American Art · Art History · Articles · Decorative Arts

A Visitor’s Guide to the Winter Antiques Show

This is an exciting time of year. No, not because of my birthday, though it was that last week as well. The end of January and beginning of February mark the annual Winter Antiques Show, which this year ran from January 24th to February 2nd. For those of you who don’t know, the Winter Antiques Show is the biggest and most important antiques show in the United States, and for anyone who works in the arts, it is not to be missed. So one day last week, I braved the cold and took a train to New York to see the show. 2014 was the 60th anniversary of the Winter Antiques Show. Accordingly, it was billed as the event’s “Diamond Jubilee”. Considering how fancy and elegant the show is, the title was quite fitting.

The Wade Thompson Drill Hall at the Park Avenue Armory. Historic image courtesy of the New York Historical Society. From armoryonpark.org.

The show was held, as always, at the Park Avenue Armory, a former National Guard headquarters turned high-end event and performance venue. The armory dates to 1881 and is itself a Gilded Age antique. It has a Renaissance Revival entry hall with beautiful wood paneling, several period rooms designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, Stanford White, the Herter brothers, and other designers of equal importance, portraits of the many upper-crust New Yorkers who belonged to the Seventh Regiment while headquartered there, and a massive wrought-iron Victorian drill hall. The Armory publishes a guide to the building’s interiors, also available online, that includes many more details about each historic room. The first year I went to the show, I arrived before the exhibition opened for the day and spent some time wandering around admiring the architecture and period rooms. I would highly recommend doing the same thing on your first trip to the Armory.

A reception room at the Park Avenue Armory. Photo by John Hall. Source: armoryonpark.org.

Admission to the Winter Antiques Show was $25 and included a thick, glossy catalog. The catalog included equal parts features and advertisements, but in the art world (much as in the fashion world), advertisements can be the most exciting part of a magazine. Like most other major antiques shows, the show benefits an important local charity – the East Side House Settlement.

This year, the Winter Antiques Show had seventy-five exhibitors. Most were from the United States, but there were also many British dealers, as well as exhibitors from France and The Netherlands. The diversity of objects offered at various booths was astounding. The most popular categories are American and European paintings, American folk art, antique furniture and clocks, luxury porcelain and glass, and Asian art – all with an extremely high degree of quality and rarity, including many museum-quality pieces. Some dealers have very unique specialties. Among my favorites were:

  • Bauman Rare Books (New York, Philadelphia, and Los Vegas). Why a rare book dealer would appeal to me should not baffle any of you by this point. Just looking at the rows and rows of old-fashioned jewel-tone bindings with gilt titles makes me very happy.
  • Les Enluminures (Paris, Chicago, and New York). Les Enluminures deals in medieval manuscripts, one of my first and greatest art loves. They also have medieval rings and stained-glass fragments. Both this year and last year, Les Enluminures was my absolute favorite booth. I wish I could afford to own a page from one of these beautiful manuscripts.
  • Peter Finer (London). Have you ever wanted to own an authentic suit of armor or the ruby-encrusted sword of a minor European prince? If so, then Peter Finer is your guy. I stop by his booth and gape at the selection of weapons every year, but I have yet to think up a good excuse to actually talk to him about any of them.
  • Kenneth W. Rendell Gallery (New York). Rendell is a historic documents and autographs dealer, and this is one of the fields I currently work in. Although I didn’t much appreciate Rendell’s booth at my first Winter Antiques Show because it lacked the visual interest of the fine arts booths, I have a whole new appreciation for it now that I understand how rare and incredible many of the documents are.
  • Elle Shushan (Philadelphia). Shushan specializes in portrait miniatures, and she displays tons of them in her artful booths. What a unique and delightful specialty!
  • Throckmorton Fine Art (New York). Throckmorton deals in Pre-Columbian South and Central American artifacts and other non-Euro American pieces. While I don’t know that I would actually want to buy any of these works because of the political and legal issues often involved, it is quite amazing to see these pieces right in front of you without the glass that usually protects them in museums.
  • Rupert Wace Ancient Art Limited (London). This UK-based dealer sells ancient artifacts, primarily from Egypt, Greece, and Rome. As with the Pre-Columbian pieces, I simply cannot get over the fact that these antiquities are right in front of me and available for sale. I like to dream about owning a small Egyptian or Etruscan statue or tiny Greek vase.
Painted Side Chair. c. 1795, Salem, MA. Wood, paint, reproduction upholstery. Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA. Photo from winterantiquesshow.com.

In addition to the exhibitors, the Winter Antiques Show always has a loan exhibition drawn from an important institution with a large collection of high-quality antiques. This year, the loan exhibition came from the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. The loan exhibition is a big deal in the art and antiques world as a whole. Both the selection and its lending institution are always written up in all the major antiques magazines, and the exhibition itself has a slim, eye-catching catalog available for free at the show. This year’s loan exhibition was called “Fresh Take: Making Connections at the Peabody Essex Museum”. As I understood it from pre-show articles I read in The Magazine Antiques, the exhibition was intended to celebrate the diversity of the Peabody Essex’s holdings and show how various pieces are interconnected despite their differences. Accordingly, the loan exhibition included paintings, sculpture, fashion, porcelain, furniture, religious artifacts, and more from all seven continents. Believe it or not, all of this was packed into a display about the same size as one of the larger exhibition booths.

Kaigani Haida artist. Mask. c. 1827. Wood and paint. Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA. Photo from winterantiquesshow.com.

Among my favorite pieces were a processional cross and small set of Christian icons, both from Ethiopia, a painted wooden Haida mask from Alaska, a sixteenth-century Italian astrolabe, and a 1920s flapper-style dress by Jenny Bernard of Paris. Every year, one particularly awe-inspiring piece is chosen to be the face of the loan exhibition; that piece is featured on the cover of the exhibition catalog and usually get its own article in The Magazine Antiques. This year, the lucky winner was this eighteenth-century Indian armchair made of ebony with foliate ivory inlay.

Indian, chair, about 1760, ebony, ivory, black lacquer, cane. Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA. Photo from pem.org

This year, there was a second small loan exhibition as well. To mark the Winter Antiques Show’s “Diamond Jubilee”, a small display in the center of the Armory presented a brief history of diamond jewelry through pieces by Graff, Chanel, Tiffany & Co., and Bulgari, alongside a Gothic Revival diamond and sapphire tiara worn by Queen Victoria. I saved this portion of the show for last and could have easily set myself up for disappointment through too much anticipation, but the diamonds did not let me down in the slightest.

Diamond and sapphire tiara originally belonging to Queen Victoria. Photo from winterantiquesshow.com.
Diamond and sapphire tiara originally belonging to Queen Victoria. Photo from winterantiquesshow.com.

Throughout the run of the show, there is a series of free lectures, book signings, and other educational events addressing a variety of subjects relating to the loan exhibition and the dealers’ selections. Most of these events sound pretty interesting, but I’ve never been able to attend one, so I don’t know anything about them. There is, of course, an Opening Night Party and a Young Collectors Night, but ticket prices for both are pretty steep.

ANONYMOUS ARTIST, Psalter Leaf with Historiated Initials “Q” and “A” (Female Saint? and Scribe), England, c. 1275. Offered by Les Enluminures. Photo from lesenluminures.com.

A few other things to note: The café is nicer than many restaurants I’ve been to. There aren’t nearly enough tables, but people do share, and you might meet some interesting people there. The people-watching is fantastic because both collectors and dealers are an interesting group, especially here at the highest end of things. Since the show is very international, you can play a great game of “name that language or accent” as well. I have met some really great people at the show. Last year, I had the best conversation with two young women from Dutch porcelain dealer Aronson of Amsterdam. They were eager to practice English, and I didn’t know much about Delftware, so they gave me a ten-minute rundown of the history and major styles and also provided me with a colorful catalog. However, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that quite a few people can give off an air of snobbishness. In a business filled with wealth, knowledge, and rare, beautiful things, I think this is inevitable. Dressing the part will make you feel a little more at home if you ever decide to go to the show. A fancy dress and jewels are not necessary, though you will certainly see people wearing them, but I would suggest staying away from jeans. I wore a sweater, nice slacks, and high-heeled boots, and I felt like I fit in quite nicely.

Hermann Winterhalter (1808-1891) Trois demoiselles de la famille de Chateaubourg, 1850 Oil on canvas (oval), 40 1/5 x 32 in. Offered by Hirschl & Adler Galleries. Photo from hirschlandadler.com.

Finally, you can get a lot of free books at the show. Many dealers publish thick, glossy, and informative catalogs that they hand out for free or sell for a small cost. On my first visit to the show, I was so eager to learn about anything and everything that I gladly took a copy of every business card, postcard, brochure, and free book available. Suffice it to say that getting this small library back home was quite a challenge. This year, I had a better idea of what books I was interested in, so I left with a much smaller stack. Near the entrance to the Drill Hall, the show also offers the most recent issues of The Magazine Antiques and Antiques and Fine Arts for free, since both periodicals are show sponsors. Everyone likes a free magazine, so be sure to pick up copies if you don’t already subscribe.

A FRENCH SILVER AND ENAMEL-HILTED SMALL-SWORD, circa 1785. Offered by Peter Finer. Photo from peterfiner.com.

The next Winter Antiques Show will take place from January 23rd to February 1st, 2015,but there are several other important shows still to take place throughout 2014. Some of the biggest and best-known include:

See you at the Winter Antiques Show next year?

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