Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
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amygale@amygale.com 212-787-5971
"Dealers Saw Return of Excited Shoppers at Stella Modern," AntiqueWeek (December 21, 2009), That wasn’t so bad. The Modern Show, which took place October 16 to 18 in New York, was the occasion to gauge the resilience of 20th-century art and design.   Judging from dealers’ accounts, the banal so-so market has replaced the rolling catastrophes of last fall. “Sales were just okay—just good enough to be worth doing the show,” said Richard Auber of Rue Auber Antiques in Stonington, Connecticut. “Not a disaster,” according to Véronique Cassel of L’Iris Bleu in France. The optimistic note was supplied by Mark Fisk of Mainly Art Vintage Modern Furnishings in Cincinnati: “The show for us went very well. I think people feel much better about spending their money.” It feels good to be back to normal. No doubt, the financial crisis looms.  “Sales of furniture were better three to five years ago,” said promoter Irene Stella.  On the bright side: “We saw lots of decorators buying and we have not seen that in the past year or so.” And the trauma and depression of the past year seem to be wearing off. “The energy of the attendees was a happy surprise for all.” There was also the novelty of a different venue. The traditional venue, the 69th Regiment Armory, was the 9/11 processing center for missing people.  It was there that relatives submitted photos and DNA samples to identify the dead. This year the show took place in the showroom at 7 West on 34th Street. The new location with its bright lighting and view of the Empire State building was cheering. The Modern Show attracts a large number of designers and editors, and it seems those freethinking magazine people have decided that the hot trend is (drum roll) Mid-century Modern.    “My strongest selling items were still Mid-century Modern furniture pieces, lamps, and smalls,” said Fisk. His show highlights included a pair of Grasshopper chairs and ottoman by Eero Saarinen for Knoll and a sofa by T. H. Robsjohn Gibbings for Widdicomb. That’s tough luck if your specialty is Art Deco. “Art Deco is seen as old fashioned and classical,” said Cassel. Cara Antiques of Langhorne, Pennsylvania is well-known for its inventory of Clarice Cliff ceramics, but demand for the exuberantly painted teapots and sugar casters was disappointing that weekend.  Co-owner Constance Aranosian explained that collecting Clarice Cliff is not something you can delegate to the decorator. “Clarice Cliff is a personal choice and should be chosen by the person who will live with it and love it.” She added, “Nothing I sold was of interest to the buyers of Modern. They wanted glass, metal, and wood. We just didn’t fit in.” Another challenge: The perception of some show-goers and journalists that it was a furniture show.  It was not a good weekend to be a rare book seller. The fine arts were also neglected. Martin Wolpert of Papillon Gallery in Los Angeles, specializes in modern figurative painting from the first half of the 20th century.  “You have to put something besides mirrors on the wall.  That’s where I come in,” he tells clients. But gritty depictions of sailors and prostitutes were not what collectors had come for.  “People are not buying art,” he said.  The experience of Arlene Berman of New York was similar.  There wasn’t a strong demand for her field, WPA art, which has, nonetheless, attracted a lot of interest in recent years. She made use of the time by meeting people.  Besides, she notes, paintings often sell after the show, when the buyer has had to time to measure and think it over. But good show or bad show, the weekend was, for most dealers, one part of a survival strategy. “The days of dealers sitting in their shops and booths waiting for customers to just hand them money are over,” said Fisk. Internet sales are vital as is a willingness to travel.  Fisk’s business is in Cincinnati, which is an important regional market for Modern design, but he looks forward to the New York show. Cassel, likewise, lives in France, where she acquires her inventory, but most sales are in America. She does eight to ten American shows a year. Tapping into popular culture was another tactic.  It’s the year of Chanel for vintage clothing dealers, thanks to Coco Before Chanel, the big-budget film about the couture legend. Joe Sundlie of Vintedge in New York brought many Chanel garments, including some he considers museum-quality. A first-time exhibitor at the show, he was satisfied.  “People seemed to be enjoying shopping and sales were brisk.  I made some new customers.” On the one hand, dealer-to-dealer sales were reported to be down.  “I think dealers were worried about fall sales and having too much inventory going into the end of the year,” explained Fisk. On the other hand, the competition is fierce for good booth bait. The fresh-to-market material that dealers prefer is hard to find because of the reluctance to sell in a buyer’s market. Paradoxically, the quality pieces that are for sale get good prices.   “Nobody’s putting good stuff out,” said Berman. “The last of the last” is how one disappointed dealer summed up the show  More representative was the experience of Betty Koren of Bridges Over Time in Newburgh, New York: “Things are selling—a vast improvement from a year ago.” Sales included a table, 1960s, by George Nakishima, and “De Profundis,” a figural bronze, 1942, by Henryk Glicenstein.  She and her husband, Ed, are longtime dealers, who started selling Modern design eight years ago. “We wanted to go where the excitement was.” And they’re sticking with it.