Americans and antiques. New York winter show heralds new year for collectors

AMERICANS love antiques. They love what they represent - superb workmanship, status, investment value, patriotism, decorative enrichment, and that which is uniquely beautiful and useful. And despite constantly rising prices and the dwindling supply of top quality specimens, the desire for fine antiques shows no sign of abating. This will be apparent at the 1987 Winter Antiques Show that opens here at the Seventh Regiment Armory tomorrow.

Seventy-four dealers from all over the United States will exhibit at this prestigious show that has proven to be a bellwether of prices and trends in cr`eme-de-la-cr`eme antiques.

There will be 18 exhibitors of English goods, and 17 exhibitors of American furniture and art, indicating the almost equal popularity of English and American antiques today. These two categories will dominate at this show, although great pieces from France, the Orient, and Russia will shine with their own resplendency.

A counterpoint trend involves the exotic and the unusual.

``Russian furniture and decorative objects are at the heart of this trend,'' says exhibitor Peter Schaffer of A La Vieille Russie in New York City. ``The interest in all things Russian,'' he declares, ``has accelerated over the years until it is now probably the most dominant theme in the `new wave' of decorative design.'' His firm will not only display classic Russian furniture and paintings, but also the shop's famed Faberg'e collection of art objects.

New York dealer Gene Tyson agrees that certain adventurous customers and designers are leaning toward antiques which are not only different but also have an element of surprise about them. He is showing four manificent Russian armchairs made about 1800.

For all its social glitter, the Winter Antiques Show last year raised $500,000 to benefit the 95-year-old East Side House Settlement located in the South Bronx. This year Mario Buatta, the show chairman, hopes to raise at least $700,000 to help pay for a multitude of important community services provided by the settlement house, including day care services for working mothers, special teen-age after-school programs, and senior citizens' clubs.

Begun 33 years ago, this show was one of the first in the country to benefit, with gate receipts and opening gala events, a worthy charitable cause. Four of the original dealers, all of them vigorous women, still exhibit in the show.

One of these, Elinor Gordon of Villanova, Pa., who deals in Oriental Export porcelain, says that over these 33 years she has watched prices advance from 200 to 500 percent.

``When customers appear to be in shock over today's porcelain prices,'' she explains, ``I remind them of what has happened to car, clothing, and grocery costs and tell them there is no way that antiques could have escaped the upward spiral.''

The best thing that has happened over these years, Mrs. Gordon thinks, is that people have made themselves so much more knowledgeable about antiques.

``Collectors today,'' she says, ``know what they want and how to shop and the right questions to ask. They've been to antiques forums, lectures, and classes and read plenty of books. And they always seem to be excited about the pieces they are acquiring, which makes my business more fun as well as more challenging.''

Constance Williams, of Thomas D. & Constance R. Williams of Litchfield, Conn., another of the original exhibitors, says the biggest change she has noted over the years is that husbands and wives now engage in collecting interests together. They learn together and they shop together. In former days, she says, wives came alone and husbands waited grumpily off somewhere in the background.

Elinor Merrell of New York has been showing rare antique textiles as well as rare furniture for the last 33 years. ``People have always been interested in antique fabrics,'' she says. ``Only now they are more so because they fly out all over the world and see wonderful textiles. They come home full of interest and curiosity about them and begin to collect those types that intrigue them most.''

The final original exhibitor, Lillian Blankley Cogan of Farmington, Conn., remembers that the emphasis of the first Winter Antiques Show was on American things. ``Now,'' she says, ``there is a trend toward the highly decorative pieces from Europe and Russia. But my customers still come for the Early Americana in which I have always specialized, and which they claim is the most liveable and lovable of all the periods of antique furnishings.''

According to Carl Vandekar, of Vandekar of Knightsbridge in New York, ``Gradually, people have become much more aware of porcelain. And although prices have increased significantly, it is still very underpriced compared to the best pieces of furniture and paintings. Young beginner collectors can still find good ceramic pieces priced between $1000 and $2000.'' He will be featuring 18th century English pottery at this show.

Dean Failey, vice-president in charge of American Decorative Arts at Christie's auction gallery in New York, also says there are still good values for astute consumers who develop a ``selective eye'' and who learn to ask the right questions.

He sees good values today in early 19th century American silver, and in furniture of the same period.

``There are dozens of chests of drawers and simple Pembroke tables that have a great look and are in the $300 to $2000 price range,'' he says. ``I have seen big useful chests of drawers with Sandwich glass pulls, made between 1800 and 1820, going for $1200 and below - a real bargain in today's antique world.''

The antiques show will run through Sunday, Feb. 1.

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