‘The Winter Show’ Antiques: Lobster Tails, a Shark, and One ‘Griffin Goblin’

Three Musicians, 1958, by John Koch. Oil on canvas. (Courtesy Hirschl & Adler, New York/Photo: © Eric W. Baumgartner)
Wares at the annual charity event run the gamut from colonial furniture, to a watercolor by a Victorian fairy painter, to a Space Age tea set.

The Winter Antiques Show is one of my favorite art fairs, for quality, new things to see, and camaraderie. It’s become a society event, too, with a good charitable cause, corporate sponsors, committees with billionaire names, and a glitzy opening-night party. Profits from ticket sales go to the East Side House Settlement, which cleverly first organized the show as a fundraiser in 1954. It’s called “the Winter Show” now. I suppose it sounds grander since it aggrandizes an entire season rather than just the maligned world of brown furniture and weather vanes.

I’m not one to malign brown furniture, however. I think Nathan Liverant & Sons has shown at the fair since the late 1950s. The firm, still family-owned and with the stamp of quality, had a lovely Queen Anne maple flat-top highboy made in Stonington in Connecticut in the 1760s. It’s $32,500.

Connecticut was then, and is now, a border state and a melting pot of New York and New England sensibilities. Southeastern Connecticut had enough wealth to support its own furniture makers, who combined their eccentric styles with features from more bustling places like Newport or New York. It’s got an appealing lobster-tail apron characteristic of Rhode Island furniture, a thin bit of wood that’s maritime but also adds a sense of weight. This highboy is a well-made thing, too. The runners are exquisitely engineered and crafted. Open and close the drawers, and you hear a swoosh and feel no more resistance than a gentle tug at fine silk.

Bernard & S. Dean Levy has an impressive Connecticut Chippendale-style chest on chest made in Wallingford in the early 1790s. It has a good provenance — a brigadier general once kept his private things there — and is reasonably priced at $55,000. English Chippendale style suggests lightness, as much as something you place things in or on can be anything but reliable. Levy’s piece is a good example of New England furniture’s Rococo moment.

In New England, nothing is ever light and airy, though. That would be frivolous. And, besides, the skill needed for a truly serpentine, arbitrary Rococo design was in short supply. Here, Chippendale’s spirit exists in its pierced tympanum. It’s a luxury touch since it’s fine, thin, and easily broken.

New England colonial furniture sometimes tracks gravestone design with a lag of a few years. The tympanum on this chest would have been a ghoul a generation earlier in local cemetery sculpture. Later, in household furniture used by the living, it might’ve looked fancy, with a touch of whimsy, but the circle anchoring it is disciplined and letter-perfect. The rest of it is a rock, sitting without doubt, handsome and at ease with the moment of levity somewhere up there, above the top drawer.

Cove Landing’s English starburst-pattern tilt-top center table from about 1825 is made of geometric pieces of ebony, black walnut, palmwood, amboyna, and burr maple. It’s effusive compared with the things from Connecticut. The design continues smartly on the pedestal and base. The base is octagonal and chamfered, the base tripartite, which together make for an elegant complexity. It’s $40,000 and big enough for a breakfast table. The dealer specializes in English and Biedermeier furniture and always has good things. Like all the other dealers I like, they’re connoisseurs, scholars, and educators. They know more than many art historians and take pride in building long-term relationships with smart collectors.

S. J. Shrubsole is New York’s finest silver dealer, specializing in old English and American silver but flirting from time to time with the Space Age. Its “Circa ’70″–pattern coffee and tea service, made by Gorham in 1965, was one of the show’s best surprises. Its sleek contours and bony, elongated finials and handles suggest speed and verticality. At 221 ounces, the set weighs nearly as much as Gemini 3, sans crew. It’s luxurious but, design-wise, very edgy. It’s $32,500, the best deal ever inspired by NASA.

In the last few years, the Winter Show has broadened its wares to include paintings and works on paper. These days, we see lots of work by Joan Mitchell, some strong and vibrant, some bad. She was an uneven artist. Michael Altman Fine Art is a fine dealer, but the Mitchells in his booth were not very good, and a giant Robert Longo picture of a shark? Who would want that?

I also saw contemporary Asian painting, at another booth, scroll-inspired, and sprinkled with glitter. Now, a snow picture by Grandma Moses with glitter is lovely. It’s a feature of her unorthodox realism for which I can vouch since I live in southwestern Vermont, about ten miles from her place. A dry snow, a foot of it or more, does glitter. There, glitter makes sense. Elsewhere, it can turn gaudy at warp speed.

There were many remarkable things, in the best sense. Hirschl & Adler Modern sold a gorgeous painting by John Koch. Koch (1909–1978) was a New York–based artist who depicted everyday life among musicians, artists, intellectuals, and writers on the Upper West Side in the 1950s and 1960s. He worked in a realist style, which put him on a different track from the default standard in his day — abstraction — but his cryptic, snapshot scenes and subtle, gauzy light make him modern. He was a successful portraitist and earned a living doing it. His wife was a renowned music teacher. It was a time when a middle-class couple could have a comfortable life at the El Dorado on Central Park West. It was a rarefied place but, at the time, not for the rich and famous. By the 1970s, the neighborhood wasn’t ideal, and the big apartments were white elephants.

The picture sold quickly to a buyer with the very best taste. The asking price was $550,000. Koch is the Upper West Side’s Vermeer. His scenes of everyday life are rare. Owners cherish them. Boosting their value in the market is a very simple fact. They look good with everything.

The London dealers Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker Ltd. have a watercolor by Richard Dadd (1817–1886), the Victorian fairy painter who spent most of his life in Bedlam, the English mental hospital, after killing his father. He spent the rest of his life there and at Broadmoor, another experimental hospital.

I love Dadd’s work. It’s neurotic and obsessively precise in a distinctly Victorian way. It’s got a dash of something special, like Dickens dreaming after a surfeit of good gin, though in this case the “special” was Dadd’s certified craziness. Avarice is one of his watercolors depicting human passions, over which he ruminated and with which he struggled. He’s a wonderful artist dancing to the beat of his own drummer. It’s a disquieting scene, even if we know nothing about the artist, with two meanie money lenders working for the imaginary Earl of Frigfarten. They’re issuing a mortgage witnessed by Griffin Goblin and Integer Nonentity. Dadd’s biography is unusual but, aside from that, his work is rare and exceptionally good, crackling with suggestive and enigmatic detail. This is exactly what we want to see at an art fair. It’s $115,000 and worth it.

Menconi + Schoelkopf is a fine firm whose principals have a distinguished pedigree among the best dealers in American art from the 1950s, when the market for old American things started to have a real pulse. They had a smashing Winslow Homer Adirondack watercolor from 1892. It’s never been on the market, belonging to the same family since Homer painted it. At a bit over $6 million, it was the most expensive thing I saw. It’s very beautiful, obviously has been treated well, and has a nice combination of Homer’s illustration-style clarity and his supreme late-career abstraction.

Menconi also has John Singer Sargent’s oval portrait of the Countess of Essex from around 1906. What can I say? It’s the apotheosis of hauteur. Sargent decided in 1907 that he would paint, as he sarcastically wrote, “no more paughtraits.” He felt he was on a flattery treadmill, especially when he painted aristocrats, those flattery sponges. Some of these late aristocratic pictures do look mechanical, but here he was at the top of his game.

It’s an oval picture, which gives it a French rococo feel, but its beauty is in Sargent’s free paint handling. It’s like frosting on a wedding cake, or fluffy clouds. She’s part cherub and delectable but not without spine. Sargent used the same puffs-of-cotton treatment on Nancy Astor in his portrait of her, about the same time. Mrs. Astor rises into the heavens like the angel she definitely wasn’t. Both women, like Sargent, were Americans who went native, though Sargent always considered himself American in citizenship and spirit.

Sargent liked the countess, if not her airhead, snooty friends. “She was infinitely nicer than the Incroyables she flocked with but didn’t resemble,” he wrote after she died in 1922. He felt her good taste and innate elegance were “a magical insulation to keep her immune from perils.” Having the aura of command that a generation later marked Bette Davis certainly didn’t hurt her. She’s worth $1,250,000. She’d enliven any collection.

Not everything that’s flat is a painting. H. Blairman & Sons is the venerable London dealer specializing in English furnishings from the Regency to the Arts and Crafts periods. A large tile panel from about 1896 was one of several showstoppers in his booth. Designed by William de Morgan, it’s a lovely example from the William Morris school of ceramics. It was made for the RMS Arabia, a luxury ocean liner. It was commissioned for military use during the First World War, stripped of many of its luxury fittings, and sunk by a German U-boat in 1916. The dealer is asking $58,000. It’s an elegant thing, with brilliant colors and a succinct design.


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