Published: October 19, 2004
An inconspicuous door in the Park Avenue showroom of James Robinson, Inc, opens to a narrow staircase lined with vintage photographs of the people and places of old New York. Portraits of the dapper Robinson and his brother-in-law and successor Edward Munves, Sr, join views of the half dozen galleries that the company has occupied since its founding in 1912. The sequence illustrates both the restless impermanence of the Manhattan skyline and the sheer longevity of the city’s finest antiques emporia.
Over the years, many of these firms have been members of the National Antique and Art Dealers Association of America. Since its founding in 1954, the by-invitation-only organization has stood for the virtues encouraging such durability: expertise and ethical practices; a visceral passion for objects coupled with a stubborn commitment to one’s craft; a reliance on family; and, not least of all, a desire to pass accumulated wisdom to succeeding generations.
Gilded-Age mansions still studded Upper Fifth Avenue when James Robinson began selling antique silver and Chinese porcelain there in the 1920s. Before and after World War II, many of New York’s leading dealers, Robinson among them, moved to 57th Street, giving rise to the thoroughfare’s reputation as one of the world’s most rarified rialtos.
In 1953, James Robinson, Inc, moved to 12 East 57th Street, installing its silver vault in what had originally been the wine cellar of the venerated Paris picture dealers Durand-Ruel. From Robinson it was a short walk to A La Vieille Russie, famous for having introduced the Russian goldsmith and jeweler Faberge to the United States; Israel Sack, Inc, the premier dealer in American furniture; and Ralph M. Chait Galleries.
A self-taught expert in Chinese art who arrived in New York from London in 1909, Chait – later with his son, Allan, and daughter, Marion C. Howe – developed an international clientele that included Frank Lloyd Wright, Nelson Rockefeller and Sir Percival David. A new generation of collectors has been guided by Chait’s grandsons, former NAADAA president Andrew Chait and board member Steven Chait, both of whom joined the family business in the 1980s.
A shopper strolling eastward along 57th Street just after World War II might have marveled at the staggering abundance of treasure on the market. There was Ackermann & Son and Needham’s, repositories of fine English furniture and accessories; and Rosenberg & Stiebel, unsurpassed for Old Master pictures and Continental decorative arts. Known for Eighteenth Century European lighting, Nesle moved to 57th Street in the late 1930s.
“There must have been 30 antiques dealers within two blocks of us,” recalls Anthony Victoria. “My father, Frederick C. Victoria, started out in 1933 with ‘colorful’ English furniture: Regency, Adam, Hepplewhite and Kent. By the 1960s, he handled quite a bit of French furniture. He followed his eye, as I do,” says the dealer.
Three days after marrying in his native England in February 1937, Eric Shrubsole sailed to New York with his bride. The silver specialist opened his first shop at 19 West 57th Street, above the glamorous retailer Henri Bendel. He rented the long gallery with enormous plate-glass windows from his future client, William Randolph Hearst. Shrubsole soon befriended Alex Lewis, who arrived in New York in 1927 as a dealer in Continental porcelain and English furniture. Lewis returned to London in 1958. He died there in 1969, aged 74.
For a time, the firms of S.J. Shrubsole and James A. Lewis & Son stood side by side on 57th Street between Madison and Park. With much in common professionally, the dealers saw a need for “an exclusive organization,” as Ackermann wrote to Saemy Rosenberg and Eric Stiebel, “to protect and further the interests of those dealing primarily in authentic antiques and objects of art in New York City.”
A Fateful Meeting
On May 13, 1954, Shrubsole, Lewis, and a handful of their colleagues met at Stair & Company, 59 East 57th Street, to form the New York Antique and Art Dealers Association. Lewis was elected president. Alastair Stair and Ralph M. Chait were named vice presidents; Shrubsole, secretary; John P. Conklin, Jr, of Arthur S. Vernay, Inc, treasurer; and Frank Caro and Edward Munves, Sr, directors. Other founding members included Ackermann, A La Vieille Russie, A&R Ball, French & Company, James Graham & Sons, Kent-Costikyan, Needham’s Antiques, Frank Partridge, Rosenberg & Stiebel, Israel Sack, Tonying & Co., John S. Walton and J.J. Wolff Ltd.
The founders also extended invitations to Blumka, the century-and-a-half-old source for medieval and Renaissance works of art; The Old Print Shop, the 105-year-old purveyor of American prints, books and other works on paper; Ginsburg & Levy; Kennedy Galleries; D.M. & P. Manheim; Wildenstein & Co.; and M. Knoedler & Co. All but Knoedler subsequently joined the group, which by 1965 had changed its name to the National Antique and Art Dealers Association of America in recognition of its new policy of admitting members from outside New York.
One of the first out-of-state dealers to join, in 1966, was Malcolm Franklin, the Chicago expert in English furniture. Franklin was followed by Alfred Bullard of Philadelphia and Elinor Gordon of Villanova, Penn., in 1968; silver and jewelry specialist Firestone and Parson of Boston, in 1971; California dealers Richard Gould Antiques and Dillingham & Company, in 1972 and 1984; Anthony Stuempfig of Philadelphia, in 1984; and English furniture dealers Gary Young of Delaware and Georgian Manor Antiques of Massachusetts, in 1988 and 2001. Paris dealer Didier Aaron became a member shortly after it opened its New York branch, headed by Herve Aaron, in 1977.
With collecting tastes changing, Peter Schaffer of A La Vieille Russie persuaded NAADAA to welcome leading experts in Twentieth Century design. The first to be admitted, in 1980, was Lillian Nassau, the pioneering dealer in Art Nouveau and Art Deco works. Nassau’s public legacy includes the celebrated Tiffany mosaic mural in the courtyard of the American Wing and a stunning Lalique necklace, both gifts from the dealer to The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
More recently, Barry Friedman, Ltd, joined NAADAA’s ranks with a well-honed reputation as a tastemaker and scholar of European Twentieth Century avant-garde art and design. Philadelphia-based John Alexander, Ltd, is an expert in English and Scottish Arts and Crafts, Gothic Revival, and Aesthetic movement works of art.
The varied and increasingly sophisticated field of antiquities is represented by two New York dealers: Ward & Company, specialists in ancient through medieval art, and Doris Wiener Gallery, known for Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian antiquities, painting and sculpture. Thomas Colville is a private dealer in American and European Nineteenth Century art. New Yorker Clinton Howell is well regarded for English furniture, paintings and works of art.
The death of Oriental rug dealer Lee Howard Beshar, NAADAA’s popular president between 1984 and 1988, left a gap today filled by Fred Moheban Gallery, the Fifth Avenue specialists in rare and unusual Oriental and European carpets and tapestries.
From its beginning, NAADAA sought to put beautiful objects in the way of appreciative people. Its first official project was organizing “Art Treasures Exhibition,” which opened for two weeks on June 16, 1955. Parke-Bernet’s salesroom was cleared of all but a few portable fans to make room for nearly 400 examples of fine and decorative art lent by 21 association members, 13 museums and 73 of the greatest private collectors of the day, from the Chryslers, Clarks, Garbisches and Huttons to the Joynts, Kahns, Lehmans and Linskys.
Calling it the most notable exhibition of art and antiques ever staged in New York outside of a museum, The New York Times rhapsodized on such rarities as a Chinese porcelain vase decorated with a single peach blossom, a gift from Chinese royalty to President Theodore Roosevelt, shown by Ralph M. Chait Galleries, to James Graham & Sons full-length portrait of a splendidly attired George IV of England by Sir Thomas Lawrence.
In 1962, NAADAA was recognized by La Confédération Internationale des Négociants en Oeuvres d’Art (CINOA), an international consortium of national art and antiques associates representing 5,000 of the world’s leading dealers in 21 countries.
It was under CINOA’s auspices that NAADAA and its sister organization, the Art and Antique Dealers League of America, founded in New York in 1926, organized “The Grand Gallery” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The title was suggested by the museum’s director, Thomas Hoving.
Writing to Shrubsole on February 21, 1973, Hoving explained, “The show will consist of superb paintings and objets d’art that are available on the international market through the major dealers…Not only is this the first exhibition of its kind at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, but I believe that this is the first exhibition of this sort ever held in the United States.”
Coordinated by Penelope Hunter for the museum and NAADAA’s vice president Gerald G. Stiebel, “The Grand Gallery” opened for 12 weeks on October 19, 1974. Three hundred seventeen works – including Dutch and Italian painting, English and American furniture, silver, ceramics, primitives and even musical instruments – were handsomely displayed on platforms or hung in tiers. At Hoving’s initiative, the museum embellished the presentation with selections from its own holdings of more than 400 objects, many antiquities, acquired early in the Twentieth Century through the renowned dealers Joseph and Ernest Brummer.
“Magnificent,” sighs Eric Shrubsole today, leafing through the crimson jacketed catalog produced for the occasion, pausing to admire his own loan, a Cornelius Keirstede of New York armorial tankard.
The undisputed highlight of “The Grand Gallery” was a Fifteenth Century Italian tempera and gilt on panel painting by Andrea Mantegna, lent by P&D Colnaghi & Co., Ltd, of London. From the moment “The Descent Into Limbo” arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport, where it was met by security personnel, until mid-January, when the work was carefully repacked in its crate, it stirred sensation. Years later, Johnson & Johnson heiress Barbara Piasecka Johnson acquired the work, which Sotheby’s subsequently auctioned in 2003 for a record $29,568,000.
Though nothing in “The Grand Gallery” was officially for sale, the whiff of commerce in the museum’s hallowed halls prompted scattered complaint. Typically iconoclastic, Hoving dismissed the criticism, explaining, “It’s a recognition of the role of the commercial art dealer, without whom museums in this country would be in a sad state.”
“Prejudices remain, but attitudes towards dealers are totally different today,” says Stiebel, who subsequently helped plan “Experts’ Choice: 1000 Years of The Art Trade,” the seventh international CINOA exhibition, and a project in which NAADAA again participated, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 1983. When CINOA hosts its next international conference in New York in 2005, an event NAADAA will help arrange, it will be the organization’s first return to the United States in 22 years.
A Fair of Its Own
A staunch supporter of New York’s Winter Antiques Show, where many of its members had individually exhibited since its founding in 1955, NAADAA in 1958 proposed an association display, an initiative it continued well into the 1980s. For many years the exhibit occupied the entrance hall of the Seventh Regiment Armory. Notwithstanding the success of the association booth, which by 1975 grossed $90,000, NAADAA never abandoned its dream of having its own show.
“It is most essential that some scheme should be brought out that a show is given annually on the lines of the Grosvenor House Antique Dealers Fair,” Lewis, a co-founder of England’s foremost antiques showcase, wrote in 1967.
On February 28, 1989, nearly the entire NAADAA membership met at the Doris Leslie Blau Gallery in New York to hear Brian and Anna Haughton outline their plans for the International Fine Art and Antique Dealers Show, which the London-based organizers had been developing since 1986. Several months earlier, the Haughtons had been approached by NAADAA president Christian Jussel, who quickly formed a committee consisting of Herve Aaron of Didier Aaron, Inc, Mark Jacoby of Philip Colleck, Ltd, Albert Sack of Israel Sack, Inc, and Paul Vandekar of Earle D. Vandekar of Knightsbridge to work on the project.
Today regarded as one of the world’s top fairs, the International Fine Art and Antiques Dealers Show opened at New York’s Seventh Regiment Armory on the wiltingly warm evening of September 22, 1989. The co-operative venture between NAADAA and the Haughtons brought together 84 American and European dealers in roughly equal numbers.
“As the first major vetted show in New York, it changed the antiques scene overnight,” observes Mark Jacoby, who owns and directs Philip Colleck, Ltd, with his wife Diana. The couple met at the firm founded in 1938 by their mentor Philip Colleck, a colorful English dealer known for his fine taste in English furniture and accessories.
“Beginning in my father’s era, NAADAA has organized lectures by outstanding experts in various disciplines of the decorative arts,” says James Robinson, Inc’s chairman, Edward Munves, Jr, recalling one particularly successful symposium. “In Quest of Quality” drew an audience of nearly 400 to The Metropolitan Museum of Art for two days in May, 1981. Congratulating the dealers, museum president William B. Macomber subsequently noted, “I am certain that our audience learned a great deal about how and why major art collections are formed.”
“One of the aims of our organization is to have an educated buying public,” Peter Schaffer of A La Vieille Russie had insisted to journalist Robert MacNeil, inviting him to moderate the discussions whose panelists included some of the museum’s top curators; noted collectors Julian Ganz, Jr, Ronald S. Lauder, Norton Simon and Christopher Forbes; and the prominent dealers Lawrence Fleischman, Harold Sack, Robert Ellsworth, Lillian Nassau, Gerald Stiebel and Eugene Thaw.
Funding scholarship, including travel grants for curators and financial awards to promising young art historians, has been another important facet of the group’s ongoing educational efforts. It honored the 1993 founding of The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture by creating the NAADAA Fellowship, awarded to outstanding students with a scholarly interest in art and antiques.
The association has also stayed abreast of public policy affecting those who buy and sell art. “The passage of this bill is a major step forward,” John V. Lindsay, mayor of New York City, wrote NAADAA in 1964, thanking the association for its support in establishing the National Council on the Arts. In 1978, a US Senate subcommittee heard testimony from NAADAA president Gerald Stiebel on the repatriation of cultural property.
Gamblers, Detectives, Performers
Hoving admiringly called the world’s top dealers “a discreet presence,” describing them as “patrons, researchers, gamblers, detectives and performers,” something the editor, memoirist, sleuth, provocateur and impresario might also have said of himself.
Among themselves, NAADAA’s 40-plus members have an astounding 2,000 years of experience in their respective fields. Though their staffs are typically small, NAADAA firms employ a battalion of conservators working in porcelain and glass, on cabinet woods or lacquer, in bronze and precious metals. Scholarship has been greatly enhanced by the experience of dealers, says Henry Neville, president of Mallett, Inc, “who are continuously learning and sharing through their everyday work in handling and researching what they buy and sell.”
Publications have been a lasting way for NAADAA to share its expertise. Of the hundreds of books and catalogs produced by members over the years, many are treasured classics. In 1932, Harry Shaw Newman of The Old Print Shop defined the market for Currier & Ives lithographs when he and his friend Harry T. Peters convened a group of 12 collectors to choose the Best 50 Currier & Ives Large and Small Folio Prints, a project chronicled by the New York Sun. Likewise, Albert Sack’s Fine Points of Furniture: Early American, 1950, and Robert Hatfield Ellsworth’s Chinese Furniture, 1971, established the canon in their fields.
NAADAA’s role in shaping taste dates to the beginning of the Twentieth Century, when Arthur S. Vernay published his 1913 catalog, American Silhouettes by August Edouart: A Notable Collection of Portraits Taken Between 1839-1849. Ralph M. Chait’s pioneering studies of Chinese art appeared as early as 1919 in The International Studio. Elinor Gordon’s essential guide, Collecting Chinese Export Porcelain, has been reprinted several times since it first appeared in 1977.
The arrival of Leigh and Leslie Keno’s memoirs, Hidden Treasures: Searching for Masterpieces of American Furniture, in 2000, along with their starring roles on the television shows Antiques Roadshow and Find!, confirmed the celebrity of the twin brothers whose engaging passion for objects has drawn millions to antiques for the first time. Sumpter Priddy’s groundbreaking book, American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 1790-1840, has fundamentally changed the way historians and collectors regard an often misunderstood era. Prospectively, Carswell Rush Berlin is at work on American Classical Furniture: A Guide to Fashionable Furniture, 1805-1840, forthcoming from The Monacelli Press.
More specialized audiences have benefited from the exhibitions and accompanying catalogs produced by NAADAA’s many scholar-dealers. Lines formed around the block for A La Vieille Russie’s 1983 exhibition, “Faberge,” the first loan show of its kind in a generation. The gallery’s 1991 display of Russian Imperial porcelain featured an unprecedented loan from the Peterhof Palace Museum near St Petersburg.
Joan Mirviss has organized exhibitions at major museums across the United States and Japan in her 25 years as a private dealer. She is currently at work on “Dream Worlds: Modern Japanese Prints and Paintings from the Robert O. Muller Collection,” set to open at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., on November 6.
Other NAADAA members are remembered less for what they wrote than for what they knew, said and did. Beginning in the 1940s, Cora Ginsburg, who died at 92 in 2002, earned a worldwide reputation as the doyenne of textiles and costume. Her leadership is continued by her protégée, Titi Halle.
The collections of the world’s greatest museums are dominated by examples of painting, sculpture, furniture, porcelain, silver and objets d’art – too many to mention, in all – that passed through the hands of NAADAA members.
“The Antique Porcelain Company has pieces everywhere – in the Louvre in Paris, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond,” says Michele Beiny Harkins, recalling, in particular, the large Meissen animals that are a beloved specialty of her firm.
Exceptional works handled by Ward & Company over the past decade include a Sixth Century AD Byzantine mosaic at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and a circa 350-325 BC stele with a hunter at the J. Paul Getty Museum.
In the White House, an American card table with a fully articulated carved-eagle base stands united with its mate, thanks to the efforts of Carswell Rush Berlin, who brought the two together in 1996 after discovering the Washington table’s mate in California. After the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, privately expressed interest in acquiring important examples of American Classical furniture, the New York dealer sold the institution an 1830 Philadelphia secretary bookcase by Anthony G. Quervelle. The masterpiece is proof that choice pieces are still quietly coming onto the market.
“NAADAA is a symbol of authenticity and a banner for expertise,” says Enrique Goytizolo, who came to New York from his native Peru to study interior design. Inspired by the elegant English furniture and stylish presentation of dealers such as Needham’s, he founded Georgian Manor Antiques in 1970. Goytizolo soon developed a loyal clientele within the diplomatic community, thanks to the patronage of a prominent United Nations official.
For many NAADAA members, such candid, informal exchange on the events of the day – for many years over dinner at L’Aiglon – is the most compelling reason for decades-long fealty to one’s comrades.
“I am …beginning to doubt that this organization can survive in the long run. I am almost beginning to wonder if we have a right to,” Robert Samuels wrote Alex Lewis many years ago. French & Company’s president need not have feared.
The National Antique and Art Dealers Association of America has flourished. As Eric Shrubsole not so long ago remarked, “The welfare of our association is now in the hands of the young men and women, some of whom are the sons and daughters of our founding members, and we even have now some grandchildren as well.”
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