Past Masters

PrintPrintEmailEmail

To a casual passerby on East Fifty-seventh Street in Midtown Manhattan, No. 15 looks like any other small, wellkept building. On the main floor is an antique-silver shop. Above it on the third and fourth floors are windows with blinds pulled shut behind them, and across each window in gilt Gothic lettering there appears simply a name, Israel Sack, Inc. Although behind those upper-story windows is the oldest and most prestigious dealer in American antiques, nothing gives that information away. The name on the building is enough. People who are willing to pay $85,000 for a single chair or half a million dollars for a blockfront bureau know that the finest can be found there. Morrison Heckscher, Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum, describes Israel Sack, Inc., as the “most long-lived and best-known of the great American dealers.”

 

When Israel Sack opened his first shop, in 1905, things were very different. American decorative arts had only begun to be recognized as something more than a lot of copies of furniture from abroad. Few Americans fully appreciated their nation’s antiques as art ; even the finest pieces were valued more for their historic and symbolic significance. Today those same pieces of furniture are regarded as the aesthetic equals of their English and French counterparts, and they fetch staggering prices at auction.

The history of Israel Sack, Inc.—the story of how a Lithuanian immigrant turned a capital of thirty dollars into a firm that, eighty years later, is a monument to the appreciation of American craftsmanship—illustrates this great change in attitude. The firm is still run by his descendants: his three sons, Harold, Albert, and Robert, and one grandson, Donald.

Israel Sack was born in 1883, the son of a prosperous merchant in Kovno, Lithuania. He was still a child when the pogroms initiated in 1892 by Czar Nicholas began to make life difficult for the Jews of Kovno, but his response was to begin thinking of emigrating to America. To do that, he soon realized, he would need a trade. His intellectually inclined parents were horrified at the thought. As he explained it in an oral history made in 1953 for the Ford Motor Company Archives: “To learn a trade and work with your hands instead of your brains was quite a comedown, especially when my mother had two unmarried sisters in their early twenties and it hurt their chances of a favorable marriage… I was too young to understand that I broke my poor mother’s heart, but 1 was determined and stuck to it.” At fourteen he was apprenticed, and at sixteen he became a full-fledged cabinetmaker. “Not that he was such a proficient cabinetmaker,” says his eldest son, Harold. “He was an adequate cabinetmaker. No superstar.”

For two years, Israel worked to save money. But before he could earn enough to travel to America, he became eligible for service in the Russian army. His response was to join a convoy of people who had hired a guide to spirit them across the border to Germany. After several mishaps, which included having all his money stolen, he made his way over the border and thence to London.

He worked a year there in a cabinetry shop to secure the thirty-one dollars needed for passage across the Atlantic and sailed on the steamship Etruria from Liverpool on October 1, 1903. Upon arrival in Boston with the equivalent of $1.65 in his pocket, more than three dollars shy of the five dollars required of new immigrants, he bluffed his way past the authorities. With the same determination, he found a job a few days later in the shop of an Irish cabinetmaker named Stephenson, though a recession that year had left many without jobs.

 

In addition to making and repairing furniture, Stephenson had a thriving side business of faking antiques. Then, as now, much money could be made by making new pieces from old wood and “aging” them with ammonia fumes and carefully drilled wormholes. Of his employer, Israel said: “It seemed that he had an allergy for genuine things. Everything was concocted. After a while I became his righthand man. I was his greatest concocter.” The familiarity Sack thus gained with forgeries would prove invaluable in future years.

It was also in Stephenson’s shop that Sack first came into contact with truly old American furniture, the elegant pieces—Chippendale highboys, Queen Anne chairs, blockfront bureaus—that belonged to the Boston families of Beacon Hill and had been handed down for generations. “The New England families there took their things for granted,” explains Harold Sack. “In other words, these were useful pieces of furniture which needed repair. They weren’t thinking in terms of preserving the equity of this great heritage.” But attitudes had slowly begun to change.