Known as the Empire State in recognition of its vast wealth and natural resources, New York also has distinguished itself over the years as the hub of the antiques and fine-arts trade in America. Most of the world’s top-tier auction houses maintain galleries or agent offices in Manhattan. In addition to Sotheby’s (which just sold a Picasso painting for $95.2 million), New York City is where Christie’s, William Doyle Galleries, Swann Galleries, Phillips de Pury and many other market leaders maintain salerooms.
The new name on the New York auction scene, Bonhams & Butterfields, has a familiar ring to it. Butterfields, founded in 1865, was the principal fine art auction house on the West Coast before being purchased by Bonhams in 2002. Bonhams is the world’s oldest and largest auctioneer of fine art and antiques still under British ownership. Bonhams & Butterfields conducted their first auction in New York in June 2005, and the firm has been well received from the start, said Jon King, who directs the New York operation. “We started with jewelry, paintings and 20th century decorative art. We felt we would start there and grow … adding to the calendar, and we’ll see what works and what doesn’t.”
If December’s auction of 20th century furniture and decorative arts is any indication, Bonhams & Butterfields has gained a solid foothold in New York. “We sold two Jean Dunand pieces. One was an eggshell lacquer small cabinet for around $550,000, as well as a table for about $350,000. Our Tiffany did very well, as did our European art glass,” said King, a native Californian who had worked for Butterfields for 16 years.
Bonhams & Butterfields is located close to the competition, at 595 Madison Ave., on the sixth floor of the Fuller Building, a 40-story skyscraper erected in 1928-29. “It’s a landmark Art Deco building — absolutely beautiful,” said King.
While the Manhattan auction houses’ six-figure prices and cosmopolitan aura may be daunting to some, Sotheby’s spokesperson Kristen Gelder suggests visitors attend an auction preview to become accustomed to the auction process. “Our exhibitions are free and open to the public, and generally open a few days before the sale,” she said.
Antique shows have been popular New York events, and none more so than the Triple Pier Antiques Show produced by Stella Show Management. Company president and CEO Leanne Stella said she has observed a new excitement at their shows.
“It’s not quite to the levels of pre-2001, but we’ve seen new interest and we’ve had some quite active events. We’re also trying to reinvent the wheel by adding some special touches to interest new customers,” she said.
The Triple Pier Antiques Show, held in March and November, remains a special event for antique lovers. “It’s very comprehensive. By seeing all three piers you get exposed to different designs and ideas than you would see at a 40-dealer antique show in your hometown,” said Stella.
“It’s where it all starts,” said her mother Irene Stella, the show’s founder and vice president. “Any dealer who wants to stay vibrant going forward, continuing to come up with saleable merchandise, has to go through the piers to get ideas.”
Among Stella Show Management’s other events is Antiques & Design in the Hamptons (June 24-25 and Aug. 19-20) on Long Island. “What we did was put up three beautiful tents that are done with floors and walls and invited a select group of dealers. We put in restroom trailers with running water and air conditioners. There’s nice seating under the trees. You enjoy spending the day there instead of feeling like you’ve just walked through a tent,” said Leanne Stella.
Travelers need not wait for periodic auctions and shows to get a taste of antiquing in New York City. Collectors and dealers alike are drawn to the city’s many antique centers and shops. One of the most prominent is the Manhattan Art & Antique Center, located at 1050 Second Ave., which marked its 30th anniversary last year.
“We have a little over 100 galleries, which are mostly major galleries from all over the world,” said Steve Roedler, the center’s director. He explained the block-long building is located in an area once populated by antique dealers.
“Second Avenue in the ’50s was where the little antique stores were,” said Roedler. “We decided to build this place specifically to accommodate those dealers who were relocated because of developments.” Over the years the center has gained an international flavor and following. Roedler said the Manhattan Art & Antiques Center compares favorably to Le Louvre des Antiquaires in Paris.
Antiques stores can be found in neighborhoods such as Chelsea. Karen Nason owned a plant shop on Sixth Avenue for 15 years before becoming manager of Chelsea Antique Showcase, located at 107 W. 25th St. She said most people shopping for antiques in the city know to come to this area. Chelsea Antique Showcase features three vendors in addition to consignments from all over Manhattan. “I came in last year to manage the store and turn it into a funky, great antique center that has the feel of ABC Carpet without those kind of prices,” said Nason.
Another blossoming neighborhood to shop for antiques is Hell’s Kitchen near Times Square. On Saturdays and Sundays the Annex/Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market, located on 39th Street between Ninth and 10th Avenues, has up to 170 vendors selling antiques and collectibles at what is billed as America’s most famous outdoor urban flea market. Another popular weekend flea market is the Garage, which is held in a parking facility at 112 W. 25th St. between Sixth and Seventh Avenues.
While Massachusetts has its Brimfield, New York’s top collection of outdoor markets is the annual Madison-Bouckville Antiques Week.
Boasting 1,000 dealers is the Madison-Bouckville Outdoor Antiques Show, held the third weekend in August and one of 10 markets held that week. Jock Hengst, show director, said his event continues to thrive because “we advertise our lungs out. It’s not rocket science. If you don’t advertise thoroughly throughout the market to stimulate people to come, you don’t have a show,” he said. The Madison-Bouckville area, about 40 miles east of Syracuse, has many antiques shops located along scenic U.S. Route 20.
The Rhinebeck Antiques Fair celebrates its 30th anniversary this year in New York’s Hudson Valley. Show dates for 2006 are May 27-28, July 22 and Oct. 7-8. For more information about exhibiting dealers, log onto www.rhinebeckantiquesfair.com.
New York State has dozens of auction houses that have a regional following. One that has risen to national prominence is Hesse Galleries in Otego. Buzz and Jackie Hesse established their auction business nearly 30 years ago and immediately realized their rural location might be a drawback.
“From the beginning we started to advertise on a coast-to-coast level,” said Buzz, adding that with the arrival of the Internet, their customer base is global. Over the years the auction house, which sells everything without reserve, has built a large core of absentee buyers. Meanwhile, Hesse’s location is no longer considered remote. “We’re right off I-88 and the Upper Susquehanna region is growing by leaps and bounds. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Lake Otego are only 28 miles away,” said Buzz.
With the majority of the antiques he sells coming directly from homes and collections in the region, Hesse foresees a stable but finite market. “By that I mean people who are either dealers or collectors are stepping to the plate when the goods warrant. The best antiques, whether they’re the smalls or in the furniture line, are always going to do very well,” said Buzz.