The New York Winter Antiques Show is a bastion of the New York social scene and the season opener for the local art and antique trade. The East Side House Settlement - which gives residents of the South Bronx and surrounding communities access to quality education and technology training - is the beneficiary, and for 60 years funds have been channeled directly to the charity from the fair. It has, in many ways, established the worldwide principle that antique shows should, at least in part, benefit a charity. To balance the celebration of Mammon, there is a cheque written to help some less fortunate section of society. It is a comfortable exchange, as a good show will commercially benefit the dealers and perhaps give them a sense of a moral uplift as well; and of course, the charity is empowered to do more good work.
Here in New York, everyone is shivering. There have been a couple of fierce storms this winter and piles of grubby snow line the avenues; the wind howls and flurries of ice blow in your face. It is that really cruel cold that tries to steal your breath and each step takes you closer to understanding the travails of Shackleton or Scott. The coat-check at the show is doing brisk business as they charge $3 for each item they take in, and many visitors come with huge collections of winter clothes. Some visitors even end up handing over nearly $20 -the price of an entry ticket! I am mean, however, and have a large bag into which I cram all of my stuff; my coat, my hat, my gloves and my scarf are all unceremoniously squeezed in. The man taking the coats, who has a massive wad of cash in his hand, looks unimpressed by the $3 I part with for my enormously overstuffed and slightly compromised bag.
The show is a celebration of all artistic things American, from folk art through to fine furniture and paintings. There are dealers of international interest but they are a garnish for a show that is proud of its American focus. The format for shows at the Armory, the historic building on Park Avenue with its fabled Tiffany rooms, is always and unchangingly the same. With aisles that go from front to back, there is a cafe at the rear and a bar station in the middle. Shows are formulaic - though some make great play of having special booth designs or black or grey aisles, the net result is always the same. But a show is not about the frame, it is about the picture within it, and whilst some people may get muddled as to which show they are visiting, the objects and pictures in the booths are what they are here to admire and buy.
A number of Masterpiece exhibitors are here and a few potential ones too. The best time to visit is in the last couple of hours when there is a daily unofficial unstructured cocktail party, the visitors are few and the dealers gather to chat and drink. We dubbed it 'Sea Breeze o'clock' when we were doing the show in San Francisco. After a long day standing, your knees and calves aching, a large glass of cranberry and grapefruit juice enhanced by a generous pouring of vodka can seem a life-saving concoction.
Sea Breeze o'clock at the winter show brings a smile to drawn faces: some are bright as business has been done, some are gloomy as they are disappointed. There is a corner of the fair where Elle Shushan, who sells portrait miniatures, Michele Beiny (French porcelain), Robert Young (English folk art), and Sandra Hindman (of Les Enluminures, illuminated manuscripts) all gather. They are a friendly crew and they look out for each other - this is the epitome of the collegiate nature of the trade. There is no competition between them, just a healthy respect for one another's professionalism. Each of these dealers makes a huge effort with his or her stand and the results are universally successful. They are all Masterpiece exhibitors too and there is much talk about the forthcoming fair... but equally the cold outside, hence my eagerness to head off to Miami.
My visit to Miami was punctuated by strange happenings. As I went through security, the large gun-toting guard removed his hat to wipe his head, and inside the hat I spotted a shiny cellophane compartment, holding photographs. I made a comment and he proceeded to show me his family in his hat. What a good place to keep your family, under your hat! I had never imagined I would encounter a real-life version of the phrase.
The second incident was in the street outside my hotel. My son Inigo and I like to play a game where you score a point every time you spot a Mustang. When we are apart, the only way to score is to take and send a photo as proof. So, I spotted a Mustang parked on the main drag, so I whipped out my camera phone and prepared to take a snap. What I had failed to notice was that there was a courting couple inside, in a clinch. The man spotted me trying to take a picture and went ballistic - he jumped out of the car and looked very menacing. I decided to run for it and though he tried to chase, he soon gave up and I caught my breath with his expletives ringing in my ears.
The third unusual encounter came as I walked back to the hotel late at night. Two men, British, wearing smart blue shirts and jeans, both quite tubby and rolling slightly unsteadily along, having possibly imbibed a bit much. Holding hands they were shouting quite loudly: "I am the most gay!" "No," says the other, "I am! I am way more gay than you!" Having failed to reach a consensus on this point, they loudly agreed that they loved each other, politely interrupting their passionate embrace to let me pass. Miami is definitely an intense place, especially around South Beach.
The Original Miami Beach Antique show has over 1000 booths and they cover a mass of space. It is a jewellery show primarily, with almost everything else as well. At Masterpiece we have 16 exhibitors in modern and antique jewellery, representing exactly 10% of the fair - to put it another way 90% is not jewellery. Most of our jewellery exhibitors are here, together with almost every jeweller in the world - this is almost a jewellery convention. For a week or so they trade, barter and talk, it is a very 'full on' environment. I spend many hours running around looking for buying opportunities, and the day passes successfully if expensively.
Back in New York briefly before my flight home early Sunday morning, I catch up with my former colleague Nick and his wife Jamie, and we go to a bar called The Dead Rabbit. This oddly named cocktail bar is in an old house by Bowling Green and serves the most amazing cocktails I think I have ever encountered. They serve the classics and do so with perfect balance and consistency, but they also have created a roster of new ones. I had a 'Gladstone' - composed of whiskey, absinthe, ginger and vermouth, this came in a simple wine glass and was a joy to consume. We had food too, which was cleverly thought out as there were no big plates to get in the way, just delicious snack food, almost like at a cocktail party: oysters of medium size, deliciously sweet and soft, beef sliders, tiny aromatic one-bite lamb chops, crispy fries and succulent tiny morsels of deep fried battered fish. But the cocktails were the stars - even the piano player and our neighbours singing along could not distract us. To inappropriately echo the words of General MacArthur - "I came through and I shall return."