- Historic Sites
Israel Sack made a fortune by seeing early the craft in fine old American furniture
February/march 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 2
Ford and my father became very good friends,” says Harold. “They played together and ran together, had fun together. I guess they sparked each other.” Even Ford’s anti-Semitism, expressed in the Dearborn Independent , could not mar their friendship; at the time Ford published his noted retraction, in 1927, Harold recalls, Ford publicly “mentioned my father as a man who was Jewish who carried out all his assignments in an ethical, professional manner.” In 1955, when news came over the radio that the Wayside Inn had burned to the ground, Israel Sack wept. “It was the only time I saw my father cry,” says his youngest son, Robert.
Sack’s success in the 1920s undoubtedly was due in large part to his forceful, ebullient personality and his absolute conviction of the importance of American decorative arts. He sometimes said, “When I came to America, I went native.” Like any good dealer, he took himself to where his business was, rather than waiting for it to come to him. “My father slept in more houses than George Washington,” Harold Sack says.
After hearing that Midwestern museums were becoming interested in Americana, Sack went to the Kansas City Museum and persuaded its founder, J. C. Nichols, to let him assemble a collection of antiques. “There’s only one right way to do it and I know the way,” he said. Also, he offered the less-than-enthusiastic director of the Detroit Institute of Arts a loan of certain pieces until donors for them could be found. If donors were not forthcoming, Sack offered to take everything back at no charge. “Not one piece came back,” says Albert, “and it’s all still there in the museum.”
During the 1920s Sack greatly expanded his operation, opening a shop in New York in addition to the one in Boston and buying a number of historic houses as backdrops for his inventory. After the stock market collapsed in 1929, the art market held on for another two years, and some of the highest prices paid until then were set at sales in 1929 and 1930. But of course that trend could not last, and during the 1930s the firm came close to ruin.
“I saw the trouble coming,” says Harold. “I was still young, but I always met with my father’s accountant, who’d ask me to try to talk to my father to get him to cut some of his branches out. Well, my father had a customer named Herbert Lawton, a wealthy woolens merchant in Boston, a real Yankee trader who was a friend of Herbert Hoover’s. One day in 1931 we were in the office when Mr. Lawton came in from Washington. ‘Sack,’ he said to my father, ‘I just had dinner with Herbert Hoover, and I want to tip you off. This thing’s turning around and we’re going to have a boom. So buy your head off.’ My father swallowed that, hook, line, and sinker. I mean, he had every right to. It sounds pretty good, after all—straight from the horse’s mouth, the President himself. So my father turned around and went to his biggest competitor in Boston, Benjamin Flayderman, and bought his collection for a lot of money. And for the first time, he had to go to the banks to finance it. Then, instead of the thing going up, it went down. It collapsed, and we had all these things to liquidate in a market where the giants had quit.”
On May 20, 1932, Israel Sack auctioned off his stock at the American Anderson Galleries in New York. Auction prices were severely depressed, and the 181 lots in the sale fetched only $26,417. (By contrast, in 1929 the 730-odd pieces in the Reifsnyder sale went for some $600,000.) Even after selling his inventory, Sack owed money.
In 1933 he closed his Boston store and consolidated his operation in New York, where the collecting center had shifted after the opening of the American Wing. The move, more than just a geographical change, signaled the firm’s transition, with some initial difficulty, from a one-man operation into a more corporate structure.
Harold Sack had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth in 1932, having studied both literature and finance. When the firm moved to New York, he incorporated it in partnership with Leon David, another dealer. David’s son, Ben, and Harold were the chief stockholders. (Later the Davids were to leave the partnership: they wanted to get into reproductions, and the Sacks did not.)
Although American antiques finally were confirmed in their importance, the economic climate was against the new partnership. Even the big collectors were not buying. The firm had a five-story building on Madison Avenue. “We couldn’t fill one floor,” says Albert Sack, who was forced to leave the University of Pennsylvania in 1934, after only one year of college. He and Harold moved into an apartment on the top floor of the building, and the family began to resurrect the business. Albert set out for auctions in a secondhand station wagon, commencing his role as buyer, which he has continued to this day; Harold concentrated on selling and finance. At one particularly gloomy point, a loan from a former fraternity brother of Harold’s kept the firm going.