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Gilt-y Pleasures

Sinfully High Prices and All Things American Are the Name of the Game at the Winter Antiques Show in New York

January 21, 1998|BROOK MASON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — Shopping for highboys and snuffboxes on opening night at the Winter Antiques Show was as hectic as hitting Rodeo Drive at high noon on Dec. 23. Arie Kopelman, Chanel CEO and show chairman, could barely get down the aisles filled with collectors, first-time buyers and browsers dressed in black tie and diamonds.

"Even if you don't buy anything," he said, "you can see rare antiques," which, in part, explains the frenzy.

The watchwords this year are astronomical prices, a growing collector base and infatuation with all things American--especially anything from Native Americans, from saddle bags to blankets.

Within the first hour of Thursday's gala preview party, dealer Leigh Keno's prize piece, a Newport, R.I., Chippendale tea table, was snapped up for a stunning $4 million. In a different vein, a set of massive Civil War cannons, in working order and priced at $85,000, went within minutes too. American tribal arts dealer Donald Ellis wrote up more than $1 million in sales in a scant three days.

But then the Winter Antiques Show, which continues through Sunday, is extraordinary--the priciest show in the nation, showing the rarest antiques by internationally acclaimed dealers. Opening-night tickets were $1,000. In attendance and nibbling the hors d'oeuvres and sipping the best champagnes among the 2,000 guests were TV host Charlie Rose, director Alan Pakula and his wife, Joanna, Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, Lee Radziwill and designer Vera Wang. Scouring the booths were the ubiquitous Martha Stewart and swarms of old-line decorators such as Mario Buatta, Bunny Williams, Albert Hadley and Mark Hampton.

The show's setting is a warren of 72 dealers' rooms, bedecked with serious moldings and period wallpapers in the 7th Regiment Armory on Park Avenue, a massive 19th century Frenchified fortress complete with interiors by Louis Comfort Tiffany. More than 1,000 master carpenters, lighting technicians, painters and drapers labored over the installation.

Proceeds from ticket sales go to the East Side Settlement House in the South Bronx, the country's poorest congressional district, miles from the Upper East Side. Enhancing this year's benefit is a loan exhibit of gleaming highboys and other antiques valued at $7 million.

The show coincides with "Americana Week," when Sotheby's and Christie's hold extensive sales of American furniture and decorative arts. On Friday, Christie's took in $13.5 million for American antiques--nearly double its estimates.

"It's a fantastic way for American collectors to start the year," said John Hays, Christie's American furniture specialist.

In addition, the show has spawned four others with lesser prices around town. Clearly, New York is the epicenter of the antique world, with connoisseurs and fans packing the city. In fact, the winter show is a $100-million event, said Bruce Perkins of Flather & Perkins in Washington, which provides insurance coverage for many dealers as well as noted clients like Winterthur and the White House.

Noted Americana dealer Keno said of his rare $4.2-million carved mahogany Chippendale tea table with tray top: "In a word, it's a masterpiece." Attributed to cabinetmaker John Goodard, it was made before the Revolution, one of only eight such tables known to exist. Keno offered the table on behalf of the descendants of the original owner, Capt. Buckminster Brintnall of New Haven, Conn. The buyer's agent had to stand in line for two hours just to be the first through the door.

Fine Americana lines many a booth, and highboys are in profusion. But it's not all Chippendale and Heppelwhite. Arts and Crafts furnishings, both American and British, are well represented. Cathers & Dembrowsky is packed with choice pieces by renowned Los Angeles designers, a rare chest by Arthur Matthews, and a hammered-copper vase by Dick Van Erp.

"My clients from Los Angeles always come to this show, just because the offerings are so extraordinary," Beth Cathers said.

This year, a record seven dealers are offering Native American wares. There is so much clothing, an entire wardrobe could be assembled. There's an antelope-hide dance skirt for $13,500, an 18th century caribou hunting coat at $185,000, and an Ojibwa bandoleer bag with porcupine quills at $145,000.

"It's the Gucci bag of its time," said Canadian dealer Donald Ellis of the latter item.

*

Although the show is best known for its solid Americana, dealers come from across the country, London, Paris, Munich and the Netherlands. Two-thirds carry English, European and Asian antiques.

Dealers new to the show include Stephen and Carol Huber of Old Saybrooke, Conn., the only dealers in the country specializing in period needlework. Their booth featured two tent-stitch 18th century samplers by an 11-year old Connecticut girl, Mary Lockwood. In needlepoint, children's work can be valued highly; Mary's quaint samplers were priced at $225,000 for the pair and sold on Monday.

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