Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
Dealers & Artists Writing Samples
Alastair Crawford Brings his Collection of Antique Silver to Nantucket Cape Cod & Islands Home (Summer 2008) Many people take work with them when they go away during the summer. On holiday flights, overhead bins are filled not only with swimsuits and beach towels, but laptops and briefcases. Alastair Crawford is even more ambitious. He opened a store at his favorite vacation spot. On Nantucket, at 3 Old South Wharf, he sells the same range of wares that made his reputation in New York as a dealer of 20th- century silver. This May, when he and his wife Caroline and their children arrive for the annual sojourn, there will be less time for the beach and sailing. Like many families, they will settle into their summer rental, and then Crawford will set off for work. Everything he sells was made by Georg Jensen, the Danish smithy that was founded in 1904.  Most famous are the pieces designed by Jensen himself, whose work drew on the influences of Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Crawford emphasizes that while he sells the production of one company, it is, nonetheless, one that has employed close to a hundred designers. Not to be overlooked are the mid-century greats. Henning Koppel, for example, was a sculptor who bedeviled craftsmen with his spare, unornamented vessels. Another designer Crawford admires is Vivianna Torun Bülow-Hübe.  A beautiful and intelligent woman, she lived in France during the 1950s and ’60s, where she was friends with Picasso. She spent the ’70s in Cold War Germany, before moving on to Indonesia. “I love the story of this cool, cool lady who designed jewelry for Brigitte Bardot and Billy Holiday.” Scottish-born Crawford had been dealing in silver for more than twenty-five years, when he opened his New York store in 2005.  The decision to sell Jensen and only Jensen reflected the intensifying interest in Modern silver. The field, in recent years, has been the subject of a few influential exhibitions, and Jensen pieces, in particular, have been breaking auction records. At the same time, he points out that Americans have a tradition of appreciation for Georg Jensen. The Danish firm opened a New York store, in 1924, that was a popular destination for collectors with advanced tastes. After the horrors of World War II, Americans were again free to travel abroad. The ocean liners docking in Copenhagen contained precious cargo in the form of dollar-laden Yanks, who headed straight to the source: the flagship Jensen store. Crawford has had contact with the old salesmen who recall, nostalgically, the throngs of postwar buyers. There was no need to disembark, though, because the best ships, like the Queen Mary, had a Jensen boutique. Wherever the cultivated rich got together, Jensen wares were sold. Accident and lack of purpose are at the origin of Crawford’s career as a dealer.  His manifest success, notwithstanding, he still thinks of himself as the family black sheep. As a young man, he broke with a centuries- old tradition by not joining the Royal Navy. And although many relations had traveled for military and imperial reasons, he was the first to live “down there” (that is, in England). It was in London, where he moved after dropping out of college (another black mark) that he got mixed up in the antiques trade. “I met a guy in a pub,” the story begins, unpromisingly, “and he gave me some silver to sell.” Crawford took a box of cups and plates to the flea market at Portobello Road, where he hawked every piece. The vendor was so impressed, that he supplied Crawford with more wares. After six months, Crawford set out as an independent dealer. It was all a bit off the cuff, working in the antiques trade. Most sales were to other London dealers. He made frequent excursions to the country on his motorbike, where he stocked up at estate auctions and rural shops. On one occasion, during the trek back to London, the day’s haul fell of the back of the bike. The police contacted him with a “good news-bad news” announcement. A driver found the silver in the road—but only after he had run over it with a bus. Much has changed since the long ago late 1970s.  It was not a time of high-flying prosperity in Great Britain, and the squalor and pessimism of those years are in flagrant contrast with the boundless riches of today’s financial capitals. Transformed, too, is the art market, which has shifted from dealer-to-dealer sales to a retail business. The emergence of the fastidious collector is a related development. “People want only the best. The second tier pieces are selling for less than they did twenty years ago,” Crawford observes. Online shopping is the culmination of these trends.  Thanks to his website, Crawford gets more inquiries from collectors overseas than in the United States. Nonetheless, he is wary of the “put in basket” dimension, which reduces buying a century-old hand-tooled brooch to the level of ordering more computer paper. Hence he made the decision to open another store.  While his New York quarters comprise a fourth floor storefront overlooking Madison Avenue, the Nantucket venue is on the marina.  Collectors drift on and off the island throughout the season. “They’re relaxed, in a good mood, and they have time to drop by and talk.”  And he has a potent sales tool in the form of Divot, a Norwich terrier, whose frisks and capers pacify bored children and parsimonious husbands. Besides, he says, “New York is empty in August.” Of course, he does not mean that, literally.  Thousands flock to the Big Apple every summer. But visitors willing to drop $10,000 on a tea service are scarce. Many, in fact, are on Nantucket. Alastair Crawford will be there, too, from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
amygale@amygale.com 212-787-5971