Published: December 30, 2003
An American Original Since Its Founding in 1955, the Winter Antiques Show Embodies the Spirit and Flair of Its Founders
The circus had departed, but on a cold winter night in 1954 the mingled odor of elephant and lion still clung to the dank walls of the old Madison Square Garden, where the National Antiques Show had set up for a week in March.
Grace and Carleton Lindquist, associate directors of East Side House Settlement, one of the city’s oldest and most illustrious charities, had discovered that taking a booth at the sprawling market was a profitable way of disposing of some of the redundant luxuries donated to the Settlement’s thrift shop.
A far cry from the dazzling emporium for the rare and the beautiful that we now know as the Winter Antiques Show, the East Side House display barely hinted at the brilliant ensemble performance that endures as “The Great American Show,” an accolade bestowed by The New York Times in 1983.
A magnetic personality who coaxed the best efforts from her board and staff, Grace Lindquist cultivated a varied circle of supporters dedicated to advancing the interests of the community-based organization, then located on East 76 Street. After acquiring three brownstones on Alexander Avenue in 1961, the Settlement reopened in the South Bronx in 1963, where, for the past fourteen years, executive director John A. Sanchez has led its dramatic expansion of educational programs for the young.
The National Antiques Show was a rudimentary affair. Behind the pipe and drapery walls of the East Side House booth, in a few feet of space cleared out of the jumble of packing crates, the Lindquists erected a card table and invited John Bihler and Henry Coger to join them for cocktails.
Born in Evening Shade, Arkansas, in 1925, Coger had migrated to Chicago where he met Bihler, a bright young antiques dealer with a devilish wit. In New York, the pair earned a reputation for their exquisite taste and flamboyant, eclectic presentations. Their prominent clients included Electra Havemeyer Webb and Colonel and Mrs. Edgar Chrysler Garbisch.
“With your knowledge and interest, why don’t you start your own antiques show?,” Coger, the more jovial of the two men, asked Mrs. Lindquist. At lunch at the Metropolitan Club soon after, Bihler and Coger outlined the fundraiser to East Side House president Livingston Goddard. Mrs. John A. Brown, a trustee, settled the debate by agreeing to cover any losses.
As they set to work, the Winter Antiques Show’s organizers envisioned a fair unlike any this country had ever seen. The presentation would set new standards, both for the quality of its merchandise and the elegance of its display. Hired as managers, Mr. and Mrs. William P. Gillette recruited some of country’s most prominent experts in eighteenth-century American, as well as English and French furniture. To guarantee brisk trade on the floor, they added a lively assortment of country dealers with affordable merchandise.
Offering thanks to the New York National Guard for the use of the Seventh Regiment Armory for its “neighborhood project,” East Side House Settlement opened the Winter Antiques Show at 7 p.m. on Monday, January 24, 1955, in a traditionally dreary time in the city’s social calendar.
Behind the massive oak doors of the brick and granite fortress were a hundred dealers from New York, New England, and Pennsylvania. The most striking display belonged to French & Company. The Manhattan dealers showed Louis XV furniture against a backdrop of gray-green boiseries, a simulated ceiling, and a Versailles floor spread with a Savonnerie carpet.
Around a central court and along the center aisle were David Stockwell, Israel Sack, Ginsburg & Levy, Stair & Company, John Walton, and the Arthur Vernay firm, whose newly acquired George I walnut secretary bookcase was a topic of much conversation. Elinor Gordon, a former fashion model who, several years earlier, had appeared on the cover of Life magazine in a memorable photograph taken by Alfred Eisenstadt, filled her booth with Chinese armorial porcelains for the American market.
Country dealers, some of whom wielded considerable clout with collectors, lined the outer walls. Florene Maine, a tart-tongued expert in New England furniture, featured tavern tables. Lillian Cogan unveiled a prize Windsor writing-armchair. Her girlish giggle and plump features belied the steely single-mindedness of the woman who had been buying “Pilgrim Century” furniture, to use the romantic parlance of the day, since 1925.
When East Side House settled its books, it had turned a tidy profit. The Winter Antiques Show was launched. Forced to vacate the Armory in 1957 and 1958, the fair returned to Park Avenue in 1959. By the close of the decade, it was acclaimed as the leading event of its kind in the United States, “on par,” wrote Cynthia Kellog, “with the Grosvenor House sale in London, the best antiques show in Europe.”
Visitors marveled at the charming silver boatswains’ whistles and tea strainers, only $12 to $25 at James Robinson; at A La Vieille Russie’s eighteenth-century Sèvres covered urn, $5,500; at S. J. Shrubsole’s $10,000 Elizabethan gourd-shaped covered cup, engraved with the arms of its first owner; and at John Singleton Copley’s aristocratic portrait of Abigail Belcher, priced $35,000 at M. Knoedler & Company.
Inspired by installations at Colonial Williamsburg and Silvermine Tavern, Helena Penrose and Avis and Rockwell Gardiner recreated Colonial taprooms, complete with old plank flooring and pine paneling for walls. The firm of Nancy McClelland, a New York decorator known for her dual expertise in Federal furniture and vintage wallpapers, fabricated an octagonal entrance hall with a stair leading to a mock second floor. Other displays were more casual.
“The first time we did the Show we put unframed prints on the wall,” says Kenneth Newman of The Old Print Shop, whose father was persuaded to join by the overnight success of the venture. While The Old Print Shop traveled only a few blocks from Lexington Avenue, Robert Herron was trucked down from Austerlitz, New York, by a farmer whose unreliable vehicle caused considerable consternation. Herron’s parting memory of one early Show was of the elderly English dealer Samuelson angrily shaking his cane at the farmer’s stalled jalopy, which had trapped French & Company’s gilt-lettered trucks on the floor of the drill hall.
Bob Herron was friendly with Russell Carrell, another country dealer who exhibited at the Winter Antiques Show from its start. Born in Morristown, New Jersey, in 1916, Carrell served in the Navy before settling in Salisbury, Connecticut, in 1946, where he opened a shop on Main Street. A memorable figure whose favorite summer uniform consisted of a bright green blazer, plaid Bermuda shorts, and well broken-in loafers worn without socks, Carrell thrilled even those not normally drawn to country antiques with his daring color sense and inventive combinations of English ceramics, painted furniture, and folk art.
“A dealer can starve to death waiting for business,” said Carrell. Inspired by the Marche aux Puces in Paris, he opened America’s first flea market in a cow pasture behind his home in 1958. The following year, Gordon Reid inaugurated the Brimfield, Massachusetts, field show that has grown to epic proportions during the past four decades.
Carrell’s organizing ability caught the eye of Grace Lindquist. In 1961 she made the 45-year-old dealer the de facto manager of the Winter Antiques Show when she named him the liaison between the exhibitors and the charity, a position he held until his retirement in 1987.
Lindquist’s faith in Carrell was not misplaced. Pacing the drafty Armory during set up, Carrell answered dealers’ questions, directed the construction crews, and quietly removed questionable objects from the floor. As a manager, he was decisive and unsentimental. As a dealer himself, Carrell believed his primary duty was to represent the interests of exhibitors, interceding on their behalf with the charity as necessary.
With the Winter Antiques Show to his credit, Carrell became the most powerful figure in the antiques field in the United States. The autocratic manager built a roster of shows stretching from New Hampshire to California. He surrounded himself with a stable of loyal dealers. Under his direction, the Winter Antiques Show blossomed as a venue for American furniture and folk art. With his encouragement, many young professionals got important boosts to their careers.
When Joyce Golden left The Magazine Antiquesto found her own advertising firm, Carrell asked her to produce the Winter Antiques Show catalogue. For many years she was assisted by longtime East Side House board member James F. McCollom, Jr. Cheerfully describing himself as “the unofficial chairman of the backroom” during those years, McCollom briskly and effectively dealt with the myriad organizational details entailed in producing a major fair. He ultimately served as the Winter Antiques Show’s co-chairman and deputy chairman through 1994.
On a trip to Buffalo, New York, in 1961, Carrell visited the shop of Peter Tillou. Already a polymath with a keen interest in swords, guns, and coins, the 24-year-old Tillou would become a renowned specialist in American primitive portraiture and a world-class trader, as comfortable in Maastricht among Old Masters as at his country house in Litchfield, Connecticut.
“We want young blood. We’ll help you along,” Carrell told Tillou, who was the youngest dealer when he debuted at the Winter Antiques Show in 1962. Tillou didn’t disappoint. Collectors still remember opening night in 1973, when William Wiltshire, a collector from Richmond, Virginia, wrote Tillou a check for $85,000, snapping up a pair of Ralph Earl portraits on the spot.
If Carrell represented casual American style at its best, Louis Bowen, who joined East Side House Settlement’s board in 1968, was its antithesis. He was formal both in his manners and his taste, which ran to European paintings and Chinese porcelain. Born in Los Angeles in 1914, Bowen began his New York career as a decorator before becoming a wallpaper manufacturer. Equally dedicated to East Side House Settlement and to the Winter Antiques Show, Bowen left the charity $3 million, the largest bequest in its history, when he died in 2002.
Like Lindquist and Carrell, Bowen furthered the careers of those he considered to show special promise. Having chaired the Winter Antiques Show in 1970 and 1971, Bowen handed the reins to John Fitzgibbons, a talented interior designer with a blue-chip clientele. Acting at Bowen’s behest, Fitzgibbons directed the fair between 1972 and 1975.
The Winter Antiques Show had grown staid, in Bowen’s opinion. It catered to an elite group of collectors who came and bought, but whose names rarely appeared in the social pages. By 8 p.m. on preview night, a cannon shot off in the center aisle wouldn’t have hit a soul, one bystander recalls. Impressed by a room that Mario Buatta had designed for a show house, Bowen called the young decorator and asked him to help with the fair. In 1977 Buatta was named chairman of the Winter Antiques Show, a position he held through 1990.
For the 1976 Winter Antiques Show, Buatta produced a loan exhibition from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, with objects selected by curator Berry B. Tracy. The exhibit replaced the garden that had long been at the center of the Show, a loss offset by J. Barry Ferguson’s cascading floral arrangements in the aisles.
“We need to appeal to young people and new money,” Buatta told Bowen, thinking of those who John Fairchild dubbed “Nouvelle Society.” With the intent of attracting the social set, Buatta turned his attention to the opening night preview party. In his first year as chairman, he asked Lee Radziwill to decorate the Armory’s broodingly exotic Veterans Room, a Gilded Age interior designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, Candace Thurber Wheeler, Lockwood de Forest, and Samuel Colman of Associated Artists, in collaboration with architect Stanford White, Francis Davis Millet, George Henry Yewell.
Radziwill’s presence transfixed the press. The public peeked into the Armory with the hope of seeing Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s sister, who had taken the winter chill off the interior with yards of apple-green moire and sprays of orchids and amaryllis.
At the suggestion of the public relations executive Joanne Creveling, who had recently left the luxury department store Henry Bendel to start her own firm, the Winter Antiques Show sharpened its image by asking well-known fashion designers to succeed Radziwill. The suggestion led to a series of high profile collaborations with Gloria Vanderbilt, Mica Ertegun and Chessy Rayner, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Ralph Lauren, Arnold Scassi, and others.
“That room needed something to pick it up,” said Paloma Picasso. Decidedly unimpressed with the dimly lit interior, the daughter of the twentieth century’s premier modernist topped tables with red and yellow tulips when it was her turn to decorate the Veterans Room in 1982.
According to Buatta, the Show’s financial fortunes changed forever in 1979, the year he invited Henry and Nancy Kissinger to be the Winter Antiques Show’s honorary chairmen. On opening night, as Malcolm Forbes and others of his set stepped out of their limousines into the great arcs of light that restlessly scanned the Armory’s impassive façade, Buatta watched as a woman frantically tugged at Henry Kissinger’s sleeve, desperate for a glimpse of the former Secretary of State. Inside, a glamorous crush warmed the frigid hall.
On the floor of the Show that year, seventy-three exhibitors offered treasures ranging from a $140,000 desk made for Catherine the Great to a Bird of Paradise quilt that visitors recognized from the cover of the Whitney Museum’s landmark 1974 exhibition, “The Flowering of American Folk Art.” The quilt’s kaleidoscopic design caught visitors’ eyes the moment they entered the fair. The textile hung several booths back, on the far right aisle, in the stand of Gerald Kornblau. Since being invited into the Winter Antiques Show in 1968, the New York dealer had earned a reputation among colleagues for his adventurous taste and bold presentation. Before the night was out, the textile was on hold for the American Folk Art Museum.
“It was such a fertile time for finding folk art,” recalls Kornblau. “The challenge was getting the public to look at the material, to appreciate its quality, to have the confidence to buy it. I wanted people to view folk sculpture as art, so I showed it on pedestals, against white walls.”
Placing large, arresting sculptures in spare settings, Kornblau, a former photographer, helped shape collecting tastes and display trends at the Winter Antiques Show. The fashion for extravagantly oversized objects reached a peak in the late 1980s, when Rita Reif noted the “parade of decorative sculptures” that included Japanese bronze giraffes, British stone lions, and an American carved and gilded dolphin.
“I’ve never seen so many antiques that are so monumental in scale,” said Carrell.
“The big word is ‘opulent,’ whether it be American, French, or English. Everything is gilded and done to the nines,” agreed Buatta. Building the Show now required an army of movers, painters, and electricians. Exhibitors spent months planning their booths, often with help of professional designers.
With prices for antiques rising, collectors were exploring under-appreciated genres. Conservative by nature, the Winter Antiques Show was slow to adjust. Carrell remembered Victorian furniture being swept off the floor in the 1950s. As late as 1980, the committee still reserved the right to remove any piece made after 1840, with the exception of original works of art, prints, and nineteenth-century American glass.
The Winter Antiques Show’s first big concession to changing taste came in 1970, when it mounted a loan show of nineteenth-century American paintings and objects from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The presentation, which included furniture by Roux and Pottier & Stymus, was a prelude to the museum’s groundbreaking exhibition, “19-Century America.”
Nineteenth-century American art had long been a matter of serious scholarly interest to Stuart P. Feld, who had been an American Wing curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art before joining Hirschl & Adler Galleries in 1967. Under founders Norman S. Hirschl and Abraham M. Adler, the gallery exhibited in the first Winter Antiques Show in 1955. Paintings specialists, Hirschl & Adler returned to the Show in 1976, advertising “Colossal Luck,” a trompe l’oeil picture of a horseshoe by the nineteenth-century artist William Michael Harnett. The booth also contained a few pieces of furniture, “imposing American Empire designs,” as Rita Reif reported. It wasn’t until after Feld became Hirschl & Adler’s president in 1982 that the gallery actively dealt in American decorative arts.
Anyone who expected interest in Neoclassicism to fade was wrong. When Anthony Stuempfig joined the Winter Antiques Show in 1979, he was the fair’s first specialist in American Classical decor. Ten years later, Hirschl & Adler featured a Duncan Phyfe lyre-base table priced at $165,000 and a pair of Charles-Honoré Lannuier card tables for $300,000. That same year, Feld was the first to offer American Arts & Crafts furniture, in a partitioned section of his booth.
Mario Buatta made the Winter Antiques Show chic; the exhibitors themselves, through their ingenious presentations of unimaginable treasures, made the fair a mecca for collectors and an essential destination during the third week of January. But strains were beginning to appear. In 1983, nearly ten percent of the exhibitors were not invited back, marking the beginning of a turbulent decade in which the Show struggled with its identity.
The antiques boom had stimulated competition, both domestically and internationally. Sanford Smith introduced the Fall Antiques Show, known as the “folk art show,” in 1979; his Modernism fair followed in 1986. Members of the National Antique & Art Dealers Association of America (NAADAA), who took a joint booth at the Winter Antiques Show, voted in 1984 to produce their own event, to be held in New York in the fall of 1985. The plan fell through, but by 1988 it was common knowledge that London promoters Brian and Anna Haughton intended to mount an international show including a number of NAADAA members in New York in the fall of 1989.
In London, the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair had resumed after a four-year suspension. In Paris, the Biennale was attracting notice for its extravagant displays and was said to draw as many as 300,000 people. Only two Winter Antiques Show exhibitors, Alastair Stair, the venerable 57 Street dealer in English furniture, and Hervé Aaron, the New York representative of the Paris firm Didier Aaron, participated in these overseas events. Anxious for the Winter Antiques Show to be competitive on the world stage, they told The New York Times that the leading American fair would be improved by vetting, a formal inspection of merchandise that was customary at the top European venues.
“It would take only one extra day,” said Stair, whose suggestion was warily regarded by most of his colleagues, who felt that the arduous procedure was both unnecessary and impractical in a setting where exhibitors, selected for their high standards, routinely offered guarantees. Buatta and Carrell agreed with the majority, but opted to let exhibitors decide for themselves.
Finally implemented in 1993, vetting today is a rigorous process that takes a day or more to complete. The vetting committee, currently chaired by exhibitors Michele Beiny Harkins and Robert Wilkins, brings together 140 experts in 30 fields who thoroughly scrutinize every object and ensure that all labels are comprehensive and accurate.
“In the right spirit and properly organized, vetting is a constructive process. It is a collegial gathering that advances knowledge. The Winter Antiques Show has become more scholarly because of it,” says Wilkins.
Controversy surrounding the Show wasn’t limited to vetting. While some loved the exuberant folk art that each year made headlines, others wished for more traditional furniture, porcelain, and silver. Still others urged organizers to be more progressive, admitting international dealers and embracing twentieth-century art and design.
“The Show has too much Americana. It needs more French and English furniture, and less brown wood,” said Buatta. Exhibitor cuts in 1983 were followed by more in 1988. In a nod to internationalism, Buatta brought in Michel Ottin, a Parisian dealer in French furniture, and, several years later, Bernard Steinitz. The Paris antiquary supplied the luxe Buatta hoped for, one year featuring a $700,000 bed made for Marie Louise, the second wife of Napoleon, and, the following year, a collection of thirteen-foot panels and boiseries priced at $1.2 million.
“This is supposed to be the ‘Great American Show.’ But when I walk through, it looks awful Englishy, like some second-rate Grosvenor House,” one exhibitor groused to the press, concerned that domestic wares were being exiled forever.
Frustrated by the lack of consensus, Buatta resigned in December 1990. He was succeeded by Betty Sherrill, the influential president of McMillen, Inc., America’s first professional interior design firm. Mrs. Sherrill was chairman of the Show through 1993. N. Pendergast Jones, a Carrell protégée who was named manager of the Winter Antiques Show after Carrell’s retirement in 1987, resigned in 1994. The “Great American Show” had entered a new era.
With Carrell’s departure, exhibitors turned to one of their most senior colleagues, Allan Chait, to speak on their behalf. A warm, dignified man who radiates integrity, Chait has participated in every Winter Antiques Show since his father, a specialist in fine Chinese works of art, joined the fair in 1960. Clients of the Ralph M. Chait Galleries, founded in 1910, have included the Rockefellers, J.P. Morgan, Herbert Hoover, and Winston Guest.
Chait was the first to head the Dealers Committee, a rotating panel of six exhibitors in diverse fields whose duty it is to communicate exhibitors’ concerns to East Side House, and vice versa. Such democratic representation, thought to be unique among American shows, is a direct outgrowth of the controversies of the 1980s. For the past six years, Mark Jacoby, president of Philip Colleck Ltd., has chaired the committee.
“Looking back, it was a stage that the Winter Antiques Show had to go through to reach maturity,” Chait reflects. “East Side House Settlement puts on the Show. We are the actors. You can’t have one without the other. We have all become more understanding.”
“Those were difficult years. But together we survived them and we now go forward without controversy,” agrees Joan Mirviss, a petite, immaculate brunette who succeeded Chait in the early 1990s. She gives former East Side House president Jack McAlinden credit for forging the new partnership and for paving the way for the Show’s current chairman, Arie L. Kopelman, and its executive director, Catherine Sweeney Singer.
Polished and effervescent, Kopelman has refashioned the Winter Antiques Show in his own image. Like Kopelman, president of Chanel for the past eighteen years, the fair is stylish, worldly, and diverse. Thanks to the chairman’s marketing acumen, it is also a commercial success.
“We now net over a million dollars for the charity,” says Kopelman, who increased ticket prices consistent with other leading Manhattan charities and developed the fair’s corporate underwriting, a major contributor to the event’s bottom line. Since taking the helm in 1995, Kopelman has single-mindedly pursued a three-part strategy for differentiating the Winter Antiques Show from its competition.
“One, we want a strong core of Americana, which is roughly a third of the material. Two, with changes in decorating trends, we must maintain an eclectic mix of dealers. Three, we need a wide range of prices; we want museum quality pieces, but we also want the energy that comes from a lot of people anticipating being able to buy,” says Kopelman.
To implement his vision, Kopelman turned to Catherine Sweeney Singer, whose reputation for unswerving managerial resolve is tempered with sprezzatura, an irresistible brand of grace under pressure. A scholar of Italian Renaissance art and a former art magazine publisher, Sweeney Singer was familiar with the antiques trade when she was introduced to Kopelman in 1994.
Over the past decade, in consultation with dealers, the team has fine-tuned the Show’s appearance by adding new exhibitors and by changing elements of its design and construction, creating an increasingly luxurious backdrop for the world’s most coveted objects. A well-furbished café and substantial loan exhibitions accenting the collections of great American institutions have been other initiatives.
“We brought the loan exhibition up front, so that you see it the moment you walk in,” says Kopelman, who commissioned designer Stephen Saitas to create the annual installation, which has highlighted the collections of Historic Deerfield, the New York State Historical Association, the Nantucket Historical Society, Colonial Williamsburg, Winterthur, and Shelburne Museum. Fittingly, the 50 anniversary tribute showcases the “best of the best,” curators’ favorite pieces from The American Wing of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Winter Antiques Show’s central garden, a highlight from its early days, is now in the capable hands of garden antiques dealer Barbara Israel, whose yearly displays are among the Show’s most eagerly anticipated presentations.
“Gone are the days when top dealers offered a potpourri of things,” Carrell remarked in 1981. The Winter Antiques Show has long had specialty dealers, says William Guthman, who joined the fair in 1974 as a pioneering dealer in American military artifacts and Native American art. But the trend to specialize has accelerated in the past decade.
“Arie and I want dealers with great depth in their fields,” says Sweeney Singer, who, in refining the Winter Antiques Show, has made it richer and more complex, an erudite sequence of well-honed boutiques whose disparate contents are united by their beauty, rarity, and humanity.
In 1995, when Kopelman co-chaired the Show with Louis Bowen, they added nine new exhibitors, including Barry Friedman, Ltd., the Show’s first specialist in twentieth-century decorative arts. More additions have followed each year, from Hill-Stone Inc., experts in Old Master and Modern prints and drawings, to Stephen and Carol Huber, the Show’s first dealers in American needlework. Of the seventy-four exhibitors in the 2004 Show, forty are new since 1994, including specialists in Medieval sculpture, illuminated manuscripts, Shaker furniture, and ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian art. The embrace of late nineteenth-century design that The Metropolitan Museum of Art anticipated in 1970 came full circle in 2002 when Kopelman and Sweeney Singer invited Associated Artists, whose name honors the Armory’s legendary designers, to exhibit.
“Replanning every aspect of the fair has been daunting,” Sweeney Singer said at the time. A set up that normally takes a full seven days was accomplished in just three and a half. The construction crew, led by John Hamilton, worked around the clock. The crew was still moving ladders when the Show opened on at 5 p.m. on Saturday, January 19, 2002.
On the Show floor for hours that night was Michael Bloomberg. Like Chanel’s chief, New York City’s mayor governed with a cool, corporate efficiency. That evening the mayor showed compassion, too. In a bruised and shaken city, dozens of antiques dealers, truckers, carpenters, electricians, charity staff, and volunteers gave their all to ensure that the “Great American Show” went on. New York, Bloomberg said by his presence, wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Honorary chairman of the 50 Winter Antiques Show, Mayor Bloomberg once again will be by Kopelman’s side at the Seventh Regiment Armory when the fair that has held its audience spellbound for half a century opens on January 15, 2004.
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