There is no better place on earth to observe–and to mock–the privileged than at the annual Winter Antiques Show. And since P.C. culture has decreed that the rich are the only group we’re still allowed to take the piss out of, I say: “Go for it!” Through Jan. 27, you can observe firsthand the descendants of the American aristocracy squandering their dynastic wealth on overpriced tchotchkes. Watch closely as these beminked lockjaws stagger from booth to booth, caressing the patinas of their favorite collectibles. Apart from the occasional appearances of Charlotte’s mother-in-law on Sex and the City , this is your only chance to observe this dying species. With the passing on Jan. 14 of batty Edie ( Grey Gardens ) Bouvier Beale Jr., I think it’s fair to say that this is the end of an era: the last gasp of WASP culture before the Bobos take over the world.
And this year, there’s a new trend! Gold!
Yes, I’m talkin’ to you , Mr. Goldfinger! Gold and opulence are back! Set one foot into the show and you will be greeted by a gilded, ornate console table with a mother-of-pearl and onyx top, originally commissioned by William H. Vanderbilt (son of Cornelius) for his mansion at 640 Fifth Avenue (Hirschl & Adler Galleries Inc., $725,000). Turn your head to the right and you will be blinded by two bright gold neo-Classical urns from 1820 by Darte Frères ($165,000 for the pair).
I asked the elegantly trim Jamie Drake–who is expected to rev up Gracie Mansion for Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s guests (and who is also a consultant for special advertising supplements in this newspaper)–if the opulence trend is going to stick. ” Absolooootely !” he affirmed, nostrils flaring as he eyed two oversize Louis XVI red-velvet-covered Marquise chaises (Philippe Perrin, $165,000). “But it’s not about clutter,” Mr. Drake continued, looking as though he might be mentally placing those chairs in Gracie Mansion and then lapsing into sound bites. “Make a big statement … a few over-scaled pieces … graphic opulence.”
Re the opening-night throng: The Gay 90′s theme was carried over from last year (i.e., all the men are gay and all the women are 90), but in sharp contrast to the preening exquisites (male and female) of yore, this year’s attendees elected to dress down dramatically. The only decadent, bejeweled party guest I saw was a bloated, dragged-up, pink-cheeked Catherine the Great–or rather, a portrait of this notorious monarch/pervert ($110,000 from A La Vieille Russie Inc.) staring down at the underdressed hordes with glassy-eyed disdain.
Was this sartorial restraint an example of that post-9/11 sensitivity about which too much has already been written? Scott Currie, publicist for the event, proffered a more likely explanation. “It’s the new location,” he said. “You don’t go to the Hilton in ermine and pearls!” The Hilton ! Yes, this year the Seventh Regiment Armory at 67th and Park–home to the Winter Antiques Show for the last 47 years–has been taken over by the National Guard. Imagine! One of the most tight-assed events in the New York social calendar has been displaced by hordes of butch, hairy soldiers who wouldn’t know one end of an escritoire from the other. And the wandering WASP’s ended up at the Hilton, where, I have to say, they all coped admirably. After a mad dash past the plebes in the lobby, the WASP’s checked their cloaks and regained their composure in no time. Thanks to a lack of short-term memory (and a gin or three), the doddering guests soon forgot that they weren’t at the armory.
The quintillion-dollar, dour early Americana that dominated last year’s show has been relegated to the second floor of the Hilton. There may be less of it, but the prices are still, as they say on MTV’s Cribs , “off the hook”: A child’s Windsor chair goes for $21,000 (Olde Hope Antiques Inc.); a grim husband-and-wife portrait by William Mathew Prior for $46,000 (Fred & Kathryn Giampietro).
As usual, the can-you-believe-how-much-and-yet-how-depressing award goes to Leslie Keno (one half of the glamorous, camera-ready Keno twins of Antiques Roadshow ). This year’s star offering is a small, early-19th-century work table for $285,000. “Who needs to work if you’ve got $285,000?” I quipped, sounding and feeling (but not looking) a bit like Barbra Streisand in What’s Up, Doc? Explained the flawless Mr. Keno without flinching, “For example, embroidery, sketching, watercolors …. ” “And slashing your wrists!” I was tempted to add.
The other big shriek on the second floor is provided by the Safani Gallery. “It’s a Greek heroic male torso–$350,000,” said the charming Mr. Safani. “Very rare, because it still has vestiges of the original paint–over 2,000 years old–on the draperies.” A gorgeous rusty-red powdery pigment was indeed clearly visible on the carved marble. I found myself seduced by the spiel and began to envision this “mantique” adorning my coffee table. Then I noticed–horror of horrors–that the sands of time had taken their toll on this Greek bloke’s willy as well as his draperies. He was practically a hermaphrodite! Thanks but no thanks.
If your idea of antiquing is an idle morning at the flea market with a hangover–where you might buy, for example, a dyed
ostrich feather ($2.50) or a vintage tram-driver’s cap ($5)–then it may not be immediately apparent to you why you should pay $16 (proceeds benefit the East Side House Settlement) to go to the Hilton and look at a bunch of stuff most of which is priced at four times your annual salary. Here are three good reasons:
1) The jewelry is a total gas: don’t miss James Robinson Inc. or the Macklowe Gallery Ltd. This season’s brooches are huge, literally and figuratively. The effervescent Barbara Macklowe explained, “Now that ladies are wearing suits to events, they want to dress them up.” The gaudy David Webb-ish stuff from the 1960′s is where it’s at: check out the gold, sapphire and turquoise kingfisher ($8,500).
2) There are unbelievably beautiful 16th- and 17th-century suits of armor at Peter Finer Antique Arms and Armor (average price: $80,000). Jamie Drake should grab a couple of these; used as decorative accents, they would add an empoweringly masculine je ne sais quoi to the new Mayor’s mansion.
3) Although it’s a bit of a long shot, you may find a rich husband there. In the unlikely event that you happen to catch the eye of an ancient blueblood and decide to go for it, remember that you can always check into a suite upstairs ($329 to $3,100 for a super-luxury suite). P.S.: Make sure he’s not a tightwad–drag him to the Macklowe booth and get him to buy you that kingfisher brooch before you take him upstairs. P.P.S.: Don’t worry about sex–at his age, it’s more about a cup of tea and a nap.
Follow Simon Doonan via RSS.