The Antiquary’s New York

It is hard for an antiquary to resist waxing nostalgic for a lost New York. Great as the City is, there is a resigned sadness at the loss of the idiosyncratic shops that once dotted the Avenues, pushed out by rising rents and increasingly homogenized tastes. Indeed, since I first drafted this entry I’ve twice had to update it on account of old haunts closing their doors or relocating to less tony locations. It’s not unique to New York, of course; one sees the same steady erosion of quirkiness in places like London and Paris too, where the bookbinder is replaced by Burberry’s. Perhaps it is inevitable and bereaving simply marks me as a hopeless nostalgic pining for the haunts of my youth. My old New York with its Soldier Shop, swords arrayed in an umbrella stand; its Raydon Gallery where an owl-like eccentric lorded over his chaotic clutter of stacked paintings. They seem so very long gone. With the passing of these small shops, of course, go the small shop owners; the occasionally irascible old-timers who had a profound knowledge of their subject. They seemed steeped in it, an integral part of the store. These were the kind who only took note of you if asked a question that demonstrated a suitable level of understanding and appreciation. Then your little purchase carried home with it that sense of belonging. It was these quirky spots, talking with and learning from salty merchants that sparked my antiquary spirit as surely it did for many others. Indeed, they were the great draw for a boy like me from the country, these places one couldn’t find anywhere else. But I suppose boys and girls from the country come for other things these days. I just can’t help but wonder if what they come for isn’t the same thing that can be found nearly everywhere now. Still, as a product of that environment, I take heart knowing there remains an antiquary spirit in New York even if one has to search a little harder to uncover it. I cling to the remaining outposts with the heightened affection one feels for an animal on the endangered species list. Hidden in the urban jungle remain such creatures like the museum off the beaten track, the shop perched up a winding stairway. And every now and again, by Jove, some new “old-timer” comes along, sets out his shingle and dares to defy the odds in this a la minute town. Here’s to them and the holdouts that continue to serve as old world reserves for the merry antiquary….

Museums and Clubs
New York’s museums are an embarrassment of riches and one could easily be forgiven for overlooking the little ones en route to the Met, MOMA and Guggenheim. There are, nevertheless, a bevy of very good smaller museums. Many of these, you no doubt are familiar with, chief amongst which are the Frick, the Morgan and the Neue Gallery. There are, however, three museums that almost never register with the passer-through or, for that matter, the City native. These are the Hispanic Society in Harlem, the Bard Institute on the Upper West Side and the National Academy on the Upper East Side.

Coming upon the Hispanic Society of America for the first time feels something akin to bird-watching in Central Park and seeing a pterodactyl through your binoculars. It rises unexpectedly out of the Harlem neighborhood with an anachronistic presence that reminds one, perhaps not surprisingly, more of El Escorial than any vision of El Barrio we normally call to mind. It is part of a sprawling complex that includes collections of the numanistic society and (speaking of bird-watching) the Audubon Society. Taken together, they likely boast the dubious distinction of being the most interesting, least visited attractions in the city. Walking through the collection, one can’t help feel a combination of glee at the discovery and sadness at the evident neglect (at least on my visits). The collection is at once formidable and easily digestible. Among its treasures are some lovely examples of Spanish lusterware (for which I confess a special fondness), a Velasquez and a Goya. But perhaps most singular is a remarkable circular room of paintings by the Spanish “impressionist” Sorolla that wonderfully captures the diverse and rugged beauty of the various regions of Spain. It is worth the journey to take in that alone. I promise you will leave saying “wow, I had no idea that was here.”

The Bard Graduate Center is located in a little townhouse on the upper west side. It’s very easy to walk by without ever noticing. Inside, however, you will often find very thoughtful and focused exhibitions relating to the decorative arts and design history. They are generally academic in nature but have a quirkiness that keeps them lively for the uninitiated. I usually leave feeling enlightened about something I had previously little contemplated or taken for granted.

The National Academy must feel like the older sibling with smarts and a good but (in the eyes of others) unglamorous job who has to put up with attention lavished on the beautiful younger sibling in show business. There it stands with quiet dignity in the shadows of the neighboring, pulsing Guggenheim. It’s one of NY’s oldest artistic institutions, having been started by Samuel Morse in imitation of the Royal Academies of Europe. As such, it is inherently conservative but, having been around as long as it has, manages to span enough periods of America art (including contemporary) to include the avante garde. Its holdings – and its members and art classes – make it a treasure trove for artists and art appreciators. The old townhouse is itself, with its herringbone floors and winding stairway, a pleasure to take in. They curate small shows that typically revolve around their own collections but often have interesting angles such as exhibits curated by contemporary member-artists. Once or twice yearly they also exhibit and sell works by current members, which include some very fine drawings and paintings often at reasonable prices.

If, like me, you have every felt weak at the knees when standing in Morgan’s private library, you will appreciate the magical feeling of being enveloped in an atmosphere of fine bindings and old tomes. The Grolier Club is a charming, under-the-radar club devoted to books that seems targeted at the “merry antiquary” type. This private club is the purview of well-healed book collectors but the cognoscenti can enter and enjoy their small, focused exhibitions free of charge. Another club devoted to literature and truly lovely to behold is the Lotus Club. Unfortunately, it’s not generally open to the public and doesn’t curate shows but the determined antiquary can arrange to see it by contacting them directly since they cater small events for non-members. One last book-related recommendation is the New York Society Library on the Upper East Side. I am embarrassed to admit that for years I walked right by it and assumed it was, well, a “society” library. But it is, in fact, a remarkable private library accessible to anyone for a small, reasonable annual fee. For those living in New York, I highly recommend membership, which gives you access to their collection but, perhaps more importantly, to their sanctuary of a reading room. It is a sun-filled space where one can select from their many periodicals or bring your own book and read in peace. For commuters, they have a prodigious collection of books on tape/CD as well. They also have an erudite lecture series, events for children and curate small exhibitions relating to literature.

Shops and Galleries
New York is filled with wondrous shops you never see. They are perched on upper floors of nondescript buildings and ensconced in townhouses. A timid buzz of the buzzer, a yielding nod from a doorman can open the doors to unanticipated treasure houses. One of my earliest entrees into this “secret” society was the unassuming apartment of the print dealer C&J Goodfriend. I was introduced to Jim Goodfriend by a professor while still at University and felt a whole world revealed, much as one feels beholding a small Rembrandt etching. (Indeed, he would probably be pleased to know that he, himself, has always reminded me a little of the goldsmith Jan Lutma as depicted in one of Rembrandt’s etchings). He is refreshingly lacking in salesmanship or pretension and it’s easy to leave with a lovely piece that cost a mere $100 or so – though one can certainly spend more. The Old Print Shop is not exactly hidden from view but being in Murray Hill and away from most galleries, it is somewhat hidden in plain site. It has a very old world feel and, with its myriad drawers of prints, it is as close a feeling as I have had to rummaging through the folios at the venerable Parisian dealership Proute, albeit with easier access to curry than croissants.

New York notably lacks the equivalent of a Portobello Road or Marche aux Puces; places with their own microclimates that delight the sociologist as much as the scavenger. The small, downtown flea markets are hardly the equivalent. Still, there are a few nooks that capture a hint of that energetic eclecticism…or at least feel as if they’d be at home in their midst. The Demolition Depot up near the Triboro Bridge is such a place. It’s a few stories of stuff (for want of a better catch-all description) that ranges from English phone booths to 19th century stair railings. Poking around the densely layered, cavernous space feels more archeological than commercial. A similar experience can be had at Olde Good Things with outposts in Chelsea and the Upper West Side. The vibe is industrial chic with large room-size pieces and quirky one-offs. I’ve also enjoyed touring Mantiques Modern downtown, whose wares walk the line between cool and kitsch but almost always delightfully unusual. They have a keen eye as evidenced by their providing props for Ralph Lauren’s window displays and have a small section at Bergdorf. An uptown equivalent with its sense of stage and exoticism is Linda Horn. I’ve walked by her whimsical windows since boyhood and always found something that brought a bemused smile. At places like these, you find yourself considering something that you never even contemplated wanting before – if you even knew it existed. So too is the case at Elizabeth Street Antiques in Soho. Walk around inside or in the adjacent garden and it’s easy to forget you’re in Manhattan.

Then there are the higher end galleries that still manage to feel organic rather than sterile or overly precious. One may not have the means to purchase at them but there is no cost involved in perusing places like the eclectic Antiquaire and the Connoisseur or the palatial Carlton Hobbs. It seems like pure antique shops are on the wane in Manhattan with one fine example after the other closing. Tastes change. Rents rise. So it’s nice to see some of these old bastions holding their own and in some cases, as with Kentshire, expanding. Others have tried to bridge the changing tastes by offering contemporary pieces alongside the antique; Mallet being a prominent example. When forced, the merger can look as awkward as an old woman in a short skirt but when pulled off (cf. Tina Turner), as is the case at places like Gerald Bland and Mecox Garden, both the old and new energize each other in unexpected ways. DeVera, with a downtown and smaller uptown branch, is another example of a whimsical blending that fosters a dialogue across the centuries. There are, of course, countless other little shops and dealers worthy of inclusion that I have neglected to include. Perhaps you fellow antiquarians out there could pitch in and share a few favorites….

Where to find them:

Museums, Clubs and Societies
The Hispanic Society of America ( 613 W 155th St
Bard Graduate Center ( 18 W 86th St
National Academy ( 1083 Fifth Ave
Grolier Club ( 47 E 60th St
Lotus Club ( 5 E 66th St
New York Society Library ( 53 E 79th St

Private Dealers and Galleries
C&J Goodfriend ( 61 E 77th Call for appt: 212 628-9383
The Old Print Shop ( 150 Lexington Ave
Demolition Depot ( 216 E 125th St
Olde Good Things ( 124 W 24th St & 450 Columbus Ave
Mantiques Modern ( 146 W. 22nd St
Linda Horn ( 1327 Madison Ave
Elizabeth Street Antiques ( 209 Elizabeth St
Antiquaire and Connoisseur ( 36 E 73rd St
Carlton Hobbs ( 60 E 93rd St
Kentshire ( 700 Madison Ave
Mallett ( 929 Madison Ave
Gerald Bland ( 232 E 59th St
Mecox Gardens ( 962 Lexington Ave
DeVera ( 1 Crosby St & 26 East 81st St

Posted on 2011 12 22 in An Antiquary Abroad