Published: March 18, 2003
VILLANOVA, PENN. — Philadelphians have been involved in the China Trade since 1784, when local financier Robert Morris backed the first American merchant ship to dock in Canton, the Empress of China.
Forty other prominent Philadelphia families soon joined Morris in commercial exchange with the East. Today it seems fair that another name be added to their ranks, that of the modern day China trader Elinor Gordon.
Though she recently celebrated her 85th birthday, Elinor remains a lively, youthful presence in a field that has seen many changes since she became a dealer in Chinese export porcelain in the early 1950s.
Graceful, stylish, warm and worldly, Elinor is roundly admired by her peers. Her discipline and commitment are well-known. The indefatigable dealer was on the road between January 5 and 27, exhibiting at back-to-back shows in Washington and New York, as she has done without fail for the past half century
“Elinor Gordon is a driving force in the decorative arts world. She has a huge following around the country and has helped educate many people,” says Bruce Perkins, a collector who is chairman of Winterthur’s board of trustees.
“She really is the grande dame of Chinese export porcelain dealers. When she started, Chinese export porcelain was something that you purchased to put on your sideboard. Elinor is to be credited for having helped bring it forward as an independent collecting field,” agrees William Sargent, curator of Asian export art at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.
Gordon’s contributions will be recognized on April 5, when the Antiques Dealers Association of America honors her at a dinner at the Philadelphia Antiques Show. She is the only dealer who has continuously exhibited at the show since its founding 42 years ago.
“We wanted to honor someone who has made a real impact on the field,” says ADAA President Skip Chalfant.
“Elinor Gordon stands for integrity and professional ethics. She is a member of the old school, one in which dealers established long-term relationships with their clients,” agrees Arthur Liverant, chairman of the awards committee.
Gordon’s professional coming of age coincided with the flowering of interest in this country in Chinese art made for the West. Two years before she collected her first porcelain, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York staged “The China Trade and Its Influences.” As the slim catalog by Margaret R. Scherer and Joseph Downs reveals, Chinese art for the Western market was even then a patrician taste. Among the show’s many lenders were Miss Lucy Aldrich, sister of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller; the Misses Caldwalader; Ogden Codman; Mrs William Crowninshield Endicott; Mrs Frances P. Garvan; Mr and Mrs Luke Vincent Lockwood; J.P. Morgan; and Henry Francis du Pont, to name a few.
An artistic young woman raised on New York’s Upper East Side, Elinor Gordon’s character was shaped by the vicissitudes of the Great Depression. Her father, James A. McIntyre, worked for the Marmon Motor Car Company, an upscale line founded in Indianapolis in 1904. Ahead of her time, his wife Helen worked in the financial sector in a sales position euphemistically known as “customer’s woman.”
With jobs scarce after the stock market crash of 1929, Elinor’s mother acted on her conscience, relinquishing her position because she was a married woman. Shortly thereafter, in 1933, the Marmon Motor Company folded, leaving both of Elinor’s parents jobless.
Having postponed going away to college, the 17-year-old Elinor soon found work through John Robert Powers, New York’s oldest modeling agency and school, founded in 1923. Powers’ many celebrity clients have included Grace Kelly, Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe.
Not tall enough for high fashion, the 5’4″ Elinor earned her reputation modeling hats, hair, junior sizes and through illustrations. Her career landed her in the pages of Harper’s and Vogue. In January 1939, the sultry, blue-eyed brunette appeared on the cover of Life magazine, in a photograph taken by the man known as the father of photojournalism, Alfred Eisenstadt (1898-1995). Dramatically draped in a checked scarf, the alluring Elinor posed with a Lily Dache hat cocked jauntily on her head.
“Elinor, you’ve come a long way, baby,'” Eisenstadt said in his thick German accent when he wandered into her booth at the Winter Antiques Show years later.
On a table in Gordon’s home sits a faded portrait of a handsome young man in a military dress. New York-born but Philadelphia-bred, Horace William Gordon, a graduate of Wharton School and the University of Pennsylvania, was a broker at Neuberger & Company when the couple met at the Admiral Hotel in Cape May, N.J., where Elinor, recovering from a serious illness, had gone with her mother for a month. Sixteen years her senior, Horace had a 16-year-old son from a previous marriage when he married 25-year-old Elinor in 1943.
“Our reception was to be at the Plaza but Horace’s father had become quite ill so we cut it down to immediate family and held it in Villanova. There was a blizzard and a troop train coming through Trenton that day. Our guests were sidetracked and were an hour late. The limousines left the station because the drivers thought they had the wrong day. But people understood. During the war, you had to understand. Things happened and you had no control over them,” Elinor recollects.
Horace served as an assistant to Orville Bullitt, chairman of the War Production Board in Philadelphia, and was later an aid to General Wedemeyer at the Pentagon. After the war, Horace returned to Neuberger & Company. He finished his career at Advest, retiring in 1972.
The Gordons’ marriage was a happy one, filled with friends and the couple’s varied interests. Elinor involved herself in charity work and showed Afghan hounds. Horace, who died in 1983 at age 82, mastered photography and was president of the National Geography Society of Philadelphia for several years during the mid-1950s. The couple enjoyed winter breaks in Delray Beach, Fla., and summers on Cape Cod, Mass.+
Elinor today lives in a verdant Main Line enclave west of Philadelphia. Like its owner, the setting is elegantly traditional but relaxed, its colorful palette plucked from the famille rose ceramics that Elinor loves best.
“I’ve never handled Canton or Rose Medallion. I prefer the individual design found on the earlier pieces,” says the dealer, who, in addition to famille rose, is well known for orange, green and blue Fitzhugh; early Imari; Armorials and other wares made for the West between about 1600 and 1830. Because of its rarity, porcelain created specifically for the American market is among the most desirable and expensive in her inventory.
The Gordons bought their first porcelain, a pair of Armorial plates, in 1944 from New York dealer Otto Wasserman. The plates were $85 a piece. Today, says Elinor, they would be worth about $2,500 each.
Soon the couple was seeking out the leading dealers of the day, among them Mildred and Rafi Mottahedeh, Philip Suval, S.P. Conover and J.A. Lloyd Hyde.
“I was still in high school when Elinor came into our shop on 57th Street,” says John Suval, now a dealer Fredericksburg, Va. “She was gracious and lovely looking, and she and my father got along very well. When she did the Winter Antiques Show for the first time in 1953, she displayed quite a few pieces that she had purchased from my dad.”
Elinor was most influenced by Hyde, a New York dealer who lived in Old Lyme, Conn., and enjoyed glamorous friendships with collectors such as Katharine Prentis Murphy and Henry Francis du Pont. Hyde’s reputation in the field of Chinese export porcelain was secured when his lavish, slip-cased book Oriental Lowestoft, containing many pieces from du Pont’s collection, was published in 1936.
“Hyde’s shop was in the French Institute building between Madison and Park. I never, ever visited my mother without stopping to see him. He was very patient with a dumbbell like me trying to learn. I have tried to emulate him in that respect. If people show interest, I don’t mind taking my time with them. It’s wonderful to see collectors develop,” Elinor says.
“So many people would come and say, ‘Oh, I’d love to find something like that for myself. Would you look for me?'” Elinor recalls of her decision to become a dealer.
“Horace had a very broad scope. He said, ‘Elinor, you can do anything you wish and I’m behind you.’ That was a great thing. He backed me 100 percent,” she remembers.
At 35, Elinor debuted at an antiques show benefiting Emergency Aid at the old Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia. She was too nervous to leave her booth. She quickly gained confidence, however, and before long was exhibiting at the Winter Antiques Show, the Philadelphia Antiques Show and the Ellis Memorial Antiques Show in Boston.
“I made a decision early on that I was only going to do shows that benefited children, health, education and the arts,” she says firmly.
“J. Gresham Wilson was the first manager to develop me. He realized that I was going to be a specialist and thought that I would be an asset in his shows. I never deviated from my specialty, and I’m glad that I didn’t,” notes the dealer, who later became a regular in Russell Carrell’s circuit, having met the dealer-turned-show-manager at the Eastern States Antiques Show in White Plains, N.Y.
At her busiest, Elinor participated in eight fairs a year, including such Carrell-managed events as Lake Forest Antiques Show in Illinois and the Theta Charity Antiques Show in Houston. Horace joined his wife on weekends when she was on the road. Twice a year, the couple took buying trips to London, Holland and Portugal.
“There is great camaraderie among dealers. We have a lot of fun together,” says Elinor, recollecting the pranks that J.J. Thompson, a fellow Winter Antiques Show exhibitor, used to play on her.
“One time in New York I was trying very hard to sell this marvelous tureen to a very interested couple. When I lifted the lid, there was a rubber chicken inside. I was so embarrassed! I turned around to see J.J. in the corner laughing.”
“At a show in Atlanta,” she continues, “an elderly woman in a hat and a veil came into my booth. All of a sudden the woman said something and smashed a porcelain cup on the floor. I was shocked. Then I saw that it was J.J. in disguise. The cup, fortunately, wasn’t mine.”
The Gordons’ reputation soon extended far beyond the show circuit. In 1963, the couple published Oriental Lowestoft (Chinese Export Porcelain), an informative guide illustrated with photographs Horace took himself of the Gordons’ own collection.
In 1974, Elinor edited Chinese Export Porcelain: An Historical Survey, a compilation of articles published in The Magazine Antiquesbetween 1923 and 1973. It was republished in 1984 as Treasures of the East. Her book Collecting Chinese Export Porcelain has been reprinted several times since it first appeared in 1977.
Of the latter, William Sargent says, “I always recommend it to people. It is the most concise and accurate publication that is still readily available, accessible and inexpensive. It should never go out of print.”
“Elinor has sold to virtually all the major museums and great collectors,” says John Suval of a following that includes some of Philadelphia’s most distinguished families.
“I always noticed her advertisements in The Magazine Antiques. The Gordons came to the Ellis Memorial Antiques Show, and I met Elinor there,” recalls Crosby Forbes, curator emeritus of the Peabody Essex Museum. Mrs Lammot du Pont Copeland’s gifts to the institution include two pieces with Gordon provenance, a spectacular fruit basket and stand, purchased in 1962, and a pair of commode-form bough pots, acquired by Copeland in 1963.
“My father was a collector, and very interested in the China Trade. I’ve known Elinor since I was a little girl. She was very old school, always beautifully dressed and always very gracious to us children, which not all dealers were,” notes Bryn Mawr, Penn., dealer Diana Bittel.
Bittel continues, “My dad had a hong bowl. ‘When are you going to let me have it?’ Elinor would tease him. When I was 16 or 18 and bemoaning the fact that I had no money, my dad gave me three China Trade paintings to sell. I called Elinor first. She bought two, which she still has in her dressing room. Peter Schiffer bought the third.”
Elinor, it seems, was equally reluctant to part with her own hong bowl. Bruce Perkins has known the dealer since he was a student in the early 1970s at Washington and Lee University, where he worked on an exhibition of Chinese export porcelain from the Reeves collection, said to be the third largest public holding in the country.
As Perkins recalls, “At Elinor’s debut at the Winter Antiques Show in 1953, Euchlin and Louise Reeves fell in love with her hong bowl. Elinor said it wasn’t for sale. When the Reeves insisted, Elinor put a $5,000 price on it. Now it’s one of the collection’s key pieces.” The bowl is worth between $100,000 and $125,000 today.
Historic Deerfield’s founders Henry and Helen Flynt were also early and steady Gordon customers, buying from the dealer when they saw her at shows in New York or Boston.
“We have a fairly extensive collection of China Trade objects, including about 5,000 pieces of Chinese export porcelain,” says Amanda Lange, Historic Deerfield’s curator of ceramics. “One of our best pieces is a painting attributed to Spoilum of the Canton waterfront. It came from Elinor.”
Perhaps the largest and most important collection that Elinor helped develop is that of the Chester Springs, Penn.,-based Dietrich American Foundation. In 1963, founder H. Richard Dietrich asked Horace and Elinor Gordon for their guidance.
“Horace and Elinor were really Richard’s first advisors. Their names are all over the early accession records from the 1960s and 1970s,” says Jack Lindsey, curator of American decorative arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
It was Horace, Elinor says, who encouraged Dietrich to lend objects to existing institutions rather than build a museum of his own. The collection today numbers 5,000 objects, on loan to 50 institutions around the country.
“A large portion is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art,” notes Dietrich American Foundation curator Deborah Rebuck. “More than 65 pieces of Chinese export porcelain are currently on view.”
Among them are Dietrich’s first acquisitions from the Gordons, a Cincinnati plate and platter. The Society of the Cincinnati was a fraternal hereditary order of French and American officers who fought together in the Revolutionary War. The society was organized in 1783, with George Washington as its president. Chinese porcelain decorated with the order’s insignia is among the rarest and most desirable of all American-market wares.
“Elinor has probably sold more Cincinnati pieces than any other dealer,” says John Suval. Years ago, Gordon sold a plate from Washington’s service to Madeleine Shea Whitney for $2,600. Two years go, the plate was auctioned for $44,850. A Cincinnati tankard with Gordon provenance is at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Other Dietrich collection highlights include a Cincinnati cup and saucer made for Henry and Lucy Knox of New York; many great ship-decorated punch bowls and tea sets, including bowls decorated with the USS Franklin, the American ship Rising States, and one decorated with an American man-of-war; several pieces from the Mary Hollingsworth Morris service, an important Philadelphia service; and selections from the William Eustis of Boston service.
Between the 1960s and the 1980s, Elinor also advised the Fine Arts Committee, a group organized by former deputy chief of protocol Clement E. Conger for the purpose of refurbishing the Diplomatic Reception Rooms at the US Department of State in Washington, DC.
“Clement was a remarkable man in terms of his optimism and vision,” says Gail F. Serfaty, who succeeded Conger as director of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms and curator of Blair House. “One of his greatest attributes was that he realized that he was not a curator himself. He always sought the very best advice.
“In Elinor he found someone who shared his enthusiasm and optimism. More important than the pieces we acquired from her was her wise counsel and great generosity in sharing her knowledge,” says Serfaty.
In a July 1987 issue of The Magazine Antiques, Elinor described some of the outstanding pieces of Chinese porcelain, most of it chosen for diplomatic or historical significance, in the State Department’s collection. They include pieces from two Cincinnati services, one of which was owned by George and Martha Washington; a plate owned by Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, first superintendent of the US Military Academy at West Point; a sauce tureen presented to Vice President John C. Calhoun; a helmet creamer with a full-masted ship flying an American flag; and a partial dinner service of orange Fitzhugh decorated with American eagles, shields and the motto “E Pluribus Unum.”
In business for nearly six decades, Elinor Gordon — by marriage a grandmother of six and great-grandmother of 12 — has earned some of the privileges that come with a long life well lived.
“She has clout and tenure,” says a dealer, one of several who mentioned their fearless and forthright colleague’s habit of speaking her mind, and getting her way, at postshow dealer meetings.
“Continuity may be Elinor’s greatest contribution,” Crosby Forbes shrewdly observes. “She has had first-class merchandise and a first-class reputation for a very long time. That gives people confidence.”
To which, Elinor modestly replies, “If you stick with something long enough, something is going to come out of it. I love what I am doing.”
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