"America first" could well be a slogan in the US art and antiques world today. Americans have discovered the richness of their own artistic and architectural heritage, and both interest and prices are soaring.
"Everyone is in search of a piece of the past," said Time magazine recently in describing the current "boom." Everyone is also in search of a piece of the present, if the burgeoning demand for contemporary art and crafts is taken into consideration. Although both art and antiques are being purchased as a hedge against inflation, dealers and galleries also refer constantly to the quest for quality. They find customers today are more knowledgeable and more discriminating and have more spendable income.
Collecting the art and artifacts produced by the painters, cabinetmakers, silversmiths, and other craftsmen of the past, as well as of the present, has become a national pastime. Some refer to it as a "national mania," but the demand at all levels is for the best.
The climate for both art and antiques is yeasty and encouraging. "Each year since the Bicentennial has brought a dramatic increase in the number of new collectors in virtually all areas of Americana," William Stahl, head of the American Furniture Department at Sotheby Parke Bernet auction gallery, said recently.
Auctions of Americana at this gallery reached $16.7 million last season, the highest net total in history. Record prices include the $105,000 paid for an engraved silver punch bowl and $29,000 for one piece of scrimshaw. Optimism for Americana promises to reach new highs in the 1980s. There will be special emphasis on 19th-century styles, including Empire and Federal periods, as well as Victorian-revival styles and Mission Oak.
At Christie's auction house in New York, a collection of 35 Tiffany lamps recently brought $1.229 million to Joseph and Lillian Mihalak of Pontiac, Mich. One spider-web leaded glass mosaic and bronze table lamp brought a staggering $ 360,000, a world-record price.
Personal collecting is at an all-time high, but so, also, is public display of art. Hundreds of corporate art collections are being put together at present , bringing income to artists and cultural involvement and aesthetic satisfaction to workers. A current exhibit called "Urban Encounters: Art, Architecture, Audience," at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, remains us that Philadelphia became the first US city to pass a law requiring that 1 percent of all new building costs be committed to the purchase of works of public art. Many other cities have since followed this precedent.
In still another direction of encouragement of ownership, Citibank of New York last fall announced the creation of a new service to assist customers in investing a portion of their assets in tangible property, such as fine art and antiques.
As for government support of the arts, Joan Mondale, wife of the vice-president, has been one of the most vocal, avid, and tireless supporters of both the arts and crafts. She has added hand-thrown pottery, handblown glass goblets, and hand-woven place mats to the permanent furnishings of the Vice-President's official residence in Washington. She has also borrowed 76 contemporary pieces of art from 23 museums to display in the official residence. She has added "wearable art" to her wardrobe, attends craft fairs, conferences, and museum openings, and has helped initiate a plan, at the federal level, whereby certain concessions in national parks can sell the work of area craftsmen.
Mrs. Mondale has also persuaded the Veterans Administration to enrich the lives of patients by adding art objects to hospitals and arranging demonstrations by artists. She sees "a renaissance of creativity everywhere" and brought a new visibility to the arts.
The National Endowment for the Arts, which estimates there are between 375, 000 and 400,000 artisans working in the United States today, is giving $1.3 million in support of the crafts in 1980.
Carol Sedestrom, who runs five regional craft fairs for American Craft Enterprises Inc., reports phenomenal growth in craft sales in 1979 and at the Baltimore winter market in February of 1980. "People are realizing that today's crafts are tomorrow's antiques," Mrs. Sedestrom says, "and many people are now willing to spend from $500 to $5,000 for handcrafted objects of real quality."
Paul Smith, director of the American Craft Museum in New York, confirms that people are looking for quality and that the new status achieved by crafts will continue into the 1980s, when craftsmen will be broadening their scope and experimenting with new means and media.
Audiences at the 1980 World Art Market conference in New York were told that New York has replaced Paris as the center of the world art market. One speaker said: "New York is now the hottest art market I have ever seen. Interest has shifted from European artists to American artists, and there has been an incredible proliferation of successful galleries and artists. The art milieu in Manhattan is the most exciting and productive in the world today."
Although the market is considered by some to be more open and eclectic than it has been in years, the Kennedy Galleries in New York is predicting a strong movement to what it terms "imaginative realism" in both painting and sculpture. The subject matter will be easy for people to relate to and the symbols recognizable. This gallery expects a new interest in painters like Jack Levine, Charles de Muth, Charles E. Burchfield, and Ben Shahn, and sees a return to the human figure in sculpture. The sculpture center in New York also predicts a return to the figure in sculpture and a new trend toward realism.
Perspectives on American art are being adjusted, bringing familiar names like Thomas Hart Benton, Marsden Hartley, and Edward Hopper into distinct focus again. Christie's New York reports buyer interest in everything from the traditional Hudson River School to American impressionists and the works of watercolorists and illustrators. A painting by Howard Pyle, the illustrator, fetched $45,000 recently, while a watercolor by Edward Hopper sold for a record price of $62,000.
The blockbuster of this year's art sales was Sotheby Parke Bernet's disposal of Frederic Edwin Church's "The Icebergs" for $2.5 million -- more than twice as much as any other any other American work of art has ever brought.
Western art, which depicts cowboys, Indians, horses, and ranch scenes, has become a strong, distinct part of the American "realism" market and is being sought by buyers from foreign countries as well. If there are any watchwords to apply to the art and crafts markets of the 1980s, they are "quality," "realism," and "representational."