Published: January 16, 2001
Henry S. Coger, Antiques Dealer
DALLAS, TEX. – Henry S. Coger, a style-setting dealer in American folk art who left his mark as half of the firm Bihler and Coger Antiques, died on January 11. He was diagnosed in December with brain cancer and had been undergoing treatment in Dallas, his home for the past two decades.
Born October 11, 1925, Mr Coger grew up in Evening Shade, Ark. He entered the business after meeting John Bihler, an antiques dealer in Chicago. Mr Bihler, his lifelong partner, died in 1986.
After moving to New York, Bihler and Coger began exhibiting at the most important shows of the day, among them the White Plains Antiques Show, the 34th Street Armory Antiques Show, and the Coliseum Antiques Show. The events were managed by the entrepreneur Cliff Nuttall. In the late 1950s, Nuttall hired a young assistant, Diane Wendy, who continues the business under her name, operating shows in the New York metropolitan area and Chicago.
“Henry was a true antiquarian,” Mrs Wendy recalled. “He loved the business. It was his life. Henry and John had exquisite taste and were very good for one another. John had the sense of humor but Henry had the charisma. People were absolutely drawn to him. He also had tremendous knowledge and an instinct for antiques.”
“White Plains was really an American show,” the manager continued. “Most of the dealers were from New England. A few were from Pennsylvania. They were the best in the business – Matthew and Elisabeth Sharpe, Avis and Rocky Gardiner, and John Bihler and Henry Coger. White Plains was tremendous fun. People played cards at night, flirted at night. The business wasn’t nearly so serious.”
Nuttall had two shows at the 34th Street Armory and one at the Coliseum in Manhattan. Bihler and Coger were regular exhibitors. “I exhibited at the Coliseum show in those days,” remembered Sanford Smith, the New York show promoter. “On Sundays the show got huge crowds of lookers. Henry and John used to rope off their booth. Henry would sit in a big easy chair with his half glasses on and crochet.”
Above all, Henry Coger was known for folk art, said Southport, Conn., dealer Bill Guthman. “Bihler and Coger had stoneware, weathervanes, whirligigs and decoys. I bought some painted militia material – drums, knapsacks and the like – from them. I vividly remember Bihler and Coger outbidding me on a terrific drum at Skinner, back when Skinner held his auctions under a tent.”
“Leigh and I bought a great stoneware crock with a eagle flying over a radiating sun from Henry at the Bennington show,” noted Leslie Keno, a senior vice president at Sotheby’s. “Henry had wonderful taste in objects and a lot of style as a person.”
“Their taste was impeccable,” agreed New Hampshire auctioneer Ron Bourgeault. “Once Henry sold a trestle table to Betsy Wyeth and asked me if I would help him deliver it to the Wyeth home in Maine. A man came to the door – it was Christina’s house – and said that Betsy was away but he hoped that he could fill in. The man was Andrew Wyeth.”
Bihler and Coger perfected the art of the deal, noted Scarsdale, N.Y., appraiser Helaine Fendelman. “They were the first dealers I’d seen hold court. They made presentations to important clients in their booth as if it was their living room. They’d ply people with art, antiques, coffee, tea and banter. They were wonderfully inventive, a show within a show.”
“They set the pace for a lot of younger dealers, including myself. They scoured the flea markets and shops, and constantly walked the floors of shows looking for material,” said Gerald Kornblau, a Claverack, N.Y. dealer who exhibited with Bihler and Coger in New York. “In my opinion, they helped put the focus on folk art. They didn’t necessarily polish the diamond, but they recognized it and conveyed it to their clients.”
In the early 1950s, after having inherited several Louis Vuitton trunks packed with haute couture clothing and accessories from an aunt in Paris, East Side House Settlement board member Mrs Norris Harkness suggested to Mrs Lindquist that the charity raise money by taking a booth at the Madison Square Garden Antiques Show the following March. From this booth evolved the Winter Antiques Show, which debuted in January 1955. Bihler and Coger helped plan the event, now in its 47th year.
“Room settings, some of them highly elaborate undertakings, are the order of the show,” The New York Times reported the first year. Over the decades, some of the most memorable stands belonged to Bihler and Coger, who exhibited at the Winter Antiques Show through 1977.
“Henry and John would come into East Side with a few things, then buy all over the floor to set up their booth,” said Peter Tillou, a Litchfield, Conn., dealer who joined the Winter Antiques Show in 1961. “They had very adventurous taste and created fabulous settings. Beyond the selling, they really loved objects. And they were delightful fun.”
“Their booths were magic. Once they brought in a whole shopfront from London – glass, doors, everything,” remembered Stonington, Conn., dealer Marguerite Riordan, who moved into Bihler and Coger’s booth at the Winter Antiques Show after the pair withdrew. “They were best known as folk art dealers. They’d have a great cigar store figure, a great weathervane.”
“If you were in the Russell Carrell tent you got to know John and Henry,” said Sandwich, Mass., dealer Paul Madden, who was a regular exhibitor in Carrell’s circuit of shows. “They were absolutely outrageous. They were the tops, Broadway and big lights. They had the best booth, the best stuff, and they put it together with a great eye. If you had something great, you saved it for John and Henry. They took tremendous chances, and paid tremendous prices. If something fabulous turned up, they had it. They made the business exciting.”
Bihler and Coger bought and restored two homes in Ashley Falls, Mass. Neighbor Tom Wilson, of Lewis & Wilson Antiques, recalls the couple’s good taste, extensive knowledge and their influence on their colleagues in western Massachusetts. “This has been an area for antiques for about 40 years,” said Wilson. “The first people here were Dotty and Harry Weiss, old-time dealers. They owned the little red brick house at the intersection. John and Henry’s first house was quite beautiful. They sold it. Their second house was an old mill house with a barn. It was always in a state of flux, to put it politely. John and Henry got Lois Spring, a well-known antiques dealer up the road, to move here. She persuaded our neighbor Ruth Ellis to come. Cherry and Watson bought Bihler and Coger’s place.”
Eclectic in their merchandise, Bihler and Coger have been credited with offering Americans fine selections of English furniture and accessories, which they acquired on enjoyable jaunts overseas. “Henry would ask Cliff Nuttall for money to go to England to buy,” Mrs Wendy said. “That was the beginning of all this wonderful stuff coming in. Henry would bring back 50 pairs of candlesticks and every dealer would buy one. He was one of the first dealers to bring Whieldon to attention, but he also had pink Wedgwood. His booth was beautiful but exciting. He might set a Pilgrim Century chair against a wall of canary lustre. I don’t think anyone came to the show without seeing something he wanted at Bihler and Coger’s.”
“After traveling to England, Henry had a different perspective on the business,” Mrs Wendy noted. “He started pricing his things more aggressively. He worked up a clientele that was very wealthy, and smart enough to know that his material was unusual.”
“I remember them scurrying around the floor of the show, buying every primitive painting of note to sell to Colonel and Mrs Garbisch,” recalled David Good of Good & Hutchinson Antiques in Sheffield, Mass. “Henry would ask us to hold painting, or two or three, in the office. A chauffeur would come by and take the paintings. He would be the Garbisches’ chauffeur,” said Mrs Wendy.
Beginning in 1952, Mr Coger sold folk art and utilitarian objects to the renowned collector Electra Havemeyer Webb, whose Vermont home is now the Shelburne Museum. “Mrs Webb and Mr Coger had clearly established a relationship. Even after Mrs Webb’s death, he continued to contact the museum and offer us things that he knew would be of interest,” said Celia Oliver, the museum’s curator of textiles. Pieces with Coger provenance include rdf_Descriptions for Mrs Webb’s general store, such as a waffle iron, a cast-iron coffee roaster, and fly and bee traps. The bulk of Mr Coger’s sales to the museum were in the 1960s, after Mrs Webb’s death, and ranged from folk sculpture and quilts to household goods like butter molds and plates, carriage-related rdf_Descriptions, and carpenters’ tools. “One highlight,” says managing curator Sloan Stephens, “is an incredible carved and painted maple sugaring scene, acquired in 1966.” Mr Coger’s last contribution was a group of textile remnants, donated in 1998.
One of Mr Coger’s best customers and closest friends was Patsy Lacy Griffith. The Dallas collector, who had been helping to care for Mr Coger while he was hospitalized, died on Christmas Day. Mrs Griffith was an avid collector of American, English and Continental art and antiques who bought widely from specialists around the country.
“Henry Coger was her advisor on the Eighteenth Century material. She had a very nice group of things, very good English ceramics,” recalled Charles Venable, deputy director and chief curator of the Dallas Museum of Art. “When she sold it all and began collecting Art Deco material in the late 1980s, she still considered him her advisor. They traveled together extensively. I don’t think I was ever in her apartment when Henry wasn’t there.” Mrs Griffith left her collection, which includes three paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, to the Dallas Museum of Art.
“Henry had many friends in the antiques trade around the country who appreciated his knowledge and gift for recognizing fine antiques,” said Michael Satterfield, a friend from Texas. “He will also be remembered for his loyalty and the love that he gave his friends.”
Mr Coger is predeceased by his mother, Betty Elliott Coger; his father, Marcel S. Coger; and his brother William Coger. Surviving him is his sister Virginia Coger Fritzsche and his brothers, John and James Coger. A memorial service in Mr Coger’s honor will be held at a later date.
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