Two of the world’s great antique shows have become riddled with dissent. Andrew Solomon tells tales of rivalry and rift in Paris and New York.
There are only three antique shows in the world: the Paris Biennale, the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair, and the Winter Antiques Show in New York. The world is so full of precious old things that competition to be included in these three shows is very tight, and, predictably, each has generated a certain amount of bickering and infighting. This year, in both Paris and New York, large bales of straw were piled on to the back of the proverbial camel, and each city now boasts a competing show that might someday oust its well-established counterpart. In New York, a slough of dealers have been brazenly rejected, and have been involved in legal action to reinstate themselves. Only the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair, which is open exclusively to members of BADA, remains unaffected by strange political sagas of nationalism, and arrogance, and only that show manages to be completely free of upstart dealers pretending to its ruling status.
The Paris Biennale is the best antique show in the world. This year, the Grand Palais was hung with thousands of yards of yellow and pink silk, and fountains and little garden courts were set up beneath; the vendors’ booths had elegant parquet floors, trompe l’oeil ceilings, brocade wall-coverings, and furniture and paintings exquisite beyond dreams. For those not in a position to buy such things, a visit to the show was like going to any great museum. People filed past to gaze in wonder at the over-abundance of fabulous objects. In many ways, it was even more spectacular than the last Biennale. But seven of the most prominent Paris dealers — Didier Aaron, Segoura, and Jacques Perrin among them — were not in evidence.
The seven dealers in question stole the show at the last biennale: theirs were the most spectacular booths, running the full length of one wall of the Grand Palais. Other dealers resented them because, by banding together, they had effectively built their own pavilion which, by dint of its sheer scale, demanded primary attention. The seven dealers complicated their financial relationship to the backers of the Biennale by registering collectively, so the Biennale authorities demanded this year that they register individually or be excluded from the show. Led by Didier Aaron, the dealers said with one voice that if the show didn’t need them, they certainly didn’t need the show, and this spring they set up at the Bagatelle. With just these seven dealers, the Bagatelle show was much smaller than the Biennale, but it was conceived in the very grandest possible terms, and appealed to everyone’s snobbishness. So this salon des refuses somehow contrived to exhibit itself as exclusive and chic, the one with the really best things, the one at which to see and be seen. It is slightly far-fetched to speak of it as being in competition with the Biennale, which is, after all, the best antique show in the world; but it has found a niche which surely detracts from its parent show, and if ever senility begins to creep in at the Biennale, the Bagatelle will be there to take over.
The developments in New York have been far more dramatic, and ultimately far more disturbing. Of the three antique shows, the New York one has always appeared to be the least distingushed; but the largest buyership for antiques is still American, and most major collectors go to the show, which takes place at the Armory in late January. Unlike London and Paris, the New York show is held to benefit a charity, the East Side Settlement House, and is one of the most successful fundraising events in New York. The chairman, New York decorator Mario Buatta, sits on the board of the East Side Settlement House, and has been very popular with many of the trustees because he has brought so much attention to the winter Antiques Show. And with that attention has come a great deal of money.
But for many of the dealers, Buatta’s chairmanship has been problematic. When Buatta took over, Russell Carrell had been managing the show for some years. Under strained circumstances, Carrell offered his resignation, explaining subsequently that he “simply could not work with Mario.” The new show manager, Penny Jones, has had no trouble working with Buatta, and has been closely tied to a run of policy changes he has instituted. Essentially, Buatta, famous for creating the English country-house look in American apartments and houses, has shaped the show in a way that seems to reflect his own taste. He has allowed many foreign dealers to take stalls, and has given them pride of place on the floor of the Armory. People displaying Americana, at the great American antiques fair, seem no longer to have the prominence they once held.
It has been clearly stated in the contracts of exhibitors that an invitation to appear in the show one year is not an automatic invitation to return the following year. But in most instances, dealers who have shown before are able to show again. If the committee feels that someone’s standards have dropped below those of the show, he is usually given a letter explaining the complaints, and is given a year to correct them; if at the end of the following year he still falls short, he is asked not to come back again. But Buatta is an impatient man. After saying in New York magazine (28 March) that it was “time to get rid of the dead wood,” he informed seven dealers that they were being dropped. The Antique Porcelain Company, Hobart House, Michel Ottin, Jack Partridge, York House, Jesse Caldwell Leatherwood, and Lillian Cogan all received unequivocal letters of rejection which offered little or no explanation and did not permit any right of appeal.
The dealers, understandably, were distraught. Obviously, there was the whole question of loss of profit: dealers have been known to sell well over $1 million worth of material in the course of the show. Moreover, there was the terrible insult. Lillian Cogan, for one, has shown at the Winter Antiques Show every year since it was founded in 1954, and she is 89 years old. Her dismissal in particular suggested to the other dealers that nothing was stable and that anything could happen, so they joined together to form a committee. The seven exiled dealers hired a lawyer and initiated a legal proceeding, and after a certain amount of fanfare, Buatta issued a retraction of his earlier statements and agreed to reinstate them. But the saga did not end there.
Under the chairmanship of Allan S. Chait, the committee wants represenyation oin the board of the show, which chooses the dealers and makes other major decisions; it wants the show to include only dealers who maintain some kind of dealership in the United States. “They don’t have to be born here, or live here, or like it here,” says Chait, “but they can’t just rent a mail drop for the year and call themselves American dealers.” And it wants “letters of concern,” the one-year warnings that explain why someone might be dropped, to be mandatory. The committee is in constant discussion with the board of the East Side House; but meanwhile, letters of concern have been issued to the seven dealers dropped last year, and ten others are expecting to receive similar letters before this year’s exhibition opens. Some Americana dealers, in particular, are feeling the pinch. Two members of the board of the East Side Settlement House have resigned — though this only serves, of course, to strengthen Buatta’s position on the board.
The great white hope is Russell Carrell, who in 1989, at a time yet to be determined, will be putting on another antique show at the Armory, which will be “entirely comparable to the Winter Show,” in quality. It will be “what the Winter Antiques Show used to be.” He intends to admit “a smattering” of European dealers, but his show will be better balanced than Buatta’s, including American, English, French, and other work. In the American tradition, it will benefit charity: he has been taken on by the Lenox Hill Neighbourhood Association, one of New York’s most fashionable charities, which is based in the East Seventies, whereas the East Side House, despite its name, is based on Alexander Avenue in the Bronx, and is not really at all fashionable. Carrell is careful not to slight the show he has left, and maintains that the East Side Settlement House is an important cause which he “hopes will always benefit form an extremely fine show,” but he adds, wryly, “It’s the Upper East Side versus the South Bronx.”
Many dealers are delighted that Mario Buatta has some competition. The new show will be glad to accept dealers from the old one, though whether the organisers of the old one will permit those who wish to remain connected to show in the new one remains to be seen. “I’m sure disgruntled dealers, many of whom are top people, will flock to the new show,” said one dealer. “And eventually the Winter Antiques show is going to degenerate into the kind of decorator’s showcase that he is pig-headedly turning it into. The board of the East Side House loves him because he brings in so much money right now. But they have no foresight: in the long run, he’s the worst decision they could have made, and he’s running the show into the ground.”