Monday, January 26, 2009

NY in January: Carnival for Americana Collectors

Unfortunately this year, Hollie couldn't make it to New York (Andrew was accompanied by his boss, Garth's CEO Jeff Jeffers), so here is Andrew's journal of Americana Week 2009:


Arrived in NY after an uneventful flight and cab ride to the hotel (in the 50s at Lexington….good central location). Started my day previewing at Christie’s, which, admittedly, had somewhat of a thin offering—decent quality, but not their usual phonebook-sized catalog. Spent a good deal of time going over my favorite piece of furniture in any of the auctions—a funky sideboard by John Shearer of Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia). See John J. Snyder Jr., "John Shearer, Joiner of Martinsburgh," Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts, vol. 5, no. 1 (May 1979), pp. 1-25 for info on this quirky cabinetmaker (and yes, the brasses on this sideboard were originally put on at an angle).

I also had a fabulous experience with one of the Christie’s staffers who was working the silver preview. She gave me the nickel tour of their offerings (including the Revere silver) and even showed me the display for Lincoln’s 1864 victory speech that they’ll be selling in February. Between this kind lady and Gil, the best doorman in NY, service at Christie’s was top notch!

After Christie’s it was a jaunt uptown to Molly Pitcher’s where there was an informal gathering of younger Winterthur alumni, which included folks working at such institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, and the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee (publishers of American Furniture and Ceramics in America).

After a quick bite there, we headed to The American Antiques Show. It’s a great show…quality dealers peddling quality stuff. Like Hollie and I noticed at both the Deerfield and Delaware shows, those dealers that adjusted their prices to make them more economy friendly are the ones that had the red stickers.

Jeff also humored me by snapping the photo of me with Giant Baby (the Giant Baby was available from Carl Hammer Gallery of Chicago).


Most of the day was spent at Bonham’s for their inaugural Americana sale in New York. Decent quality, but the general opinion was that there wasn’t enough quality for January in New York. The sale, however, was rough…just over half of the lots sold, and there were a number of high profile passes. Not a good start to the week, despite the big bucks paid for the Herter Brothers furniture at the end of the sale.

After the Bonham’s sale, it was off to the St. Regis for drinks with business associates. Seriously folks, you need to visit this grand old hotel. You probably can’t afford a room (and maybe not even a drink…ack!), but you’ve got to see the barback. It’s a monumental painting by Maxfield Parrish. Holy smokes what a painting!

Then a late dinner with friends and then to the hotel to rest up for a busy Friday.


Since Maine Antique Digest editor, Clayton Pennington, was in town, we got together for breakfast; and MAD writer Lita Solis-Cohen also joined us. Hollie and I have been writing the “Young Collector” column for well over a year, but this is the first time either of us had met Clayton in person. We had a wonderful chat about the column and the marketplace…and about what was to come over the next few days.

Then, Jeff and I were off to the Antiques at the Armory Show, my first time. Big variety of antiques here…from ancient to modern, but all pretty darn nice. Couldn’t spend too much time there, however, because we had to get to Christie’s for their afternoon session. Frankly, Christie’s is my favorite of the NY houses, though I realize my reasons have nothing to do with their offerings. I know more of the folks at Christie’s and I just love to sit in their auctions…John Hays is a super auctioneer; a raise of his eyebrows at you can get you to stick that paddle up one more time.

The auction went okay. Better than Bonham’s, but still soft prices and a number of high profile passes. A bright spot in that sale was $550,000 paid (plus the buyer’s premium) for a Charles Peale Polk portrait of George Washington by Mount Vernon (where a friend and a fellow Winterthur alum is an assistant curator). Congrats to them on that great acquisition! And thanks to Clayton for posing with me in front of the portrait.

After Christie’s, we headed to The Big Show (aka, the Winter Antiques Show). The nation’s leading dealers were there and there was some killer stuff. Sumpter Priddy, Elliot and Grace Snyder, Olde Hope, Jonathan Trace…the dealers you want to know if you want to build a great collection. Fortunately, a number of the dealers that I talked to had already “made it into profit” for the show, so there was definitely some buying.

Afterwards, we had dinner with a very good client at a great Italian place near Times Square, followed by a drink at the Marriot eight stories above Times Square.


Our last day, but still a full day (evening flight). Started with the Landon collection at Sotheby’s in the morning (only 3 passed lots!) followed by a whirlwind trip to the Ceramics Fair at the National Academy Museum. One of my favorite shows even though I’m not a ceramics or glass collector (yet!). You can learn so much just by walking and looking. And if you ask questions, the dealers will go to town showing you all sorts of things. One of my favorites is glass dealer Ian Simmons, who always insists on showing me the great Midwestern glass he’s offering. When Hollie and I get a cupboard with glass doors, I told him, I’ll be calling him with my want list.

Back to Sotheby’s, then, for their afternoon multi-owner sale, and boy what a difference. In the auction world, most of us doing the selling work with consignors to allow us to use conservative estimates because we feel that lower estimates entice bidders and thus elicit more bids. This strategy was proven undeniably true in NY this week. At Bonham’s and Christie’s, and at Sotheby’s afternoon session, higher estimates (which meant higher reserves) resulted in lackluster bidding and lots of passes. However in the Landon sale at Sotheby’s (Saturday morning), the estimates were lower and there was lots of bidding. In fact, it was like a real auction (sometimes the New York auction model—that is, using aggressive reserves and hoping for just that one bidder to put his/her paddle up—seems a little artificial as auctions go).

Stay tuned to MAD for complete coverage of Americana Week in New York. If the week was any indicator of the antiques market in 2009, then it might be a rough year. But, we’ll get through it. Let’s remember to keep things in perspective. And let’s also remember that we’re in this together—dealers, auctioneers, collectors, and sellers. Get out and support the auctions and shows, perhaps try and make some purchases, especially if you’re young!

Monday, January 12, 2009

What are you waiting for??

At Garth's, and we'll bet every other auction house in the country, there remains stuff that was purchased and been paid for, sometimes years earlier. This perplexes us greatly. When we make a purchase, we simply cannot wait to get our grubby little paws on it. Seriously, for Andrew, it's worse than waiting to open presents Christmas morning.

So, last week, Andrew needed to pick up a consignment in Virginia, and Hollie tagged along (always a great help in providing top-notch customer service, and she's a charming traveling companion). And since Hillsborough, North Carolina was only a couple hours from the pickup, we decided to swing down and visit Leland Little Auctions. Despite arriving at near closing time, Leland and staff were tremendously hospitable.

Of course, the real purpose of this visit was to pick up a one-drawer stand that we purchased in their December auction (shown on the right...image courtesy of Leland Little Auctions). It was catalogued as southern, and not surprisingly as there are a number of tables and stands with similar cabriole legs that were made in the lower Mississippi River Valley, particularly in the New Orleans area, in the early 19th century. However, we don't think it's a Lousiana stand. Most of the stands from that area utilize cypress as the secondary wood while this stand has poplar. So what is it?

We think it's Midwestern. During the second quarter of the 19th century, thousands of Germanic settlers flooded into the Midwest, establishing communities from Ohio to Missouri. These communities held tightly to their European culture and the furniture they made and used reflected this.

In the case of this stand, if you remove the brass pull (the stand originally didn't have a pull), it exhibits a simplified neoclassicism that is very reminiscent of the Biedermeier furniture made in Europe during this same period and in the same parts of Europe from which these Midwestern German settlers came. And the woods--cherry and poplar--are exactly what you would expect from a Midwestern stand. Voila!

That's what we love about this stuff...making connections, finding that next piece of the puzzle. It's particularly exciting with this stand as the early furniture of the Midwestern Germans is the next big puzzle that Andrew is tackling.

So, we have to ask...why would we wait any longer than absolutely necessary to pick up our stuff??

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Reader Feedback

In response to our column, "Commodity Futures (or the Risk of Commodifying Antiques)", which you can read here, we got the response posted below. We thought we'd put it up here and get your thoughts!

Email from 12/30/08:


Guys, guys, guys--I am the author of a new book, Three Steps to Investment Success: Buying the Right Art, Antiques, and Collectibles, which you no doubt noticed on line but certainly failed to read.

I am an ISA Certified appraiser and have been a full time art and antiques appraiser for the past nineteen years, as well as having been a dealer and degreed in Art History. I suppose that I'm one of those 'experts' (maybe I should talk to my attorney?) that you dismiss so blithely in your sloppy and perfunctory article advising buyers of art and antiques not to utilize any clear strategic financial thinking when making purchases. (I'm sorry, YOUR qualifications were...?).

Your article recycled the same old illogical slogans and platitudes current in the industry for years, parroting the typical art and antiques trade 'party line' about 'buying what you like' and 'buying the best that you can afford' (why should anyone bother to 'buy the best' that they can afford one might initially ask, if that doesn't coincide with what they really like?). You sort of weave in and out of financially considered art and antiques buying, unsure of the logic of your arguments and ultimately appearing not to have carefully analyzed what you are talking about. The results of such ideas are predictable: clients with collections of expensive and ultimately valueless junk who have done nothing but 'buy what they like', buyers who interpret consideration of the 'best' that they can afford to what carries the highest price tag, an overly emotional commercial process, and ultimately an ongoing negative picture of the art and antiques industry in the minds of the rational buying public.

Guys, talk about a yawn; you might as well have saved effort and ink in you determined quest not to offer anything actually useful to the collecting public. Certainly your stance is not one which anyone could characterize as useful, enlightening or innovative in any respect.

Scott Zema
Ark Limited Appraisals, Inc.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

We're not old, but our stuff is!

We're atypical thirty-somethings. We don't live in some hip apartment downtown furnished by Pottery Barn, and we don't live in a 3-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath in the 'burbs with 2.2 children. Nope, not us. We live in a 19th-century schoolhouse furnished with stuff older than our great-grandparents.

But, it's to be expected. Andrew is an antiques auctioneer and historian of early American furniture, and Hollie is librarian who works for an Internet antiques price database. Fortunately, we rather enjoy being different. And that's good, because in our business, we are somewhat of a novelty because we are under 50. We spend many of our weekends at auctions and antique shows, and generally we have the least amount of gray hair of anyone there.

A little over a year ago, we started writing a column in the monthly newspaper Maine Antique Digest about the antiques and art marketplace from the perspective of a couple of its younger participants. You can read our archived columns at MAD's website ( Here, you'll be able to read stuff that just couldn't quite fit in our regular columns, such as notes on our trips to shows and auctions, tidbits that we see and here about in the marketplace, and we'll address some of the letters and emails we get in response to our columns (we are big fans of open dialogue).

We also hope that this foray into cyberspace will attract other young folks with an interest in history, antiques, and art. We're always looking to make contact with folks who share our interests! So, thanks for reading, and happy New Year!