The Winter Antiques Szhoosh

New York has always been the epicenter of szhoosh . What’s szhoosh? It’s interior-decorating vernacular meaning “to gussie up lavishly” or, as a noun, “that which has been gussied up lavishly.” Despite the 80’s revival, recent events have caused me to wonder if szhoosh might not be a vanishing commodity: Gayfryd and Saul’s recent yard sale, softening real estate, softening sorbets at Alain Ducasse. And the new administration probably won’t help much: the szhoosh of Manhattan might be Republican, but it’s definitely at odds with Bush’s Hee Haw chic.

I needed re-assurance on this issue, so off I skipped to the Seventh Regiment Armory for the 47th (my first) Winter Antiques Show, through Jan. 28. As soon as I saw the beminked hordes pouring through the front door (and that was just the men!), I knew that szhoosh was alive and well. These privileged folks had come, ostensibly, to support a good cause: Ticket sales and event proceeds benefit the East Side House Settlement, a 110-year-old social-services agency serving the un-szhooshy Mott Haven section of the South Bronx, America’s poorest Congressional district. They had also come to peruse, under the guidance of their decorators, the offerings of some 70 exhibitors. But most importantly, they had come to flaunt their folie des grandeurs . It makes for quite a spectacle: It’s more gripping than Traffic , and it costs about the same if you include popcorn ($16 for general admission and a catalog). It’s anthropological and educational: the entitlement and grandiosity which made this city–or parts of it–so … szhooshy … is all there for you to study.

Avail yourself of this unique opportunity to observe these Park Avenue incroyables at close range. Trust me, szhooshy folk will never invite people like you into their houses. Don’t worry about who’s who; I had no idea who I was gawping at, and I still had a total blast. It’s a visual thing: cadaverous, bejeweled gargoyles with meringues of baked hair (and that’s just the men!), Bergdorfed and Bulgaried second wives promenading as if in the Gallerie des Glaces. (That’s the mirrored room at Versailles, not an Upper East Side ice-cream parlor. Don’t you know anything?) These acquisitive exquisites ooze old-school richesse and noblesse , recalling that hard-to-imagine era when Women’s Wear Daily vaunted the thrilling lifestyles of Pat Buckley, Carolyne Roehm, Nan Kempner and the like. The old girls are still having fun: Mortimer’s may have closed, but these gals have lost none of their coquetry. They get especially kittenish when they spot The Twins.

Antique dealers of yore fell into two categories: hearty, knowledgeable bohemians in Aran knit sweaters with short cigarette holders (the women), and raging poofters in angora sweaters who were sketchy on history but couldn’t wait to show you their escritoires (the men). Now we have the Keno twins, Leigh and Leslie. Unflamboyant, besuited, maquillaged , media-savvy and matching, Leslie and Leigh are, thanks to their appearances on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow , the Posh Spice and David Beckham of the antiques world. “The Twins are here,” whispered one sparkly-eyed vintage courtesan to another, behind her fan. From the magnitude of the resulting frisson , one would have thought that a panther had entered the room as opposed to the affable Kenos. Those of you interested in cruising The Twins should loiter at Leigh’s booth (Leslie works at Sotheby’s, but he may well be lurking around). This is precisely what I was doing when I saw it .

As I waited for an audience with the Kenos, I was suddenly struck by the appalling dreariness of Leigh’s offerings–in particular, an extraordinarily un-szhooshy occasional table that occupied center stage in his booth. Camera-ready Leigh was happy to fill me in: “Walnut. 1720. It’s an American tea table in the William and Mary style.” “How much?” I asked, imagining it to be worth about 600 bucks, tops. “Three hundred and eighty-five thousand dollars–but it’s already sold,” replied the charming and intelligent Leigh, without batting his lightly powdered eyelids. I actually felt faint. As I emerged from a state of deep shock, it occurred to me that Leigh’s table really was an occasional table: Occasionally it changed hands for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the rest of the time it was just plain dreary. And Leigh wasn’t the only one; this incomprehensible craze for dour Early American collectibles was everywhere–and everyone was loving it!

The only person who seemed to share my dislike for this turgid stuff was a tarty cross-dresser called Zondra Foxx. “This is my female incarnation. I won’t tell you my real name. I’m a private dealer; I loathe American antiques. Where’s the champagne?” trilled the hawk-eyed Zondra as she scanned the room through top and bottom lashes and tinted, heart-shaped spectacles. “I don’t genuflect before a highboy,” cackled Miss Foxx, who has hardly any teeth and a great passion for medieval book-painting of the 11th century.

Also surveying the Early American drear-fest was Alan Safani, a purveyor of ancient art. For the same price as Leigh’s tea table, you could twirl through Mr. Safani’s booth clicking “add to shopping cart,” fill up on totally fab second- and third-century B.C. idols, torsos and bronzes, and still be under budget. His most important piece, a second-century B.C. Roman marble copy of a Greek fourth-century Hercules, is only $35,000 more than that heinous tea table.

These stratospheric prices started me wondering if any of this stuff was real. Was Leigh’s table really a tea table? But the strict vetting and authentication process at the W.A.S. eliminates the possibility of any forgery, and it was definitely my own mishegoss which prompted me to pursue this issue with the indulgent Mr. Safani. “How do you know an artifact is from the first century B.C., the second century, or from Bloomingdale’s display department circa the 1970’s?” I asked. Mr. Safani had obviously grown weary of my paranoid skepticism. His facial expression suggested that I might wish to continue this discussion with a psychotherapist. He’s correct–I have issues of trust.

It all dates back to the time … sob … I saw Liberace giving a tour of his unbelievably szhooshy Palm Springs home on television. As he leant insouciantly on a fabulously ornate piece of furniture, he discussed its provenance. “This writing desk belonged to Czar Nicholas II, and the Franco-Russian Alliance was signed on it.” The poor old sod! His poignant trust brought a tear to my eye: Mr. Show business had clearly been taken–albeit willingly–to the cleaners.

I thought of Liberace as I checked out a creepy Early American painting of a baby in grim shades of gray at the Olde Hope Antiques booth. A small amount of saliva fell from my bottom lip as I contemplated the price: $32,000. What could possibly make this kooky little painting worth so much money? Then all was revealed, sort of. It was from the collection of Eve Arden. The provenance seemed too improbable to fabricate, plus who doesn’t love Eve Arden? My perception of the painting’s value increased ever so slightly. Other provenances at the Olde Hope booth actually seemed to detract from the value of the objects. A hideous turd-like carved (American again!) wooden puppy had, as justification for its $39,000 price tag, the assurance that, during February of 1976, it had been loaned to the Ford White House. Mind if I say, “Wow!”?

By this time, I was starting to look at the customers for signs of crack addiction, alcoholism and-or senility–or maybe their wigs were just too darn tight. Only something truly aberrant could account for their willingness to pay these insane prices. More examples? How about a Cheyenne war shirt (Morning Star Gallery), adorned with Venetian glass beads and locks of human hair? Very groovy, but at $350,000, would even Ralph Lauren buy it? The 1970’s David Webb jolie-laide jewelry (Macklowe Gallery) is amusingly chic; the chuckles stop when you see the $45,000 price tag. And who wouldn’t love to butch up his hallway with a suit of German field armor (Peter Finer), as long as it wasn’t the same price as a studio apartment– $145,000.

The only thing in the entire show that seemed worth the money were Elle Shushan’s miniatures. (Joke! Dealer: “I’ve got a lovely set of miniatures.” Client: “Miniature what?” Dealer: “I don’t know; they’re too small to tell.”) Among her collection of tiny portraits, Ms. Shushan has some lovers’ eyes. “In the 18th century, people wore portraits of their spouses, but acknowledgment of their lovers and mistresses required more secrecy and mystery,” explains the severely un-szhooshy Ms. Shushan. Lovers’ eyes are minute paintings depicting a single and subtly lascivious eye, rendered exquisitely on rings, pins or charms. These surreal, groovy little bijoux start at $2,500. Bonjour !

As I waited in line at the coat check, watching sables and minks being heaved on and off wire hangers, I contemplated this terrifying new trend for over-priced restraint. Where was the rococo, the baroque, the gothicky and pompadourish stuff? Grandiose New Yorkers look just as szhooshy as ever, but the szhoosh itself has morphed into something strange and perverse. Is this some insane form of atonement for the excesses of the 80’s? After all, what could be more self-punitive than paying a fortune for the antique equivalent of a hair shirt? Is the infatuation with the knickknacks of the Early American period connected in some way to President Bush’s yokel chic? Who knows?

Either way, I can tell you definitively that, at least as far as antiques are concerned, “dour” is the new szhoosh. The more unbelievably nondescript something is, the more fabulously expensive.

Whatever would Gianni Versace have thought?

P.S.: The unbelievably szhooshy contents of the late designer’s Miami mansion will be auctioned at Sotheby’s from April 5-7. By then, you might well be ready to trade in your Early American misery for some southern Italian flamboyance.

The Winter Antiques Szhoosh