Published: April 9, 2019
By Laura Beach
STONINGTON, CONN. – The first thing to know about Marguerite Riordan, who died March 18 at 92, is that she was a person of impeccable style. Her taste, clean and classic, was the consequence of looking, thinking, discarding and looking again. Though she made her name as a premier dealer in high-country American furniture and folk art, in another era, she might have dealt in studio craft or been an architect. Early in her career, she worked for Elizabeth Arden and David Webb.
But taste was only part of the equation. Ambitious and competitive, sometimes to a fault, she succeeded in what was a man’s world because she aimed for the top and demanded much of herself and others. “She was one of the last great dealers from the golden age of Americana,” says Connecticut dealer David Schorsch, who knew Riordan from the time he was a child. “She stood toe to toe with some of the trade’s most formidable characters and did it with class. Through her abilities, she attained the highest status in the field and had top-of-the-line collectors to go with it.”
One of her first antiques, she told me around the time she and her husband, Arthur, auctioned their collection at Christie’s in January 2008 and Marguerite slipped quietly into semi-retirement, was a red-painted tavern table with reeded legs that she purchased from Windsor, Conn., dealer Horace Porter in 1958. Restless as a young mother in the Connecticut suburbs, Riordan began selling antiques in the 1960s after filling her Eighteenth Century house in Glastonbury with quilts, weathervanes, baskets, samplers and stoneware. She turned heads almost from the start. New York Times columnist Sanka Knox mentioned her for what appears to be the first time in an October 1969 story about the Park Avenue Antiques Show at 34th Street, where Riordan and dealer Frank Ganci showed Chinese export silver.
She was inspired by “Connecticut Furniture: Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” which opened at the Wadsworth Atheneum in fall 1967. Organized by Henry P. Maynard, curator of American arts, and a sequel to the museum’s first major exhibition of Connecticut furniture in 1935, the show borrowed from the most prominent collectors of the day as well as from dealers Mary Allis of Fairfield, Conn., with whom Riordan was frequently compared, and Lillian Cogan of Farmington, Conn.
“The show was marvelous. I remember opening night. They were selling books at a table. I wanted a dozen hard copies and a dozen soft copies. Arthur said I was out of my mind, but these were tools for learning,” remembered Riordan, whose love of the arts of southeastern Connecticut and adjacent Rhode Island never waned. As a dealer, she mingled graceful furniture, both paint-decorated and finely finished, with boldly articulated weathervanes and cast-iron lawn ornaments, striking primitive portraiture, schoolgirl embroidery and cobalt-embellished stoneware. She collected portrait miniatures by naïve artists before it was fashionable to do so and once ruefully confessed that a cleaner disposed of a cardboard box full of the objects she had tucked away.
Riordan launched her business with Arthur’s support and money from her family. Early on, she helped a Glastonbury neighbor, antiques dealer Virginia Madden, at shows. One of the first shows she did on her own was a Russell Carrell event in Cambridge, Mass. She remembered, “I participated in most of Russell’s shows in the 1970s. I didn’t do summer shows because my children were home from school and we had a house in Watch Hill, R.I.”
By the late 1970s, Riordan was a star of the surging movement in country American furniture and folk art. Of the 1977 Southport-Westport Antiques Show, New York Times columnist Rita Reif wrote, “antiques from Connecticut, particularly painted furniture, dominate the scene. Marguerite Riordan of Stonington is showing one of those prize corner cupboards, a small one dated 1770 on the back and bearing its original hardware and bright blue paint.”
Riordan loved the Eastern States Antiques Show, for many years a hotbed of Americana in White Plains, N.Y. For the November 12, 1979, cover of the New Yorker, illustrator Charles David Saxon sketched a well-heeled crowd pressing to get into the fair. Visible at the end of an aisle, past a cigar store Indian and rocking horse, Riordan can be seen standing behind a painted chest and near a Windsor chair, weathervanes suspended above. It was a satisfying moment for the dealer, as Mary Allis’s shop had been similarly depicted in a 1947 cover illustration for Saturday Evening Post.
Riordan was also likened to dealer Florene Maine of Ridgefield, Conn. Riordan told me, “Florene was tough and outspoken, but she had great taste. In my learning years, I’d pick out the things in her booth I really loved. When I’d go back at the end of the show, they’d all be gone.” Schorsch adds, “I think Marguerite had the breadth of someone like Florene, but in a more refined, distilled way. Marguerite was very focused in her taste.”
“My grandfather was competitive and driven. He didn’t settle for second place,” conservator Robert Lionetti says of John Walton, a rough-hewn Connecticut dealer who was a dominant player in the high-end market for American furniture. “It’s hard to believe my grandfather was close to anybody in the trade, but he was fond of Marguerite, and for a time, called her every night at 5 o’clock to ask what she’d done that day,” Lionetti says. As Riordan once explained, “John used to say the trouble with women was they couldn’t make up their minds. Mary Allis never dickered. She bought it or she didn’t. That was also true of Florene and me.” As one story goes, Walton and Riordan once bought a Boston Fishing Lady needlework in partnership for $18,000, then took a joint advertisement announcing their partnership in the deal and desire to buy more. A canny businessperson, Riordan partnered with other top dealers, from Wayne Pratt to David Wheatcroft, when opportunities of mutual interest arose.
Remembering her first truly major purchase, Riordan told me, “One day, I got a call from John Walton. He said, ‘A man is coming up with a ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ by the Quaker painter Edward Hicks. Be here at 9:30 am on Saturday. You’re going to buy this painting.’ I told John I couldn’t do it. He said, ‘Yes, you can.’ I had to borrow the money, but I bought it for $350,000 and sold it at the Winter Antiques Show in 1983.” The painting, subsequently chosen for the cover of the catalog to the Hicks exhibition at Colonial Williamsburg in 1999, was the first of two “Peaceable Kingdoms” Riordan took to the Winter Show. Her second, priced $1.3 million, “was from the group with the rhymed borders. I offered it during the Gulf War. Marilyn Quayle, the vice president’s wife, was photographed with the painting in my booth. It was a timely gesture.”
Riordan joined the Winter Show in 1972. As she remembered it, “John Bihler and Henry Coger had reached a peak, so I got their spot. Russell Carrell, who managed the show, gave me a booth up front from the start.” Filled with folk portraits by Ralph Earl and John Brewster Jr, river views by the Bard brothers and Thomas Chambers, monumental weathervanes, iron dogs and schoolgirl needlework, Riordan’s stand was Antiques and The Arts Weekly publisher R. Scudder Smith’s first stop. He recalls, “Marguerite was always friendly and a fund of knowledge. Her booth was filled with folk art treasures that drew important collectors like a magnet. She was great in every way. It was a privilege being her friend.”
In January 1985, New York Times antiques columnist Rita Reif wrote about a trio of Ammi Phillips portraits, on exhibit in Manhattan and “the talk of the American folk-art world.” One, depicting a young girl in white, Mary Elizabeth Gale, was in Riordan’s Winter Show booth, priced $300,000. The two other Phillips portraits, both girls in red dresses with spotted dogs at their feet, included one purchased by a New York collector for more than $1 million and promised to the Museum of American Folk Art. “Until this month, the highest price ever paid at auction for an Ammi Phillips was $203,500,” Reif wrote.
Riordan demanded loyalty from those with whom she did business, but countering her reputation for toughness was the generosity she often showed younger professionals in whom she saw promise. Madelia Hickman Ring, a Christie’s consultant when she helped ready the Riordan sale for auction in 2008, remembers the dealer’s solicitude and encouragement. “She could be very giving with her friends and family and would be the first to support a research project, book or exhibit,” agrees Lionetti, recalling a lunch the Riordans organized to help fund the publication of Connecticut Valley Furniture, a project Lionetti undertook with his research partners, Thomas and Alice Kugelman. Among many similar gestures, Riordan underwrote the installation of Betty Ring’s 1984 exhibition “Rhode Island Needlework, 1730-1830” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Riordans entertained the Walpole Society and many others at their loft apartment on Pearl Street overlooking Stonington harbor and Long Island Sound. They lived above the shop in the Nineteenth Century commercial building they purchased in 1971 and renovated to suit their needs. At street level was Marguerite’s by-appointment gallery and office, the latter lined with posters made from dozens of her ads from The Magazine Antiques. The laminated pages called attention to Riordan’s proudest achievement: the superlative examples of American furniture and folk art she discovered, researched or otherwise put before the public eye.
Riordan often said that previous generations of antiques dealers had life easier, what with abundant merchandise, lower prices and more relaxed views toward restoration. After scandals involving fakes rocked the industry, she was zealous in her due diligence on major pieces, seeking evaluations from conservators such as Lionetti, whom she met first met at Sotheby’s in early 1980s. She told me, “One of the problems with the early women dealers is they liked the look. Today, it has to go beyond that.”
In early September 2007, Riordan confirmed that she and Arthur had consigned their personal collection to Christie’s, which planned a cataloged, single-owner sale for Americana Week in January 2008. The couple, then in their early 80s, had casually discussed selling for several years. An August call from a friend, Christie’s chairman Stephen Lash, resulted in an impromptu discussion, followed by another call from Christie’s deputy director John Hays.
The Riordans were astute in their timing. Wall Street’s meltdown began a few months after the sale with the collapse of Bear Stearns. The auction, which realized $2.6 million, $500,000 above estimate, was a tribute to Riordan’s taste and standing in the field. The splayed table she bought from Horace Porter in 1958 brought $10,000. The top lot, at $313,000, was a painted wood steamboat weathervane made in Bristol, R.I., in 1858. Riordan reportedly acquired it for $10,000 at Sloan’s in Washington, DC, in 1977.
In the fall of 2008, the American Folk Art Museum honored the Riordans with Susan and Jerry Lauren at a benefit gala at New York’s Plaza Hotel. Lucy Danziger, vice president of the museum’s board of trustees, and Laura Parsons, president, thanked the couple for “generously sharing their years of expertise with those interested in learning.”
In retirement, Riordan kept in touch with a handful of good friends from the trade and clients who regarded her as family. Lionetti, among the most loyal, says, “We talked on the phone all the time. I enjoyed her spirited banter and her charming, infectious laugh. I knew she was well when she was feisty.”
We will miss Marguerite Riordan. Often lost in the trade’s competitive whirl is how much the industry needs big dealers, whose brashness and daring attract collectors, enlarging and enlivening the field for the benefit of all. “You think of some of the greats who have departed the stage recently. It’s had a huge impact on the business. Just look the auction numbers,” Lionetti reflects.
Averse to sentimentality, Riordan asked that there be no obituary marking her passing. Her wish, impossible to keep given her professional stature, was nevertheless in character. In place of an essay or conventional profile on the Riordans, Christie’s 2008 catalog simply reprinted Robert Frost’s poem “On the Sale of My Farm.” Its first lines – “Well-away and be it so/To the stranger let them go” – again seem applicable.
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