Published: January 5, 2021
Before the pandemic hit, New York City’s Bernard & S. Dean Levy Inc., a firm that has dealt in the upper strata of antiques and art since 1901, was already on the move. The dealership was looking onward and downward, as it were, settling in to the third floor of a West 17th Street building in Chelsea. The new space is elegant and purposeful as it frames an extraordinary inventory of craftsmanship and detail. Frank Levy invited us in to take a look as the gallery begins to ramp up activity into the new year.
Tell us about the new space.
We are on the third floor of a mixed-use building. Built as commercial lofts in 1910, the building has open floors and is located between 7th and 8th Avenues on 17th Street. Our neighbors include the New York offices of Twitter and Google, so we are “aging” the neighborhood a little. The space itself is very different from the townhouse. Everything is on one floor and, although there is some division of rooms, there is also a lot of open space. It is both wide and long so people can get a better view and perspective of individual pieces. We have divided some of the area to feel more like a booth at a show and other areas are room settings. We were very fortunate to have the designs of Ralph Harvard, who worked miracles with what could have been a drab interior.
What was moving in the age of Covid like?
Moving out of the gallery was in many ways easier. We were renting from the people who bought the building from us, but as the heavy restrictions in New York City became a reality, there was no reason to stay. Because the streets were so quiet, our trucker, Scott Cousins, was able to move everything out to our warehouse quickly. I can’t say enough about what Scott did for our moveout and storage. Of the many hundreds of objects moved, including paintings, mirrors, frames, needlework and more, nothing was damaged and he was able to fit everything into our storage facilities. The stress of moving an entire business was heavily mitigated by his professionalism and good humor.
Since Ginsburg & Levy opened in 1901, how many places has the firm called home?
They started on Grand Street in 1901 on the lower East Side of Manhattan and at some point moved to locations on Fourth Avenue and then to 397 Madison Avenue. Around 1927, they bought a building at 815 Madison Avenue where they remained until the breakup of the firm in 1973. From 1973 to 1987, we were on the second floor of the Carlyle Hotel, which was originally across the street from Sotheby’s Parke-Bernet. From 1987 to 2020, we were in the townhouse at 24 East 84th Street. You may notice a trend of moving North each time, which has now ended as we are back closer to our “origins” and a bit further west.
Soaring rent has pushed many antiques dealers out of the city, what does the landscape look like for the few who remain?
Hard to tell, but it is a very good sign to see some dealers coming back to the city. For example, Pat Bell and Ed Hild of Olde Hope moving to 72nd Street is a good sign. Moreover, that the few holdouts, like the Karrs of Hyde Park Antiques, still remain, shows that there is hope for the future. Owning the space you are in makes a big difference as you can control many of the costs, although certainly not all.
You’ve invited your fellow Americana dealers exhibiting at the Winter Show’s January 22-31 online edition to exhibit their works in your space for the event’s duration? Who will be showing and what can we expect?
We asked the out-of-town Americana dealers to bring a few pieces to show in NYC during the online show. It is a chance for those who do make it to NYC during Americana Week to see at least some of the pieces that are in the show. All precautions will be observed, such as mask wearing, social distancing, etc., and the show is subject to all New York State and New York City regulations. The dealers who will be sending some pieces are David Schorsch, Kelly Kinzle, Arthur Liverant, Elle Shushan and Taylor Thistlethwaite. I don’t know what they are sending, so it will be as much fun for me to see the things as everyone else. This is similar to what we did just after 9-11 when Martin Levy of H Blairman & Sons and Jonathan Horne did small exhibitions at our gallery since the International Show was canceled.
Let’s talk about your 2021 catalog. When will it be released?
When I get my act together. Without the deadline of the live Winter Show, I got behind. I am aiming for March or April, but don’t hold me to it.
What are some special pieces inside?
There’s a Boston Queen Anne secretary, circa 1750. It descended in the Tate Welch family of Boston and is part of a small group of first-generation Boston blockfronts.
What’s notable about it?
To start, it has a great secret compartment behind the prospect section, which is fully removable with a mechanism.
Who made it?
We don’t know the maker, it fits into a group of the earliest Boston blockfronts. Job Coit made a small group, a cabinetmaker named Richard Walker made another group, including the Quincy secretary at Winterthur. The third, which may be Frothingham, is where this fits in. One of the issues they had to solve when making these things is figuring out how to apply the bottom board and the molding. They all do it differently. Walker takes one big piece of wood, cuts it out in the back and rests his backboard that way. Coit is just flat across. This maker – its sort of a giant, flat, straight dovetail, but then he’s piecing the blocking together. The other guys are blocking from the solid. The most famous of this group is probably the Jackson secretary that was sold at Sotheby’s in the 1990s from the Meyer collection. It brought more than $1 million and was a little fancier, but it had the same maker. And there are a group of blockfront chests that have the same construction. Frothingham’s name comes up a lot, but I haven’t seen any evidence that it’s him for certain.
How long have you known of it?
This is the second time we’ve had it. The first time, we got a call from a dealer down South. It belonged to a family in Asheville so I flew down with my grandfather to see it. We thought it was great and worked out a deal to buy it. We didn’t take it with us that day, but if you leave something after a deal has been made, I had always been told to take something with me so the seller wouldn’t change their mind. So I slid out the secret compartment prospect section. My grandfather said, ‘Maybe take something smaller next time.’ We sold it to a collector in Ohio and he owned it until he passed away.
It’s inlaid as well?
The inlay up in the niche to the top is great. It appears like a rising sun or a sunburst. Sometimes they come japanned, but this one is inlaid.
What else will be in the catalog?
There’s a Boston chest-on-chest made and signed by Benjamin Ross. It’s circa 1770.
What’s special about it?
It’s signed – that doesn’t happen very often. It says, “Benjamin Ross Joiner,” which tells you what he did. He shows up in the Boston directories in 1770 as a joiner. He doesn’t show up before or after that, so we can date this without a doubt. It has great brasses, the original English fire-gilt Rococo brasses. And then the upper drawer of the lower section opens up into a butler’s desk with a great inlaid interior.
Have you had that one before?
We have. It originally came out of Christie’s East and we sold it to a collector in Ohio – a different one than the Boston blockfront. We bought it back again from that estate.
Are there any other known by Ross?
None that I’ve seen or heard of. You would need to find one that’s signed. The chest-on-chest is a box, so there’s nothing that would really differentiate it from other people’s work. The only reason that we know of him is because of the directory.
What’s special of the brasses?
It’s a stately piece with a broken arch pediment and some nice elements, but those brasses really send it to another level. They’re English and imported, but they retain some of their original fire gilt. They are quite elaborate and very Rococo.
When do you think you’ll exhibit at shows again?
Maybe in November? Time will tell and we look forward to it. Until then, we’re open by appointment and will open to walk-ins when regulations allow.
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