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King of the Antique Collectors Looks for 'Made in USA' Label

December 25, 1987|SARAH BOOTH CONROY | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Harold Sack knows most great American antiques personally. Perhaps that's why, at 75, even his face, which looks a bit like a carving on a table leg, seems to have acquired a patina instead of wrinkles.

Sack, president of Israel Sack Inc. of New York, is reputed to have invented the American antique market, an ornate and arcane world where thousands of dollars can turn on whether a paw foot on a table is hairy enough.

Sack denies it. "My father did," he says with some modesty. And to prove it, he wrote (with Max Wilk) "American Treasure Hunt: The Legacy of Israel Sack" (hardback, Little, Brown & Co.; soft-cover, Ballantine Books), a delicious peep through the windows of American antique collectors, a history charting the phenomenal rise of the American antique, and a biography and a kaddish for his father, Israel Sack, who died in 1959.

At the big New York auctions of American antiques--such as the Oct. 24 sale at Sotheby's that totaled $3.7 million--Sack is as familiar as the auctioneer's hammer.

Auctioneers and bidders alike watch him closely as he sits on a front seat and spends hundreds of thousands of dollars with a barely noticeable flick of his pencil.

At the Sotheby auction--five days after the crash of '87, with stock prices falling like hail on Wall Street--Sack, as he says, "put my money where my mouth is."

He paid $143,000--considerably more than the high estimate of $30,000--for a "fine and rare" Federal mahogany extension accordion dining table, circa 1810, New York. And he paid $110,000 for the Chippendale carved mahogany block-front slant-front desk from Salem, Mass., circa 1775, that Sack Inc. had owned five years ago, intending, of course, to resell.

"Prices were high and strong all during the sale," Sack says. "At every major recession since World War II, antiques have brought record auction prices. The Flayderman sale in 1930, just a few months later than the crash of '29, broke all records.

"In 1932, business in general fell into the abyss. Still, even then the Depression didn't affect prices on masterpieces. . . . A large segment (of people) have funds to indulge their taste."

Not Exactly Right

One of the legends about Israel Sack is that he bought up all the prize antiques from stockbrokers going bust after the 1929 crash--and that his sons kept them in the basement until prices rose in the late '70s and '80s. But Harold Sack says that's not exactly right.

His account: In 1931, Israel Sack got a tip from a friend of President Herbert Hoover that the market was going to turn up. The elder Sack moved to New York and began to buy furniture collections in bulk on credit, just as brokers had bought stock on margin before the crash.

But when the Depression settled in, and the cash flow was slow, the firm was almost ruined, and the Sacks had to liquidate their inventory. The Sacks still brood over the treasures sold in that auction. It was just as the elder Sack used to caution: "Sell and repent."

Today, Harold Sack predicts the market in antiques will hold up even better in the financial crisis than it did in the '30s, because interest in antiques is broader, and so is knowledge.

But he also thinks that people who buy solely for speculation in the antique market will "chicken out early," and that the middle classes will perhaps not be able to afford to buy antiques as easily.

"On the other hand, some people, fearing a crisis, may be willing to sell their treasures--that's an opportunity to strike for those with courageous money."

Sack says there's no doubt that American antiques are good investments. And besides, unlike stock, you can sit in a chair while you wait for its price to go up.

Status and Background

At the moment, the most expensive piece on the Israel Sack Inc. floor is a Chippendale Baltimore highboy at $450,000. The Sacks like to "decorate" their showroom with such important pieces. "It gives us status, background," Sack says.

He and his partner, younger brother Albert, are often seen on lecture platforms, explaining how to tell the fake from the true antique. Their father, a Lithuanian cabinetmaker who learned dovetailing in Birmingham, England, went to work faking antiques in Boston, the day after he got off the boat. But he fell in love with real American antiques and helped establish them, at least at home, as the equal of European.

Harold is business head of the family firm; he says Albert, who wrote "Fine Points in Furniture," is the scholar of the family. Another younger brother, Robert, and nine other assorted relatives mind the store.

When Harold Sack isn't at the store, it's likely he's in some grand mansion, or his own gallery on East 57th St. in New York City, buying or selling some rare and important American Federal object.

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