Past Masters

PrintPrintEmailEmail

“I had a flair for good things,” Sack told his interviewer from the Ford Archives. Indeed, he had great confidence and an ability to spot inauthenticity. He also had a deep love of early American pieces and was willing to pay premium prices for works he deemed superlative. “Recently,” says Harold Sack, “I sold a chest of drawers for over a quarter of a million dollars that my father bought for $150 in 1911.”(In fact, this chest has passed through the firm’s hands five times since 1911—and once, during the Depression, the firm lost money on it.)

Soon Sack’s stock began to be known to New England collectors. One of them was Eugene Bolles, a Boston lawyer who had begun acquiring fine American furniture back in the 188Os. By the first decade of the twentieth century he had become famous for his discerning eye and his tenacity in pursuing pieces. Eventually his collection grew to six hundred pieces and formed the nucleus of the Metropolitan Museum’s American Wing. Bolles was Sack’s first important customer and helped gain him recognition as a dealer.

Four years after Israel Sack opened his shop, the Metropolitan mounted the first important museum exhibition of American decorative arts. This was during the HudsonFulton Celebration of 1909, and Eugene Bolles’s collection formed a great part of the exhibition. The show greatly enhanced the reputation of American antiques, and it signaled a change in attitude: superior examples of American simplicity and craftsmanship began to be seen as an educational tool, a means for instructing immigrants in the values of settled Americans. This attitude prevailed when the great museum collections were formed in the 1920s.

Six years later, in 1915, says Albert Sack, “my father was the leading dealer in Boston.” Part of the secret of Sack’s success was that even at this early date he had no interest in ordinary pieces. “My father had a saying,” says Harold Sack. ” ‘If you can’t tell the difference between skunk and mink, why buy the mink?’ ” Israel Sack’s preference was always for the mink.

In the early 1920s the consciousness of American decorative arts that had been developing for over fifty years came to full flower, catalyzed in part by a renewed national pride in the aftermath of World War I. The aesthetic worth of American antiques was certified beyond all doubt by the opening of the Metropolitan Museum’s American Wing in 1924. Mrs. Russell Sage had bought the Bolles collection for the museum, and the period rooms in the wing proved hugely influential.

Rich Americans who had once acquired Old Master paintings and Louis XV furniture now suddenly turned their attention to the homegrown arts. Francis Garvan, Henry du Pont, Henry Ford, and Ima Hogg all bought pieces as fast as dealers could supply them. Once they became knowledgeable in the field, they insisted on the very best.

Sack, like the other great dealers of his day, was admirably suited to take advantage of the situation. Supplies were ample, since few pieces had been taken out of circulation by museums, and dealers with an eye for quality were in a position to guide and instruct wealthy new customers. “The decade from 1921 to 1931 was my father’s golden era,” Harold Sack says. “He was right in the main swing of all these collectors, he was the one with the merchandise, he was the one who had the money now to go out and buy these things.”

At first Israel Sack sold to large New York dealers who in turn sold to the important collectors. But not for long. Henry du Pont, for instance, “had met my father by chance, going into our Charles Street store in the early days,” says Harold. “Nevertheless, the bulk of his important things in the early twenties were being bought by a firm in New York called Collins & Collins. Mr. and Mrs. Collins spent their days playing bridge, and on Sundays they would go to Boston, buy from my father, then sell these pieces to Henry du Pont at a huge profit —until du Pont discovered where Collins was going and went up to Boston himself.” It was the start of a long relationship and a collection —considered by many the finest in America—that eventually became du Pont’s Winterthur Museum, in Delaware. In 1953 du Pont said he wished he had begun buying from Sack when he was in college and told him, “There is no telling how much better a collection I might have had if I had started with you at that time.”

In 1923 Henry Ford bought the old Wayside Inn, in South Sudbury, Massachusetts, much to the alarm of preservationists, who feared that he might turn it into a hotel. Instead he asked Sack to furnish it appropriately. Israel did so, including pieces that had belonged to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and had the job done in two weeks. In subsequent years Ford bought many pieces from Sack for what became the Henry Ford Museum, in Dearborn, Michigan.