“Imagine what a shocker this was,” said William Beadleston, tugging at the breast of a statue of Venus de Milo by Salvador Dali. The 37 1/2-inch-tall painted bronze has a set of six drawers: one on Venus’ forehead, one on each breast, two in her abdomen and one on a knee. Mr. Dali refashioned the statue in 1936, calling it Vénus de Milo aux Tiroirs .
Mr. Beadleston, one of 64 art dealers who set up booths in the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue for the Art Show from Feb. 19 to Feb. 23, explained that the drawers had “something to do with psychology. It was the time of Sigmund Freud and Dali was responding to that. The drawers are meant to be empty.” He pulled out one of the drawers all the way to prove it. Although it was difficult to imagine a time when a little conceit like that was considered shocking, Mr. Beadleston certainly had something worth talking about.
Having something worth talking about, it seems, is the main goal of the exhibitors in the fair, who leave behind their cushy galleries for five days to stand around in the drafty hall like circuit board salesmen at a trade show. “Everyone wants to have something that’s fresh, that has not been on the market for a long time,” explained Mr. Beadleston, who was tanned from a recent trip to Palm Beach, Fla., where he had exhibited in another art fair.
Not everyone in the fair was as fortunate as Mr. Beadleston. Hildegard Bachert, the co-director of the Galerie St. Etienne on West 57th Street, had been consigned two nudes, a man and a couple by Egon Schiele, from Barbra Streisand. She was going to show them in her booth, which is in the front of the hall. But a week or so before the fair, Ms. Streisand had a representative phone to say that she did not want to sell the drawings. Was Ms. Streisand worried about having her artwork seized, like the Schieles that were taken by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau from the Museum of Modern Art in January, to find out whether they were also stolen by Nazis? Ms. Streisand had no comment. And Ms. Bachert just shrugged and said that she could not speculate on Ms. Streisand’s motive for withdrawing the artworks from the sale. “She’s a movie star,” Ms. Bachert explained, a note of irritation filling her German-accented voice. “She does what movies stars do.”
In Mr. Beadleston’s case, he said he purchased the Dali directly from Cécile Éluard, the stepdaughter of the artist. The Pompidou Center in Paris has another cast of the sculpture, he said, which made it easier for Mr. Beadleston to import the piece from France, which has strict laws governing the movement of artwork. It arrived the week before the fair, and he priced it at $325,000. “They are very rare,” he explained.
In the booth of Robert Mnuchin, a former Wall Street banker who runs C&M Arts on East 78th Street, there were a number of blue-chip paintings by artists with household names: Picasso, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg. Mr. Mnuchin has been able to put on scholarly shows and find fresh property in a hushed, high-tone setting. For the show, he found a rare 1963 Lichtenstein drawing, Girl With Tears , which was sold within 10 minutes of the show’s opening, according to Mr. Mnuchin. He would not say how much the drawing was sold for. But sources close to the gallery say that it was snapped up for around $500,000.
Mr. Beadleston said that the goal of the exhibitors in the fair is to have something that sells very quickly on the opening night to pay for the cost of exhibiting in the fair, and then to look at the fair as an opportunity to meet potential new clients. Most of the exhibitors do not bring out their most valuable wares. James Berry Hill, the co-director of Berry-Hill Gallery on East 70th Street, was an exception. He had an $8 million portrait by John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Mrs. Edward Burckhardt and Her Daughter Louise . “The daughter is the same gal who is in Lady With a Rose that’s in the Met,” Mr. Hill pointed out.
A few hours after the opening, Mr. Hill was standing in front of the Sargent portrait as A. Alfred Taubman, the chairman of the board of Sotheby’s, came into his booth. Mr. Taubman passed right by the portrait to focus on a small Berthe Morisot painting of a woman in a bonnet. “She’s very sweet,” Mr. Taubman said of the painting’s subject to a friend.
Matthew Marks, the director of Matthew Marks Gallery in Manhattan, was not one of the exhibitors in the fair, which is restricted to members of the Art Dealers Association of America, but he inspected several booths. He was overheard speaking with John Berggruen, a dealer from San Francisco, about a painting. He wanted to make sure the work was what it was purported to be.
Henry and Marie-Josée Kravis whizzed by. Mr. Kravis pointed to a painting by Cy Twombly, which, if it was something he might buy, would reflect a shift in taste for the mogul, who tends to prefer French furniture and 19th-century art. Mortimer Zuckerman and his wife, Martha Prather, were also seen walking rapidly through the fair.
By 8 P.M. on opening night, pedestrian traffic was moving as fast as Madison Avenue at rush hour. There were delays in front of the booth for Pace Wildenstein Gallery of East 57th Street. Arne Glimcher, Pace’s director, the only art dealer in the fair who is also a Hollywood producer, was surrounded by a thicket of well-wishers in ventless suits. Michael Schulhof, the former chief executive of Sony Corporation of America and now the chairman of Animation Science Corporation, was seen leaving the booth. Down the way, Harry Lunn, a private photography dealer in Manhattan whose booth offered a $250,000 Mapplethorpe artwork that shows the god Mercury next to a purple panel, patted his suit coat near his heart and said that he had some big checks in his pocket.