Published: April 9, 2002
By Laura Beach
PHILADELPHIA, PENN. – By 8 pm on Saturday, weary Philadelphia Antiques Show exhibitors would normally be wrapping up business and calling it a day. But on the evening of April 6, collectors were still pressing onto the floor of the 33rd Street Armory, where dealers from the several shows around town clustered in animated conversation.
All were there with a common purpose, to join the Antiques Dealers Association of America in honoring New York dealer and legend Albert Sack, recipient of the ADA’s first award to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the antiques industry.
“Tonight I feel proud to be a dealer. There’s a bond that we respect but rarely honor,” noted ADA president John Keith Russell, welcoming nearly 300 guests. The love shared by those with
Over dinner, Morrison H. Heckscher, chairman of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, listed the qualities that have defined the recipient. “The name Sack is synonymous with a contagious, youthful enjoyment of American furniture; with an aggressive, visceral engagement with the goods.” Sack’s enduring contribution, said the curator, is his book, Fine Points of Furniture: Early American, first published in 1950. “Albert’s standard’s are impeccable, unrelenting,” said Heckscher. With a comic flourish, he added, “Imagine if the book had included bad, worse and worst!”
“This is a great honor bestowed on a great man,” said Robert Sack, Albert’s brother and the youngest of Israel Sack’s three sons. “When I came into the business it was Albert who guided me. Harold was working in the plastics business at the time. Dad was on the road. I learned everything from Albert, and it is thanks to him that I met men like Henry du Pont.” Quipped Robert, “Albert taught me everything, even how to drive. I’ve driven two million miles without a ticket!”
Atlanta dealer Deanne Levison, who commuted to New York through much of the 1990s to work at Israel Sack Inc, provided the fondest, and most playful, memories of daily life with her colleague and mentor. Setting humor aside, she acknowledged Sack as a pivotal force in her life. “It is very rare to be afforded a lifelong and totally devoted mentor. Albert, when my father died, you picked me up and never, ever let me down,” said Levison, her voice choked with emotion. “I am deeply grateful that our paths crossed so long ago and that you have always been my friend. Thank you, Albert. I love you.”
Sack’s letters to Levison, from which she shared a few excerpts, exquisitely convey the essence of a dealer’s daily quest for the beautiful and underscore the rare affection that the friends had for each other, an affection rooted in their passion for American design. “Dear Lollipop, This day was one of the most memorable days in my life, or in Zeke’s or Arthur’s,” Sack had penned. He had traveled to Nathan Liverant & Son in Colchester, Conn., for the unveiling of a William and Mary Boston japanned high chest of drawers and matching dressing table that the Liverants had recently secured from a local family.
As the evening grew late, people came and went but the dealers stayed late into the night. In mesmerizing detail, Sack described the “bright japanning” and “brilliant figures” of birds, animals and people that made the treasures unlike any he had known before. As history records, Sack subsequently sold the matched pieces to the late Virginia collector George Kaufman and his wife, Linda. The Sacks later repurchased the high chest for more than a $1 million. It is now at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
“I’m the spring chicken,” said Philadelphia Museum of Art Curator Jack Lindsey, whose association with Sack is more recent. As a young man in Asheville, N.C., the future curator pored over Israel Sack Inc’s advertisements in The Magazine Antiques with local auctioneer Robert Brunk.
Lindsey’s great aunt — “half Quaker, half High-Mountain Episcopalian, and a battle axe” — encouraged him to meet the Sacks, who, as a collector, she had found “surprisingly intelligent and congenial for Yankees.” Years later, Lindsey informed his great aunt that he had not only met Albert Sack, but that the dealer had called him for advice, proof that the young professional had arrived. Later, Lindsey inherited Sack furniture from his great aunt’s estate, along with the note, “This is congratulations for the phone call.”
To the curator’s recollections, ADA member Skip Chalfant added the views of a dealer. On a humorous note, he recalled turning up at Israel Sack Inc in New York, only to have Albert exclaim, “What are you doing in here? You can’t buy from us. We’re ridiculous!” Chalfant’s final memory was of an antiques dealer in New York visited by film stars Helen Hunt and Harrison Ford. As the dealer approached, Harrison Ford was overheard to say, “Look! Here comes Albert Sack.” Concluded Chalfant, “Everyone has his heroes. Albert, you’re mine.”
Wendell Garrett, editor-at-large at The Magazine Antiques and senior vice president at Sotheby’s, described Sack as a man of “keen intelligence, seasoned wisdom, staunch integrity, loyalty, generosity, and zest for life.” With a few picturesque touches, the orator conjured memories of the Great Depression, when Albert Sack joined the struggling family firm. “F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong when he said there are no second acts in American lives,” Garrett concluded, noting the recent closing of Israel Sack Inc and the 87-year-old award winner’s move to Portsmouth, N.H., where he is working as a consultant to Northeast Auctions.
After the official program ended, John Hays of Christie’s made an impromptu presentation of a New York Yankees ball cap and jersey to Sack.
Credit for the highly successful evening goes in large part to ADA officer Arthur Liverant, who hatched the plan with John Russell. (Ironically, their first conference call with Skip Chalfant and Amy Finkel, on September 11, was cut short by the terrorist attacks on the United States.) Taking the podium, Arthur said his first memory of Albert is as a guest in the Liverant home. The six-year-old awoke to find a man sitting in white shorts, white T-shirt and long black socks, reading The Magazine Antiques. Liverant ended his comments with the observation, “Albert Sack taught us value in quality and friendship. There is no better friend than Albert Sack.”
“It would be impossible for me to convey all the emotions I feel,” Albert Sack said in response. “I’ve been in the business for 68 years. This evening is a kaleidoscope of my life. I’m thinking of all the people who are here, and so many who are not.”
Sack individually cited those closest to him: his brothers and his father, Israel, who “was the biggest dealer in the country in 1929. His whole life was built on integrity.” Albert Sack made his early career on the road, and it is the dealers, particularly in Boston and Philadelphia, that he remembers most. “They were an amazing group. They struggled, without books and guidelines. Their greatness makes me proud to be part of this world.”
Sack acknowledged the Liverants: his best friend Zeke, who passed away a year and a half ago; Arthur, who he regards as a son; Zeke’s widow Joanna, and Arthur’s wife Gigi. “They all came here to join me in this celebration,” said Sack proudly. Of Nancy Johnson, who assisted Sack in his business in recent years, the award winner said, “After Harold died, she gave me the courage to go on.”
Of Deanne Levison, he explained, “When I met her, she was a little Southern dealer. They told me, ‘She’s trying to do in Atlanta what we do in New York.’ I said, ‘I feel sorry for her.'” A moment later, Sack added, more seriously, “What I didn’t say was that I was in love with her.”
Israel Sack, who died in 1959, never lived to see what Albert Sack called “the second coming of American furniture,” the spectacular appreciation of American furniture that resulted in the sale of the Nicholas Brown desk-and-bookcase for nearly $12 million, a record, in 1989. He did not live to see the trinity of interest that his sons helped forge among dealers, collectors and curators. But he understood, said Albert, the “trust, faith, friendship and dedication” that makes the buying and selling of antiques the rewarding profession that it is.
Wendell Garrett summed up the spirit of the evening when he said to Albert Sack, “We, your friends, collectors, colleagues and kindred spirits, honor you and, in so doing, honor ourselves.”
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