What kind of young person collects antiques? The question confronted The Huffington Post when a press release came our way a few weeks ago, for something called Young Collectors Night. Preliminary research told us that on a scheduled night every year, an army of young people stream into the Park Avenue Armory, a vast, castle-shaped building in Manhattan where the snooty Gilded Age families used to hang, to look at the items on display for the annual Winter Antiques Show -- Turkish rugs, fountains from the 1800s -- and perhaps buy one or a couple.
We were intrigued. Who were these liquid twenty and thirtysomethings? Would any actually drop $1.2 million on a Wendell Castle desk and chair, the priciest item for sale?
The money from ticket sales (at $175 each) would go to East Side House Settlement, a charity that offers classes for underserved kids and adults. The charity is just two subway stops from the Armory's Upper East Side digs, and a world away, in the country's poorest Congressional district, the South Bronx.
We called Emily Israel Pluhar in advance. An East Side House Settlement board member and co-chair of Young Collectors Night, Emily has privileged access. Her mother, Barbara Israel, runs a stall at the center of the Armory stocked with garden statuaries -- oversized sculptures that often require multiple union men with tools to move them in. For Emily, who lives in Boston, the several-hundred person event is "a mecca for meeting lots of friends and people we've known forever.” At the end of the night, Barbara gives her a private guided tour of the stalls, rattling off facts about any item Emily takes a fancy to. Emily told us to prepare ourselves for “glitzy” and “glamorous.” She doubted any students from the South Bronx would be there.
The day arrived. So did we. A guard promised us “all the shades of New York black” inside, meaning black clothes. From the neck up, the scene diversified in a limited sense of the word: lots of red lipstick, two rabbit fur stoles, one hat that looked like a bandage for a head wound, one camera obscuring one distinctive face (that of Bill Cunningham, the legendary photographer, who attends each year), and white smiles bobbing in not-quite-unison.
We asked a seller of swords and other hammered metal whether he expected to relieve his stall of anything that night. At the time, he was showing a man who looked to be in his early thirties a 400-year-old German helmet, priced at $90,000. The visitor peered into the bowl of the helmet, and fingered a patch of red lining. “I expect to sell everything here in the next five minutes,” the seller told us sternly, in a British accent. “That’s the way to think.”
In the bathroom, women were touching up their red lipstick. One asked another where she got her pants from. “I feel like I’ve seen them before," she said.
“I’d be surprised,” said the woman in pants. “These are Dolce & Gabbana, from ten years ago.” It seemed as if they might argue about it, but just then, a pair of blondes at the mirror started talking about a shade of red lipstick that looks good on everyone. "This party is always pretty fun, and always has good clothes," someone noticed as we left.
Back outside, at a stall draped in 19th century Turkish kilims, we met Jesse, a long-haired young man who once worked for the kilim-seller, and had returned to pitch in for the night. Jesse looked to us like a potential young collector himself, outfitted as he was in a bow-tie that made his long hair look Victorian.
But Jesse assured us to the contrary, before giving us the low-down on the antique Turkish rug market. Stock comes exclusively from collectors in Germany and Switzerland, according to his experience. “There’s nothing in Turkey anymore,” he told us. He did not pause for a moment of silence, and so neither did we. Are young collectors truly a viable clientele, we asked, back on point? Jesse shrugged. “I can’t really say,” he told us, before moving onto a topic that seemed to interest him more, the fact that he makes rap videos now. He told us he was working on a video for Fashion Week.
By now the hors-d’oeuvres had vanished. A nearby 18th century crystal bowl made in England, which had been full of gold-foiled Rolos at the start of the night, was empty. We were drinking on what felt like empty stomachs, egged on by waiters in suits who seemed to be switching out our glasses constantly, each time whispering the new cocktail’s ingredients.
Jesse was beginning to feel less like a new friend and more like a lonely kidnapper. We extracted ourselves. A maple gateleg table caught our eye. It stood at the center of a large stall, its elegantly arched legs topped with a plank half smooth and half spider-webbed in white scratch marks. In a sea of $1800 porcelain snuff boxes, it stood out as respectably used, and useable.
A man approached us. “Excuse me,” he said. “Are you really interested?”
We indicated yes. It took nothing to be interested: the table was as enchanting as a table can possibly be.
“It’s $60,000,” he told us. The scratches, he said, were from baking pins. The table’s smooth half had mostly been folded out of sight, in a home in Rhode Island where it had spent most of its days.
He was shouting. “Diamonds,” the Rihanna song, was on high, spun by someone advertised on an entry sign as DJ David Chang.
We shouted back that we wished we could afford it, and the seller bowed his head with a woeful smile. The song wound down. “It’s quite alright, that’s how it goes,” he said. Around us, young collectors were collecting mostly their coats, from the coat check.
Days later, a spokeswoman let us know the results by email. No one bought the $1.2 million desk and chair, or a replica of a famous dog sculpture that Barbara had told us was the most interesting piece in her stall. But plenty of people showed up. East Side House Settlement made $175,000 in ticket sales, enough to buy two German war helmets from the 1600s.
This story appears in Issue 39 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, March 8.
Oh, go on. Look at the beautiful expensive things, why don't you?