"It's fabulous! Absolutely fabulous! It's the Super Bowl of the antique shows."
Connecticut arts and antiques dealer Barbara Pollock is describing the 51st annual Winter Antiques Show in New York. Each year, the week-long marketplace attracts an array of prestigious dealers selling some of the world's most valuable things.
Americans may think of themselves as modern, but growing numbers across the country love to appreciate and collect antiques -- fine art, furniture, jewelry, fabric and other beautiful or useful objects generally more than a century old. A visit to the latest New York show [which ended January 31st] offered 77 glittering displays framed by the vaulted ceilings of the old Seventh Regiment Armory.
At Ms. Pollock's booth, she motions to two prized 19th century portraits, each about one meter square. They depict a man and a woman, rendered masterfully in the unschooled style that shouts "pure Yankee Americana" to collectors.
"I chose these because these are what made my heart go crazy," she says. "This artist loved clothing and hair. You can see he went crazy in depicting the hair and the hair combs." She observes the jewelry and the elaborate collar on the woman. "She obviously had some wealth," she says. "They probably were from an extablished family, and I'm sure they were probably husband and wife."
Ms. Pollock prefers to sell the work of untrained American artists rathern than the formally schooled. "I can relate to the human aspect of the naive ones more than I can the real stiff academic ones," she says. "So it all boils down to whether you agree with the dealer's taste or you don't."
It also matters whether you can afford to buy. A single object may cost from $5,000 to a million dollars or more. And, at those prices, you are not necessarily getting the sturdiest or most stylish objects. Catherine Sweeney Singer, who directed this year's Winter Antiques Show, admits that furniture made today is often in better shape -- and that, by definition, the work on display has gone out of style. But, she says, people love to own a piece of the past.
"Speaking personally, when I buy something, I like thinking about who made it, when and how, and with what materials," she says. "For example...I happen to be wearing one of my favorite antiques."
Ms. Singer shows off her iridescent-red velvet jacket -- a superbly preserved and extremely expensive example of the work of Mariano Fortuny, a legendary high-society designer based in Venice between about 1910 and 1930. "It makes me think of Venice," she says, "a place I visit every year. I know exactly how the velvet jacket I'm wearing was made and how it was stamped with gold and how much he studied influences from other cultures. This happens to have a pattern drawn from Islamic tiles, which I am fascinated with."
Nearby, Donald Ellis, a Canadian dealer specializing in Native American art, was admiring the Crow Indian buffalo-hide robe he was selling. Made in 1850 in what is now the state of Wyoming, it depicts a number of hunting and battle scenes.
"It shows twelve vignettes, and each vignette depicts the artist on the right hand side encountering an enemy," he says. "There are varying forms of killing his enemy and doing something called 'counting coup' also -- something that was considered even more heroic than killing an enemy. It was an act of touching an enemy in battle and retreating."
Mr. Ellis views the robe as a combination of history, autobiography and a sense of esthetic. "These are the things that civilizations leave behind," he says.
It takes specialized knowledge to appreciate antiques like the buffalo robe, and many collectors hesitate to spend huge sums in areas where they are not experts. But not all of them. Roger Keverne, a well-known English dealer who specializes in Chinese antiquities, explains that some people come to New York's Winter Antiques Show to branch out.
"Just today, we had a man in who collects Old Master paintings, and he understands about Renaissance bronzes," Mr. Keverne says. "So he's bought a small Ming bronze of an animal. It's probably his first piece of Chinese art. So it begins."
The dealer intends to talk further with the customer. "Then you sell more," he says. "Then maybe you give them a book to read, maybe tell them to go out to a local museum. And they start collecting...and soon they haven't got any money because all they are doing is buying antiques!"