Past Masters

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Gradually, as the Depression eased, customers began to come in again, and after World War II the business became profitable once more. Israel remained active for a number of years, but in the 1930s the second generation had begun to assert itself, and things were different. As the American antique-furniture field entered its maturity, so did Israel Sack, Inc.

In January 1983, on a Saturday afternoon, Harold Sack went shopping at Sotheby Park Bernet. He paid $687,500 (including buyer’s commission) for a Goddard-Townsend blockfront kneehole desk with shell carvings and an impeccable lineage. This surpassed by more than a quarter of a million dollars the previous record for a piece of American furniture—which Harold had also set, back in 1980—of $390,000. At the auction he also bought a hairy-paw Philadelphia card table for $242,000. In all, his purchases that day set him back over $1.1 million. Some months later Harold sold the kneehole desk to a young collector in his thirties for “quite a bit over what we paid for it.” The price is rumored to have been more than one million dollars.

These figures provide a stunning contrast to the days just two generations earlier when American pieces were barely considered worth the wood they were made of. Beyond that they reflect the huge demand for such pieces that has grown up in recent years. Not only are there more buyers, but they are more affluent. Furthermore, the installation in the 1960s of American antiques in the State Department’s diplomatic rooms and in the White House put yet another stamp of acceptability on Americana and heightened interest in the field. After World War II banks began lending more to dealers, making more capital available to the business. And during the inflationary 1970s, people turned to antiques as good investments.

At the same time, the volume of antiques on the market has shrunk as museums have built up collections, and this, too, has forced prices up. The emergence of auction houses as retail outlets also has elevated prices, since dealers, who traditionally have bought at auction, are now forced to compete with private collectors, who can bid fair market value without having to worry about turning a profit on their purchases.

The new prices also reflect the serious scholarship that has been applied to the field in the last twenty years. Prior to the 1950s little study had been devoted to regional variations in styles, for instance, though the styles themselves had been closely detailed. These studies have been aided by the opening of curatorial schools, such as that at Winterthur. And scholarship has produced better-educated buyers bent on acquiring collections of singular quality. Today, says Albert Sack, “when a collector comes on the scene, he already has the literature and knows what he wants. He has a greater range of knowledge, whereas before it was just the guidance of the individual dealer.” These knowledgeable collectors all want masterpieces, and thus prices at the upper levels have soared.

So Harold’s trip to Sotheby’s illustrates what competition and connoisseurship have done to the American antiques business. These days a single mistake can prove financially ruinous, but Israel Sack, Inc., maintains its leadership. Just as the father’s perception and personality were ideally suited to the field in its early days, so are his sons’ skills well-suited to the field in its maturity.

“We’ve made a business out of it,” says Albert Sack succinctly. He and his brothers credit their father with having been a brilliant man but not a brilliant businessman; Harold, says Morrison Heckscher, “is an extremely astute businessman. He’s soft-spoken, very civil, and knowledgeable. He knows his business. He knows his market. He drives a hard bargain, he asks what the market will bear, but he is, I would say, realistic.”

Harold himself explains that “having suffered so tremendously from the bad operation in the Depression and the damage it did, I’ve probably been more conscious of the business area than another might be.… To me, while the product happens to be antiques, the principles of business are immutable. They don’t change.”

Where Israel was exuberant and gregarious, his sons are understated and private. “My father was a very powerful personality,” Harold says. “He loved good stories, and he loved people. He was a good guy, and while he may not have tended his proper store business, he was always willing to spend the night with some collector in Detroit, swapping stories. I’ll go to customers if I think I can knock off a sale; he would go there if he enjoyed being with them.”