From Windsor chairs to Sèvres porcelain and Georgian silver candlesticks, American Dream prices were paid across 10 days of fevered selling that surely won’t be replicated for a generation or more.
However, on one level at least, Rockefeller was indicative of a fundamental movement in the US market. The Silent Generation is now passing, the Baby Boomers are divesting and large deposits of once fashionable art and antiques will be heading for auction across the next decade.
But first, a brief history lesson.
For much of the last century, Americans couldn’t get enough of ‘proper’ art and antiques. At one end of the market were the top European art dealers resident in Manhattan.
All were aware that ‘new money’ with no family lineage to speak of was perfectly happy to adopt illustrious forebears – Georgian family portraits, mahogany dining tables and Chinese export porcelain – to furnish brick terraces in the city and European-style estates within an hour’s ride of downtown New York, Boston or Philadelphia.
The recently launched TEFAF New York fairs (see ATG's preview the TEFAF New York Fall event) continues with something of the same raison d’être.
It is in this environment that hunters for the traditional, the esoteric and the once avidly-collected are prospering
Somewhere in the middle, collecting fields such as Lalique glass, Staffordshire pearlware figures and garish Victorian majolica prospered, while at the other end of transatlantic trade – and just as important to a generation of UK dealers and auctioneers – the so-called ‘shipping trade’ had begun in earnest.
It unleashed a demand for middling quality material from Edwardian wardrobes to Victorian brass candlesticks that sailed to middle America by the container load.
Of course, it couldn’t last forever, and it didn’t. The collecting zeitgeist shifted, first to Americana – objects that spoke loudest of the American experience – and latterly to modern and contemporary art and design.
The demand for post-war furniture is today at an all-time high, the price of a Boston sideboard has halved and just try and find a mixed-owner sale of English country house furnishings in one of the top New York salerooms. You won’t.
However, as Rockefeller underlined, the traditional art and antiques accumulated in another era are here in great quantity and the most final D of the auctioneer’s three Ds (debt, divorce and death) is now bringing them to market.
As not all consignments come from American royalty or include David Rockefeller’s Rose Period Picasso, regional or secondary New York salerooms are the norm. It is in this environment that hunters for the traditional, the esoteric and the once avidly-collected are prospering.
Two developments of the past decade are key.
The fruits of the internet selling revolution are bringing more eyeballs to these shores from knowledgeable buyers in the UK, Continental Europe and Russia. Equally, the softening of the inwardly focused Americana market and the strengthening of the international markets for Asian art, antiquities and jewellery, in particular, has persuaded many auctioneers the merits of ‘reaching out’ to a new customer base.
The global approach is why salerooms such as Thomaston Place in Maine can post a record sale total at a moment when the market is undoubtedly polarised (see page 22-23).
A flavour of a busy autumn season can be gleaned from ATG’s calendar of North American auctions and a selection of previews that range from a newly-discovered version of Gérôme’s Evening Prayer at Skinner in Boston to a private collection of Lalique glass at Rago in Lambertville, New Jersey.
For European migrants, could America once again prove a land of opportunity?