It is a truth universally acknowledged — or it was, for a while — that New Yorkers in possession of a good fortune must be in want of antiques. But times change, and so do tastes. The dominance of modern design has sent antiques prices plunging, and the Winter Antiques Show, one of the industry’s bellwether events, has now been rechristened The Winter Show, promising “5,000 Years of Art, Antiques and Design.”
Under whatever name, it remains both a trove of potential artistic discoveries and a gold-star appointment on New York’s social calendar. It’s also a fair with a philanthropic mission: Unlike its for-profit cousins, it was established in 1954 by East Side House, an educational charity in the Bronx, which nets the proceeds from ticket and catalog sales.
For decades, the blue bloods around Park Avenue came here to pick up Americana, Asian decorative arts, English silverware and backbreaking amounts of heavy brown furniture. And that’s still here, for the shrinking tribe that still decorates with old oak and mahogany instead of modern (and even pricier) leather and steel. The New York dealers Bernard & S. Dean Levy have brought a Chippendale side chair, made in Boston circa 1770, with telltale cabriole legs in the shape of birds’ claws. Hirschl & Adler, also of New York, have a serpentine sofa from around 1820, possibly made by the cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe and upholstered in a racy red. The style is known as a récamier, after the society hostess who lounges on one in a famous portrait by Jacques-Louis David in the Louvre.
Still, the Winter Show is a broad affair, and stretches beyond decorative arts. There are excellent drawings on the booth of Hill-Stone, a Massachusetts dealer. The most gripping may be a youthful self-portrait in delicate black chalk drawn by Jean-Baptiste Isabey, a student of Jacques-Louis David, in 1795, months after the Reign of Terror. The same year, on the other side of the Atlantic, the artist Walter Robertson painted a humane, peach-colored watercolor of ex-Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton; you can see it now at the booth of the Alexander Gallery.
Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker, London dealers making their first appearance at this fair, have a fascinating portrait from about 1745 by Thomas Hudson, probably the premier portraitist of Georgian London. It depicts the bald, confident, well-fed Joseph van Aken, identified as a “drapery painter” — that is to say, the partner who would complete the studio’s society portraits after Hudson painted the faces and hands. Hudson paints his partner wearing a cocked fur hat, holding a brush and palette, resting an empty canvas in front of his torso. It’s more than a mere gift to his colleague; the painting is an ennoblement of another, less esteemed kind of artistic labor.
Bernard Goldberg Fine Arts, of New York, has brought a strange, compelling 15-foot-wide tableau of cut iron silhouettes of birds, done in the 1920s by the Hungarian-born sculptor Hunt Diederich and never before seen publicly. Its faceless black herons and pipers, once harmlessly decorative, have surprising force in this era of ecological disquiet.
American art, fine and folk, abounds at the fair: weather vanes, scrimshaw, Pennsylvania Dutch bibles, creepy flat portraits of New England children. There are also several Asian specialists and a smattering of Latin American material, the most extraordinary example being a bonkers 18th-century painting from Peru, presented by Robert Simon Fine Art. “An Allegory of Saint Rose of Lima,” by an unknown painter working in Cuzco, depicts the patron saint of Peru at the top of the canvas, blossoming forth in celestial splendor from the petals of a giant pink rose. Holding her namesake flower is a personification of the Americas, while an Inca warrior raises his right hand in salutation.
Dealers in rare books and maps also have a prominent place at The Winter Show. The dealers of Les Enluminures, which specializes in illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, have brought a showstopping volume of the medieval French epic “Le Roman de Troie,” produced for the dukes of Burgundy in the mid-15th century. It’s open to a large miniature of Achilles and Ajax, who have traded in their Greek armor for French doublets and hose, and who bide their time outside the walls of Troy by playing chess, which would have appeared ultramodern to the book’s Burgundian readers.
Peruse enough booths here, and you’ll find something to match the tastes of everyone. Even those who have no taste at all: They could walk out of here with a garish 1960s reproduction of the Apollo Belvedere, if their Fire Island pool house needs a little historical ballast. Who can account for tastes, anyway? They change all the time, as the dealers here would tell you, and today’s modern furnishings will be antique before long.
The Winter Show
Through Jan. 27 at the Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue, between 66th and 67th Streets; thewintershow.org.