When the Winter Antiques Show opened the doors at its first exhibition, Dwight Eisenhower was beginning his first term in office and white-gloved, behatted Mamie was setting the style. For sixty-two years, that aesthetic has prevailed: decorous Upper East Siders dutifully troop to the Park Avenue Armory to view and purchase art and antiques, and East Side House Settlement, a Bronx youth charity, benefits from the largesse.
Now the ship is creaking a bit with age. At last week’s opening night gala, some of the Old Guard showed the flag, but as for a New Guard, they were few and far between.
Let’s start with who was there. The biggest name was the estimable Leonard Lauder, aglow alongside his bride Judy. Then there was the dowager Irene Roosevelt Aitken, the architect Peter Pennoyer, and the silver dealer Ian Irving. Glamorous ladies with a philanthropic bent included Margo Langenberg, Sharon Handler Loeb, Stephanie Krieger and Tara Rockefeller.
In the old days, say ten years ago, one would have seen the likes of Pat Buckley, Nan Kempner, the Peabodys and the Herreras, not only gracing the committee but actually standing at the front door and glad-handing arrivals. No more. Also absent was the decorator Mario Buatta, who was the spark plug of this event for many years, but is currently laid up in New York Hospital, tending to an errant gall bladder.
What was noticeable to someone who had not attended this event for several years was the sparsity of the Bright Young Things–the stunning 30-something ladies and their handsome fellas, who regularly decorate the high-energy fundraisers for Central Park Conservancy, American Ballet Theatre and Sloan-Kettering.
Where were they? Those who know about such things say the generation called millennials eschew conspicuous consumption, aren’t interested in the purchase and display of museum-like objets d’art, hate “brown furniture”, and don’t embrace the acquisition of expensive possessions as a signifier of status among their 21st-century social set. That might explain why luxury retail is tanking: those who have the money prefer to spend it on real estate and exciting “experiences”. All of which makes for a wintry climate for Winter Antiques dealers. And let’s don’t even get into the two-day snow storm.
Taste changes, cycles come and go. Even charities go in and out of fashion. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, collectors turned against Art Deco; a few years later, it was all the rage. Today, one can’t give away 18th-century French furniture; down the road, it will roar back.
Two men who were at the gala always bring their own magnetic field. David Patrick Columbia, the co-founder and editor of NewYorkSocialDiary.com, is the reigning arbiter of that world and a much sought-after guest. As a diarist, Columbia is the Maury Henry Biddle Paul (the original “Cholly Knickerbocker”) of his day. Bill Cunningham, whose Evening Hours photo collage in The Sunday Times Styles section is the visual record of who-was-where each week, is the fashion chronicler sine qua non, the Jerome Zerbe of his day. Both are vital to the scene, and may they long endure.
One feature of this annual event that delights many is the quality and quantity of the food and drink around every corner and on every passing tray. It is a sumptuous array, enough to sate an NFL team, and is rapaciously consumed by partygoers who have paid $500 to $2,500 for their tickets. Every canapé and sandwich one can imagine is proffered. I overheard a passing catering manager speaking into a mike around his neck: “We need an emergency re-supply at the meatball station.”
In olden days, the actress Sylvia Miles was on the town every night and appeared at every party. It was in her honor that the phrase was coined, “Sylvia will go to the opening of an envelope.” Nowadays, Miss Miles has become a recluse on Central Park South, but two other ladies who do go out a lot were at the antiques show.
Martha Stewart is a cheerful and welcome ubiquitous presence. The dynamo, who makes wonderful products, seems to be of the opinion that the best way not to be forgotten is to go everywhere she’s invited—and she’s invited everywhere—and document it on social media. She’s got superb taste, she has lots of mansions to keep furnished, but who knows whether she’s still acquiring with avidity since she sold her company last year at a deep discount.
And let’s not overlook Jean Shafiroff. Five years ago, nobody had ever heard of her, and now one can’t go a day without seeing a photograph of her posing prettily at a charity function, or at a pre-party or a post-party for a charity function. She supports many philanthropic causes, and she does so with perseverance and by writing hefty checks.
Last week, one of her several publicists called around to gossip columnists pitching an item that Mrs. Shafiroff was being “very brave” by hosting a Heart Association cocktail party at her Park Avenue apartment and also attending the antiques show, even though her father on Long Island had died only a few days before. In a rare instance of discretion, nobody printed the item. Nonetheless, Mrs. Shafiroff went ahead with the charitable appearances. And she was right to do so. Her beloved father was gone, nothing would bring him back, but the charity work and the photo ops must go on. Philanthropy is a tough job, but somebody has got to do it. Welcome to our Brave New World.