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Another Opening: The New York Winter Antiques Show

by Jean Hubbell Asher

When working at an estate sale I am often asked ... why?  The unspoken reference is to the many years I spent working at the Winter Antiques Show.  The differences between these two events are self-evident.  The parallels between the two are more elusive. 

     The common link between the two is marketing the objects at hand. In the case of the antiques show it is your own carefully selected and culled collection; for an estate sale the only control over the objects to be sold is to accept or refuse the sale.

     Both selling venues require research and appraisal of items to be sold.  Both require appealing presentation to sell to advantage.  Both venues have similar highs and lulls.  For the Winter Antiques Show opening night sales are usually brisk;  for estate sales the first hour is make or break. And for both events there are the down times; a smaller audience and a more plodding approach. They are both businesses which rely on strong sales to stay in the game.  And they are both businesses where personal relationships with the buyers create the soul of the business.  For both venues not only what you sell but to whom becomes part of your memory bank.  Finally they are both about illusion ... what the public sees is not the way it is or was.

     I found it very easy to flip flop between being a minor player in a major arena and a more major player in a more minor arena.  My interest in the pieces to be sold, their presentation and the pace of these two venues was the constant.

     Transforming an armory gymnasium into a multi-million dollar venue for antiques in the course of a few days is a daunting task.  The Winter Antiques Show held  in January at the 67th Regiment Armory in New York has accomplished this very feat for the last 45 years.

     The Armory hosts many antiques shows and other events throughout the year but the Winter Antiques Show is in a class of its own, shared with the newer-to-the-scene International Show which takes place in October.  For the month of January, it defines the social season in New York  City and offers, arguably, the most exciting display of antiques in the country. This lavish, glamorous ten day event benefits East Side House, a settlement house in the borough of the Bronx. 

     When the benefactors and patrons arrive for the Opening Night Party, the Armory is festooned with flowers and lit up like a jewel;  the dealers are elegantly dressed, to befit the occasion, and their antiques exquisitely presented. These early patrons, who pay up to $1,000 a ticket,  are in two camps:  the social elite who come to meet and greet,  and the serious collector who wants first refusal on the very unique antiques this show has to offer. 

     Had this very stylish group arrived a day earlier they would have witnessed an Armory and show floor in shambles.

     The Armory, an imposing late 19th century brick structure which spans four city blocks  was designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and executed by Stanford White.  Its mission was to provide an appropriate venue for New Yorks military elite, otherwise known as the Silk Stocking Regiment.  The main entrance on Park Avenue has a canopied double staircase which opens into a magnificent, but rather somber, oak paneled hallway with soaring ceilings.

     When dealers arrive for the show two days days prior to the opening night, this magnificent hall greets them. On their way to the show office, they glimpse old friends and familiar faces. Once at the office they receive their show packet containing rules, schedules and photo IDs for their booth workers.  The hall itself is a hotbed of activity:  vast urns are being filled with flowers and plant life, carpenters and electricians are busy implementing the hall decorating schemes of the designer chosen to set the festive tone for the show, and volunteers are unpacking thousands of antiques show programs.  What's more, security is everywhere.

     Having received their packets,  the dealers go straight ahead to the gymnasium.  At this moment, especially for a first time exhibitor, your heart skips a beat - or maybe two. A few booths, at the front of the gymnasium, have basic box-like structures erected, replete with multicolored masonite walls.  But as your gaze trails further back in the gym, there is merely a framework for the boxy-booths-to-be; still further back there is nothing more than piles of lumber.  Its hard to walk down the three aisles.  Union workers of all affiliations are exercising their specialties and trucks have begun to deliver merchandise from the back entrance on Lexington Avenue to those few shell-like booths at the front. 

      The rest of that day follows a predictable routine.  You find the spot on the floor which will be your booth and wait for it to be built; if you have a booth in the back you may be in for a long wait.  As you pass this time, trucks are coming in, unloading furniture in the front booths and driving back out the Lexington Avenue entrance; consequently the doors to Lexington Avenue are never closed until the Armory closes at 10:00 pm. If its cold - being January theres a pretty good chance of that - the wait can be painful. 

      Once you actually find your booth location,  you can get on everybodys list.  First stop on the list is the Teamsters Union which controls truck access to the Armory.  Outside, on Lexington Avenue, trucks containing every dealers inventory are lined up for blocks.  The trucks do not come in on a first-come first-serve basis as the access is prioritized by the the Teamsters. Next stop might be the carpenters union which will install special dividers or extra beams.  And then on to the wallpaperers union, if needed, for a border or the walls.  Then the electricians, yada, yada, yada.

     Everything now has its own life.  You cant put up the border until our booth has been painted.  The painting will go very quickly once your number comes up on the painters schedule:  two coats on three walls round and round;  no drying time in between. When its really cold, below freezing, the painting doesnt really dry but if the guy comes to hang the wallpaper border, youre not going to turn him away.  You cant risk losing your place on the list and you dont want to overlap the union lunch and dinner schedule  And you cant move in your furniture until youve laid your carpet - and this might require the services of the carpet layers union.  Sometimes even after all the careful choreography, your truck is still parked on Lexington Avenue!

     Not all dealers have the same union requirements (indeed some dealers, for example,  bring their own carpenter) but for everyone the whole initial phase of set up is hurry and wait. 

We continue, next time, with the completion of the set-up  for the opening of the Winter Antiques Show in New York City and some of its political wrangling.

Part Two >>


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