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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Winter Giveth and Winter Taketh Away

It's the fourth week in January. The paperwhites in the front of the shop smell great & the hyacinths in my window at home are ready to open, but nobody's fooled. It's still winter, and here in Chicago, it's going to be winter for a long, long time yet. Which is fine with me: I love winter.

I also love antiques. Put those two things together, then toss a week in New York City into the mix and what you get is the Winter Antiques Show at the Park Avenue Armory, now going into its umpteenth year. If you don't already know the Park Avenue Armory, it's a massive red-brick pile on the Upper East Side, built by the veterans of  the Seventh Regiment in the late Nineteenth Century, with a series of grand reception rooms decorated & furnished by the biggest names of the era--Tiffany, Herter, that crowd.

Even during the Armory's  decades-long period of benign neglect, its heroically-scaled interiors were impressive, but thanks to the efforts of the Park Avenue Armory Conservancy, its carved woodwork & art glass windows and geometric tile floors look just as handsome as they did when the place was new. The only difference is that, back then, the whole fashionable world was full of Eclectic-style rooms that--on a much reduced scale, at least--showed a similar taste, and these days, it's not. But that's OK. Even when these rooms were new, they were never meant to appeal to the masses. The Eclectic Look has come down in the world since then.  Today the word pretty much means anything you want it to mean.

At any rate, the Armory is once again a showplace, and when the greatest antique dealers in the world install a zillion dollars worth of their best pieces in the great Drill Hall, well, it's a don't-miss event. One of the dealers whose booth is always one of my favorites is Barbara Israel Garden Antiques, whose specialty is just what it sounds. This year, among other good-looking pieces, she's showing this Nineteenth Century marble bust of   Perseus. 

My own taste for classical statuary & the odd  architectural fragment got a jump-start one year in high school in Beloit, Wisconsin, when I  made a sandcast plaster-of-Paris mask of Apollo using as a model a busted head of the god that I found in the art deparment's storage closet. When I asked the teacher where Apollo had come from he looked puzzled. "Who? Oh, you mean David? He came from the College"--meaning Beloit College, right across the Rock River from the school. 
Photo copyright by Roland Bello for O at Home magazine,  Autumn 2008

As it turned out, the Eclectic Style wasn't the only thing that came down in the world. Slumming around with the bent bicycle wheels & splintered bushel baskets that were stored in the art room prop closet--and missing part of his plaster nose besides--Apollo no longer looked like much, but  he had probably started out, I later learned, at the very top: First on Mount Olympus, then at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, where blinding white (and electrically lit) classic style buildings stretched for an entire mile along the shores of Lake Michigan.
In 1893, the government of Greece had sent a huge collection of full-size plaster casts of classical sculpture to Chicago, and after the fair closed, the collection of casts was dispersed, some of it going to the Art Institute and other pieces going to Beloit College
Photo courtesy the amazing John Chuckman

where the best pieces went on display in the college museum. As tastes changed, however, most of the collection was slowly  banished to storage in the college basement, from which area a lot of the pieces disappeared. When Apollo's missing head surfaced at my school, he was sent right back to storage, this time in the art department's prop closet, which is where I came across him. Anyway, my copy-of-a-copy Apollo was the start of my collection of fragments, most of which, I'm sorry to say,  have an even shakier provenance than he does. Nothing's worth much.
A few years back, I saved this handsome five-foot section of the Parthenon frieze from probable destruction. Of course, that's what Lord Elgin said, too, but in this case, it's absolutely true, since I found it in the neighbor's trash pile.

My marble urn, on the other hand, is probably worth more than everything else I own, all put together.  I had always assumed it was a Victorian piece--and the top, with its carved figure of a grieving woman really is a Victorian replacement of a missing lid--but a few years ago, after my first visit to the newly-installed Classic galleries in the former Dorotheum at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I realized that my urn may actually be older than I thought--lots older.

 Photo copyright
This incredible piece dates to Second Century Rome, and, with its refined double strigilation & elegant serpent handles, it makes my simpler version look a poor country relation, but mine has the same elegant shape, and the fact that my urn has a lid gives it a distinct practical advantage over the one in New York: that is,  in summer, I can store my winter scarves in there.  You can't do that with the Met's. You can't even touch the thing.  

Speaking of which--winter, that is--I didn't make it to the Winter Antiques Show after all, this year. I never go on Thursday because Opening Night tickets are $1000 a pop, or more than I budget for the entire week, but by Friday afternoon, I'm usually either zooming off to O'Hare or--if I have more time--down to Union Station to take Amtrak: the train is generally more fun. But this year, as I said, I never made it out of town. Then again, on Friday, no one was going anywhere. Not out of Chicago, they weren't.  But it was OK.
Photo copyright by Opacity at
In the end, of course, it all balanced out. Because as much as I was hoping to make it to The Winter Antiques Show this year, if I had been in New York on Friday night, I would have missed this view from my bedroom window. 
And on a night like last Friday--antiques or no antiques--there really is no place like home


  1. Those plaster casts used to be, as you said, quite the thing, but today they are démodé. If you get to England, the basement of the Victoria and Albert has a large cast collection, and it is an amazing sight. Also, I'm sure you know of the John Soane house in London; he probably got started in a similar way.
    --Road to Parnassus

  2. Funny you should mention John Soane, Parnassus, because I assembled that black-walled room--with plaster casts & fragments of demolished buildings on every wall--in direct imitation of the Monk's Parlour at Soane's house. Both Classical America & the Getty have large collections of plaster casts they're slowly restoring, but the only place left in this country to see a full-bore installation of casts still in its original setting--created in 1907--is at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburg.

  3. Your urn really is to be envied and very grand place to keep a scarf or two.

  4. I love paperwhites, plaster casts, and your blog!
    __ The Devoted Classicist

  5. Kerry, thanks for stopping by. Any friend of David Payne's is a friend of mine.

    And JJT, thanks for your kind words. I think we sometimes used to meet over at EEE's or AAL's blog, back in the days before you had a blog of your own, and when I was commenting under the nom-de-web Magnaverde. At any rate, it's a pleasure to see you here and an honor to see a link back here on your own blog. Many thanks. Let's hope I can live up to the compliment.

  6. Is this the same Armory that held the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art, set up by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors? If so, I am well impressed!

    Whenever the students and I discuss the opening up of post-Impressionist, Fauvist and Cubist work outside France, the two events that dominate are:
    1. Fry's 1910 exhibition "Manet and the Post-Impressionists" in London and
    2. New York's Armory Show in New York 1913. Thousands of pieces of modern art *heart flutter*

    1. Hels, they're two different Armories. The Seventh Regiment Armory--where the Winter Antiques Show went on without me--is a few miles north of the one where all the uproar was in 1913. By the way, after the Armory Show came down, the best pieces traveled out here to Chicago, where they went on display at the the Art Institute, a much more elegant venue than the one in NYC.

      The indignant reaction, however, was much the same. Henri Mattisse was the target of particular scorn, a copy of his Blue Nude being torched by a raucous mob in front of the museum and the artist himself condemned to death for Crimes against Art. Who was behind the this demonstration of outrage? The Moralists? The Clergy? No, it was those eternal defenders of conservatism & tradition, a group of art students. Oh, those wacky kids!

      Thanks for stopping by.