought in curators who never had set foot in the Winter Antiques Show before,” says Mirviss, who has been exhibiting in the show for more than 30 years, presenting historical Japanese art. “And I had collectors of European ceramics, who had been coming to the fair for years, walk into my booth for the first time last year, when I showed more contemporary ceramics.”
As Mirviss’s ceramics indicate, stretching the dateline farther into the 20th century doesn’t just mean bringing in more 20th-century design. “When I started it had to be 100 years old, and that changed every year, so things that weren’t antique 50 years ago are quite antique now,” says miniature specialist Elle Shushan, who is celebrating her 13th year at the show. “I can bring more 20th century miniatures now.” She also notes the welcome opportunity to help educate new collectors who might never have come to the fair before the dateline changed.
“It’s crucial to get the younger collectors involved and for them to realize that there are masterpieces and very affordable items from antiquity to the 1970s,” agrees Leigh Keno, who participated in the Winter Antiques Show as a specialist in American antiques for 23 years before launching his own auction house, where he now mixes everything from 17th-century American furniture to Zaha Hadid. “And the broader range of material you have, the more of a must-do the show becomes.”