Published: October 23, 2018
By Madelia Hickman Ring
NEW YORK CITY – This is the time of year when the Americana decorative arts departments at the New York City auction houses are in the final throes of sourcing property for the January Americana sales and putting the finishing touches on the sale catalogs. With the recent release of the final list of exhibitors at the Winter Show, and the surprising news that the New York Ceramics & Glass Fair, which was thought to be one for the history books, is back on, though now without the glass, it seemed appropriate to consider the evolution of what has long been known as Americana Week. Do evolving patterns forecast trends for the future?
Americana Week, itself something of a misnomer as it spans the last half of January, used to be a consolidated series of antiques shows, auctions, lectures and other events designed to attract Americana collectors, dealers, curators and scholars to New York City. Saturation was a key component, draw and benefit for everyone. Dealers at the Winter Antiques Show and The American Antiques Show (now defunct) withheld their best pieces throughout the year and auction houses scheduled their marquee sales in January because they knew key buyers would make the trip to New York.
In recent years, however, many important collectors have passed away or stopped collecting, several of the Americana antiques fairs – specifically, the Pier shows, the Lexington Armory antiques show and The American Antiques Show – have closed, and the auction houses, which still schedule their Americana sales for mid-January, have timed their sales to sell on or right around the time of the opening of the Winter Show and Outsider Art Fair to capitalize on a smaller influx of visitors. In recent years, the auction previews and sales have been scheduled slightly ahead of the antiques shows, which lessened the availability of exhibiting dealers to preview the sales.
Going, going…but not yet gone
Auctions are, ultimately, at the mercy of consignor’s whims, not to mention market supply and demand. What does it say about the market for American antiques that neither Sotheby’s nor Christie’s has conducted a spring sale in several years, and 2018 is the first year in recent memory that Christie’s fall sale schedule has not included a dedicated American decorative arts sale? To be sure, the Americana offerings from the Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller in May kept Christie’s deputy chairman, John Hays, and his team busy during the spring months but was limited in scope, focusing primarily on decoys, with a few choice examples of folk art and paintings to tempt Americana buyers.
Sotheby’s strategy has, for the past few years, been to consolidate all its annual Americana consignments into a marathon of sale sessions in January, where it has linked single-owner sales to its various-owners sale. It is, without question, a Herculean task to catalog such a volume of lots, an endeavor that earns Erik Gronning, Sotheby’s senior vice president and head of department, props for undertaking. The variety of offerings is expansive, if not always expensive, with lower-valued lots sprinkled among costlier offerings. In January 2017 and 2018, Sotheby’s offered a total of approximately 1,250 lots, a total that includes manuscripts, silver, prints and Chinese export porcelain, in addition to American furniture, decorative arts and folk art. Sales sold respectably well, averaging 78 percent of lots selling, raking in nearly $20 million in 2017 and nearly $14 million in 2018.
Christie’s sales have a very different look. Not only do Christie’s January sales feature a larger component of Outsider art, which creates a fresh, contemporary appearance, but the sales are considerably smaller. In 2017, Christie’s offerings of silver, Chinese export, prints and a single owner collection that included European as well as American decorative arts totaled nearly 750 lots and sold slightly more than 600, achieving just more than $12 million.
A year later, an even smaller grouping of approximately 450 lots of the same material, less the single-owner sale, brought in slightly more than $8 million with about 400 of the 450 lots selling. Of these totals, it is worth pointing out that sales of Outsider art, which Christie’s has placed in the competent hands of Cara Zimmerman, have brought in the not-inconsequential sums of $1.2 million in 2017 and $2 million in 2018.
Will more be more…or less?
This past spring, it was announced that the Winter Antiques Show would be celebrating its Sapphire Jubilee with change. Not only would it get a new executive director in Helen Allen after 24 years of leadership by Catherine Sweeney Singer but, perhaps more significantly, it would be rebranded. The show, which has been known unofficially as “The Winter Show” for years, has formally dropped the word “Antiques” from its name. The reasons for the name change were multifold, including the attempt to broaden the support base to appeal to a younger audience and expand the offerings to include important Twentieth Century design. These changes follow those made in 2008, when the date range was expanded to 1969, and to the present day in 2017.
Within recent weeks, the Winter Show released a final list of exhibitors. In total, there were nine exhibitors – including four Americana dealers – who have, for a variety of reasons, opted not to return in 2019, though some of these nine have indicated they plan to return to the show in 2020. Those concerned that the outgoing exhibitors would be replaced with modern dealers can rest easy.
New exhibitors for the 2019 edition include Charles Ede (London), who specializes in antiquities; Erik Thomsen Gallery (New York City) specializing in traditional and contemporary Japanese art and decorative arts; Lowell Libson and Jonny Yarker (London), who deal in Seventeenth to mid-Nineteenth Century British paintings, watercolors, drawings and sculpture; and Red Fox Fine Art (Middleburg, Va.), which trades in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century sporting paintings and sculpture. Returning to the show after an inaugural year in 2018 are Les Enluminures (New York City, Chicago and Paris), which offers illuminated manuscripts, miniatures, rings and works from art from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance; and Maison Gerard (New York City), specializing in French Art Deco furniture, lighting and objets d’art.
There are, to be sure, some traditional collecting categories that enjoy crossover appeal and which may benefit from a broadening of the date range, but will a potential increase in modern collectors translate into increased sale for some antiques dealers, or will the increasingly broad scope materially weaken the appeal?
While the Winter Show still includes Americana dealers – eight of 70 exhibitors – it is a far smaller contingent than had been at the show in past years, perhaps the smallest-ever number of Americana dealers to exhibit at the Winter Show. These numbers are in stark contrast to the approximately 35 Americana dealers who participated in the Winter Antiques Show in the 1970s, when Americana dealers comprised the highest percentage of exhibitors. When the American Antiques Show opened in 2002, its 45 dealers joined the 15 exhibiting at the Winter Antiques Show. Perhaps the greatest saturation occurred in the mid-2000s, when antiques shows at the Lexington Avenue Armory and at the midtown Piers on the west side of Manhattan added an additional 400 dealers to the depth and variety of material on offer.
In covering regional shows and auctions and speaking with dealers and collectors alike, this writer has, on occasion, heard the question raised about the possibility of resurrecting another Americana-focused antiques show, similar in caliber and size, to what The American Antiques Show had been before its last edition in 2011. The follow-up question must be asked: are there enough exhibitors – and an audience for that material – to warrant another show?
One must first consider that two other premier Americana shows bookend the Winter Show. The first, the Delaware Antiques Show, which benefits Winterthur Museum, Library and Garden, takes place in Wilmington, Del., in early November. A couple of months after the Winter Show closes, the Philadelphia Antiques Show opens in April and now benefits the Philadelphia Museum of Art. When one adds to the mix the seven mostly Americana-focused shows scheduled during August’s Antiques Week in New Hampshire, which seemed particularly vibrant during the 2018 season, it is apparent to this writer that Americana collectors – and exhibitors – have three valid and compelling alternatives to another New York show, whether it was scheduled for January or at another time of the year. These shows are the greatest source of optimism for the future of the Americana market.
Earlier this year, it appeared as though the New York Ceramics and Glass Fair – a stalwart of the January Americana Week lineup that would be celebrating its 20th anniversary edition in 2019 – would be cancelled when show organizers Liz Lees and Meg Wendy announced that they had not secured enough dealers to justify the expense of continuing the show. In recent weeks, however, news broke that a small group of determined dealers, who trade primarily in traditional ceramics, had found a new manager who would resurrect the fair under the new name “The New York Antique Ceramics Fair.” The fair would continue in a smaller footprint, lacking the lectures and special exhibits that have been hallmarks of past fairs, but would continue at its traditional venue, the Bohemian National Hall. It would seem to be in good hands as new show manager, Michaela Boruta of Boruta Consulting, has previously organized the Asia Art Fair at the Bohemian National Hall.
At press time, the final list of exhibitors had yet to be finalized but Boruta expected a few more to join. She confirmed the roster of exhibitors includes Martyn Edgell Antiques Ltd, United Kingdom; Garry Atkins, London; Earle D. Vandekar of Knightsbridge, Inc, White Plains, N.Y.; Antoinette’s Heirlooms, United Kingdom; LÃ©on-Paul van Geenen, The Netherlands; Maria & Peter Warren Antiques, Monroe, Conn.; Leo Kaplan, Ltd, New York City; and Polka Dot Antiques LLC, Waccabuc, N.Y.
Robert Walker from Polka Dot Antiques said, “The fair is really a ‘new’ boutique version with much the same international exhibitors now entirely focused on antique ceramics. Thankfully we were able to work with the Bohemian National Hall again, this time on the third floor. It is largely thanks to their willingness to work with our small group that the fair has become a reality. We look forward to seeing everyone at the Bohemian Hall January 17-20.”
Not to miss
The third weekend of January is the most concentrated weekend for collectors with limited time to travel. Not only is this when the Winter Show and Ceramics Fair are scheduled, but the Outsider Art Fair and the Art, Design & Antiques Shows are also open, offering a broad range of material not limited to Americana. Taking place at the Metropolitan Pavilion, the Outsider Art Fair presents American as well as International Outsider, Self-Taught, Art Brut and contemporary folk art from approximately 60 vendors from around the world. The timing of the Outsider Art Fair also coordinates well with the Outsider art sales at Christie’s and likely plays a part in Christie’s recent success with Outsider art.
For the past two years, Reh Shows has produced the Art, Design & Antiques Show at Wallace Hall at the Church of St Ignatius Loyola, approximately a mile uptown from the Winter Show, featuring about 30 dealers, no more than half a dozen of which offer Americana antiques. Reh provides courtesy shuttles, like those that used to ferry show between the Lexington Armory and the Pier shows, from the Winter Show for the convenience of showgoers.
With the thinning of the Americana market, it is perhaps evident that other categories have moved to share its spotlight in New York City in January. While it is not immediately evident that the Americana market will return as the January power player it once was, there is hope in the tenacity and resilience of those who are still a presence there, and those who continue to support the field, that Americana will continue to be a market presence, even if that market is elsewhere.
Editor’s note: This article was amended October 25, 2018 to correct when the Winter Show amended its date range to present day. It was in 2017.
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