Antiques: Antiques

The buyers are buying - the best

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In decoys, a wigeon drake with nice original paint, 1920s, set a world auction record for the carver, $133,000 at Christie's.

The economic roller coaster was diving and climbing last week as the five antiques shows and assorted high-end auctions that make up Americana Week in New York did business.

But rather than take a cautious approach, buyers at these events - which feature many of the same dealers who participate in annual April shows in Philadelphia - seemed intent on buying, the dealers say, though perhaps selectively, with purity of form, untouched condition, and good provenance the apparent criteria ruling the high-price decisions.

"People are still really looking for the exceptional material, no two ways about it. The very good material was selling, pretty much in all categories," says Connecticut dealer Allan Katz, a longtime exhibitor at the Philadelphia Antiques Show, who was working the American Antiques Show in New York last weekend, a venue for which dealers save their best.

"I didn't hear any conversation about the stock market," Katz says. "When you take out irrational behavior from the marketplace, what you must be left with is normality!"

Ed Hild of Olde Hope Antiques in New Hope has had a similar experience working the Winter Antiques Show, which continues through Sunday at the Park Avenue Armory in New York.

"The surprise, number one, was that the opening night was a record crowd and seemed to be very aggressive," Hild says. "We sold across the board - furniture, textiles, weather vanes, sculpture. Furniture is the type of thing you don't always sell till after the show in many cases, so that was great, and they were great pieces."

Margot Rosenberg, head of the American furniture, folk art and decorative arts department for Christie's, agreed: "If you're talking about a trend in the market, [it's that] we just don't have problems with the great things anymore."

Last Friday, the auction house offered paintings, furniture and folk art from the collection of Marguerite Riordan, a well-known Connecticut dealer. Her ownership supplied distinguished provenance, her expertise assured good surface and condition, and - above all - her aesthetic "eye" chose pieces of superb form.

Clayton Pennington, editor of the Maine Antique Digest, pointed to a favorite form of mine among the Riordan lots, a burl bowl.

This bowl was the simplest of objects: a swoop of dense wood, American Indian-made in the 19th century, with traces of old red paint. It had once belonged to Winterthur founder Henry F. du Pont. Bidders sailed past the high estimate of $35,000, and the bowl eventually sold for $181,000 with buyer's premium.

A simple blue-painted bench brought $27,400, and a folky homemade steamboat weather vane with the pilot peeking out behind the wheel reached $313,000.

Buyers were very selective overall about paintings, it appears, but women and children always seem to capture hearts. Riordan specialized in American folk paintings as a dealer and, not surprisingly, her personal choices in this category did well. The group of the Willard family brought $157,000.

World-market turmoil aside, the Americana Week results offer a snapshot of how much people will pay for certain things - right now. Certainly not all lots sold, and some estimates were surely higher than the market would bear. But a fairly clear picture emerges when you consider comparable items sold at different auctions.

Patriotic images, for example, are always favorites with Americana collectors. Looking at the various "Lady Liberty" weather vanes offered, Sotheby's lot with its windswept profile brought $73,000; Christie's, with better condition, sold for $109,000.

A wrought-iron Chester County wedding roasting fork sold by Sotheby's was a folk-art offering with all the bells and whistles - three heart shapes along its length, a vine-and-berry brass inlay, and a bird's-head hook at the back. It brought $31,000, well over its $5,000-to-$7,000 estimate.

Economic forces may have shaken some of the exuberance out of the inflated decoy market, which is dominated by male collectors. Yet even there, great form could sell. Though they were carved by no special maker, the hen and drake pintail decoys at Sotheby's had lovely necks - and sold for $169,000.

Form coupled with crucial condition even ruled the basically steady furniture market. Lots of side chairs with great sculptural shapes found buyers. A simple rectangular tea table like Sotheby's Queen Anne example from Philadelphia could double its estimate and bring a $241,000 sale price because of its good surface and seductive lines.

The tilt-top piecrust tea table competition that arose in October was won by Christie's, which sold the first of the two tables for $6.76 million in the fall. Sotheby's example, although celebrated, had condition issues and sold last weekend for $1.833 million - not bad but short of the presale estimate of $2 million to $6 million.

Christie's, meanwhile, had come up with another great Philadelphia example from the Stevenson family that had been in the Dietrich Foundation. Attributed to the famous team of Bernard and Jugiez, circa 1770, this table brought $5.417 million.

It was the top lot for Americana Week - and proof that some people still have money for just the right antique.


"Antiques" appears monthly in The Inquirer. Read Karla Albertson's recent work at http://go.philly.com/kleinalbertson.

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