Published: October 26, 2021
By Laura Beach
WATERFORD, CONN. – In the early spring of 2019, Karen DiSaia – dealer, show manager and volunteer – was working with Diana Bittel and the Philadelphia Museum of Art to organize the Philadelphia Antiques and Art Show. Conversation turned to a discussion of accompanying programs. The book Fewer, Better Things: The Hidden Wisdom of Objects was recently out and someone suggested that author Glenn Adamson might be persuaded to speak at the show. DiSaia had not yet read the book, but its theme struck a chord.
More recently, in his Antiques essay “Of Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax…and a Red Wheelbarrow,” Adamson made a case for approaching objects though poetry – the intuitive, sensual and emotional language of poetry more nearly matching the hard-to-pinpoint power great objects exert over us. A poetic approach to art and antiques moves us beyond blunt physical description, past the crass shorthand of dollars and cents that too often dominates artworld commentary. It is an approach to art and life that Karen DiSaia, for all her marketplace savvy, has instinctively pursued since becoming a dealer in the late 1970s.
In recognition of their contributions to the antiques and art trade, the Antiques Dealers’ Association of America (ADA) is honoring Karen and her late husband, Ralph DiSaia, with the ADA Award of Merit, the prize to be presented at a dinner on November 5 in conjunction with the Delaware Antiques Show. Ralph died November 22, 2019, having recently learned of the recognition, the celebration of which was originally planned for April 2020.
“For decades they promoted the antiques and art business as dealers, as ADA members and as show promoters – and as ambassadors of professionalism, kindness and having a good time while you’re hard at work,” ADA president Steven Powers said.
Karen is spiritual, though not always in a traditional sense. Last year in Utila, on one of the snorkeling trips to Honduras she regularly takes with family and friends, she whiled away the hours in a hammock by the sea, letting the wind envelope her. “I just drifted, hour after hour. It was very healing.” After Ralph’s death she visited St John’s Episcopal Church in Niantic, Conn., where the priest, Tony Dinoto, is an old friend with whom she once chaired the Mystic Outdoor Art Festival. Over the years and for various reasons, she took strength from reiki, a Japanese approach to energy healing, and Kosho Ryu, the martial arts technique emphasizing physical and mental balance. She says the latter altered the way she experiences art, noting, “Kosho trains you to live in the moment. When you are right here, you see the absolute beauty of what is in front of you.”
A gifted dealer recognizes art’s emotional power and communicates it to others. Karen says, “People look at objects superficially. They don’t see their depth, emotional energy, the many hours that went into making them.” Her approach to living with art has been to surround herself with pieces that tell stories. “Ralph and I were eclectic. I can’t honestly say we ever looked for anything specific. If an object spoke to us and we wanted to live with it, we figured out how to do it.”
Ralph and Karen reared their three children – Adam, Logan and Rachel – in Waterford, Conn., in a large, contemporary house whose sunny interiors burst with whimsy, color and narrative detail. Serab runners and fragments of old Oriental rugs, sewn into pillows and tossed casually onto chairs and sofas, spoke to their professional expertise. They acquired folky twig, marquetry and painted furniture from dealer friends and local vintage shops. A prized purchase from Ohio dealer Marjorie Stauffer, an Amish quilt with blue spheres dancing across its surface, has been with Karen since 1976, before she married Ralph or even owned a house. “I love its color and movement, its looseness and dynamism. A quilt is a fascinating little vignette of how a person thinks,” she says.
Ralph and Karen regularly attended the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen’s annual fair and the American Artisan Show in Wilton, Conn., where they bought handmade furniture and folk art ranging from a burlwood table to comical figures by Jim Lambert of Hillsborough, N.H. From Michael Newsom and Betty Berdan came carvings by Frank Finney. The couple assembled paintings of Monhegan Island, a favorite vacation destination in Maine, by Don Stone, Alison Hill, Andrew Winter, John Oat and Ted Tihansky, whose make-do picture frames Karen especially loves. Shells adorned their mantel and filled a glass-and-faux coral coffee table, an homage to the shore created by sculptor Louise Wiley, known for the Old Saybrook, Conn., landmark “A Boy Fishing.”
Karen was in high school when her family moved from Ohio to Madison, Conn. “My father had died and my mother, a free spirit, wanted a new start,” says the antiquarian, who began college at American University in Washington, DC, and finished at the University of Northern Colorado. An athletic kid from southern Rhode Island who spent his teen years working as a lifeguard, Ralph attended Providence College, where he captained the tennis team. He subsequently coached teams at Connecticut College, Saint Bernard School and, from 2003 to 2019, Waterford High School with distinction. “I’ve never won a point. The kids do all the work,” he told Antiques and The Arts Weekly with characteristic modesty.
Introduced by friends and together for 40 years, Karen and Ralph met at the Lyme Shores Tennis Club in 1979 and married two years later. As Ralph later recalled, “Karen introduced me to antiques soon after we met. I found it interesting and enjoyed the hands-on activity. I liked the personal interaction with buyers and sellers and found the pursuit of exceptional rugs, notable for their age, design, coloration and condition, very rewarding.”
The couple shared a succession of houses along the shore, moving from Ashaway, R.I., to Connecticut to be nearer their shop, Oriental Rugs Ltd., initially in Factory Square in downtown Mystic. With ambitions for a high-end gallery, they purchased and renovated the old Noyes Dry Goods store, now Mystical Toys, adjacent to Mystic’s famous drawbridge.
“When I started dealing full-time in 1978, Oriental rugs were going to Europe. I wanted to create a market here. Initially it was easy. Prices were going up so fast you could hardly make a mistake. You’d buy a rug and sell it in two or three weeks. Ralph and I took over the Noyes building, put in wood floors and museum walls. Business was great. Then the market crashed. We regrouped, sold the building and dealt from home before opening another shop in Old Lyme, Conn.,” she remembers.
Over time, the DiSaias progressed from exhibitors to professional show organizers, Karen often serving as fair director and Ralph as facilities manager. Show manager Russell Carrell was instrumental in their rise. “Eventually we did 27 shows a year, of which half a dozen were Russell’s flea markets. We once sold a Mohtashem Kashan carpet at Russell’s Antiques in A Cow Pasture flea market in Salisbury, Conn. It was pretty amazing.”
With Carrell aging, his dealers began thinking about how they could preserve his portfolio of shows beyond his eventual retirement. With Chuck and Jill Probst of Charles Edwin, Inc., and Bill Pillsbury and Robin Michel of Pillsbury-Michel, Inc., they hatched plans for the Antiques Council, organized in 1990. As recorded in a photo of the time, they were joined by Jesse Leatherwood, Ken and Sylvia Reiss, Bob Nimmo and John Hart, Stuart Horn, Ricky Goytizolo, Pat Guthman, Kathy Schoemer, Bob Baker, Lee Hanes and Joy Ruskin and Nina Hellman.
The group’s first mission was to save the Southport-Westport Antiques Show. “We had been cooking up the idea of the Antiques Council for a few years. I can remember being in restaurants, looking around to make sure no one overheard because it was such a subversive idea at the time. If you worked for a manager, you did what he or she said or got booted from everything. We went to the Southport-Westport committee, made a proposal and were accepted. We all worked as volunteers and had a phenomenal collective experience,” Karen says.
Known for his technical ingenuity and consummate professionalism, Ralph as facilities manager was all but indispensable. “If there was so much as a cockroach, I’d scream, and Ralph would be there. He was gracious, modest, never lost his cool and always did what needed to be done,” Diana Bittel, who like the DiSaias learned the art of show management as an Antiques Council volunteer before going pro, told Antiques and The Arts Weekly.
Ralph and Karen became professional show managers in 2003 at the encouragement of retiring Midwestern manager Robert Lawler, who asked them to take on the Minneapolis Institute of Arts Antiques Show, where the DiSaias had exhibited for 14 years. Of their many subsequent shows, two of the most significant were the Philadelphia Antiques and Art Show, which Ralph and Karen ran for five years in a highly successful partnership with Diana Bittel, and the American Antiques Show, owned by the American Folk Art Museum and the successor to New York’s Fall Antiques Show. Initially hesitant about the latter, Karen told exhibitor Arthur Liverant, “I don’t know anything about New York or its union labor. I wouldn’t be good at the job.” “Nonsense, you’ll learn,” replied the dealer, who along with museum trustee Barry Briskin persuaded DiSaia Management to take the assignment.
An ADA member who served as the organization’s vice president and secretary, Karen, with Ralph’s support, also managed the ADA/Historic Deerfield Antiques Show, now awaiting a new venue. DiSaia Management’s current portfolio consists of the Washington Winter Show, Objects of Desire, the Connecticut Spring Antiques Show, the New York Botanical Garden Antique Garden Furniture Fair and Antiques in Manchester. In each setting, the couple made close friends, perhaps none more so than Jonathan G. Willen, the Washington Winter Show’s executive director. Of Willen, Karen says, “We’ve had wonderful times together. We were once kicked out of the Chevy Chase Club for laughing too hard.”
Antiques in Manchester, a destination event that draws buyers from around the country, is DiSaia Management’s biggest single contribution to the antiques calendar. As Liverant observes, “A lot of dealers didn’t have the opportunity to get into the New Hampshire Antiques Show. Karen saw the possibility for something special, using New Hampshire Antiques Week as a departure point. It’s a great weekend for everybody, and it’s Karen’s personality that makes Antiques in Manchester so special.”
Remembering her years as a show dealer, Karen marvels, “I’ve always wondered how we could be so close to people we saw so infrequently. Other industries don’t have this sense of community. But we’re in each other’s homes and on the road together. We grew up together professionally. It was intimate because we understood so much about each other’s lives.”
Karen’s deepest familial bonds are, of course, with her children and grandchildren. Adam – who lives in Portland, Ore., with his wife, Karly, and their child, Eero – has visited Connecticut since Ralph’s death, but the pandemic coupled with the extended closure of the US-Canada border has prevented Karen from traveling to Toronto, where Rachel and her partner, Laurie Stewart, live with their children, Carter and Dylan. The family compensates by getting together on Zoom on Sundays to do the New York Times crossword puzzle.
“It’s been hard. We’ve seen my mother only once since my dad’s funeral. But the weekly crossword is a nice way to connect. You find out so much about each other based on what you know, and how you know it. And my kids love calling Nani,” says Rachel, who is project manager and writer for the Standing Strong Task Force at Ryerson University. The university recently accepted the task force’s recommendation to rename the institution and cease commemoration of Egerton Ryerson, whose legacy as a colonial figure has been tied to the Indian Residential School System, segregation and cultural genocide.
Rachel and her brother, Adam, creative technology director at Cinco Design in Portland, Ore., are slated to speak at the November 5 dinner. Rachel notes, “It’s easy to talk about my dad. He was funny and helpful. He made people smile, laugh and feel connected. But even without my dad, who was so central to everything, my mother shines. She is so passionate about the antiques industry, so thoughtful about how to bring it credibility and excitement, how to engage new people and to support dealers. She is an incredibly powerful and accomplished person.”
Rachel and Adam’s brother, Logan, who is disabled, will not attend. His physical limitations have demanded the best of the family, encouraging resilience and unity, but also independence. Rachel says, “My dad in particular always wanted Logan to feel included in every aspect of life. When you own your own business and have a high-needs child, everything becomes one. In our home there were no boundaries between work and family. Whereas a lot of people just see systems and frustrations, my mother always meets people at a human level. It’s why she connects so well. She discovers what you need and does what she can to be supportive and accommodating. When you raise a child with disabilities, you become very good at bringing down barriers.”
“I’m beginning to feel more like a whole person again instead of half of two people,” Karen told us some months after Ralph’s death. She had gone vegan and was practicing Yin Yoga, an approach to movement incorporating meditation. Best of all, she had become reacquainted with Fritz Anlyan. They were close in high school – Karen was Fritz’s date for his senior prom – but drifted apart over the decades as Fritz lived in California. Inseparable since last summer, the couple was planning a long-awaited trip to Greece this fall when we last spoke.
Of her many projects over many years, one that stays with Karen is “Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red and White Quilts,” an exhibition of bed coverings sponsored by the American Folk Art Museum and installed at New York’s Park Avenue Armory in March 2011. Even now, she considers it a “peak experience in my business life. All these beautiful quilts, suspended from the ceiling and swirling about you. Visitors would come into the room and just stand and be overwhelmed with the emotion of all that loving energy.”
Feeling the emotion, eliminating distractions, following Adamson’s counsel to concentrate on what is best is Karen’s prescription for the antiques business, driven online by the pandemic and, like Karen, rediscovering and reinventing itself. She says, “People need to collect with their hearts, without an eye toward investment or what’s stylish. Too many people buy without seeing, without understanding the essence of what’s before them.”
ADA Award Of Merit Dinner
The ADA Award of Merit will be presented to Karen and the late Ralph DiSaia on November 5 at the Delaware Antiques Show, Chase Center on the Riverfront, 815 Justison Street in Wilmington. For tickets, contact ADA executive director Judith Livingston Loto at 603-942-6498 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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