- Historic Sites
Israel Sack made a fortune by seeing early the craft in fine old American furniture
February/march 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 2
The three sons share their father’s passion and sharp eye for antique furniture. There is a phrase used in the trade for the finest pieces: Sack quality . Today Sack employs its own reference librarian and has one of the largest slide collections of furniture in the nation, including both genuine pieces and forgeries. The brothers lecture all over the country on the history of American furniture collecting, and for the past fifteen years they have periodically issued a catalog of the important pieces that have passed through their shop. There are now seven volumes in the series, and they are used as essential reference tools by people in the field. Albert, who generally is agreed to be the firm’s greatest connoisseur, is the author of a popular and influential comparative study of American furniture called Fine Points of Furniture: Early American . Published in 1950 and universally known as “the good, better, best book,” it meticulously analyzes individual pieces of furniture, distinguishing among levels of quality.
At auction an Israel Sack, Inc., provenance will bring a much higher price (sometimes double) what a comparable piece without that seal will bring. Harold sometimes has said, in defense of the firm’s high prices: “Before it was just a piece. Now it’s a Sack piece.”
Sack’s showroom, however, is not as prepossessing as all this might lead one to believe. A visitor stepping off the elevator is immediately struck by two things: the quality of the stock—its overwhelming, cumulative magnificence, not just a choice piece here and there—and the plainness of the surroundings. The walls are dull white, the floor gray linoleum, the ceiling acoustic tile. Each piece is brilliantly, almost ruthlessly, lit and stands out individually, not as part of a setting. There is a detailed description card for every piece, and hanging from perhaps a back leg is a small tag, the kind you would expect to see on items at a church fair. The tag bears a price that might be $125,000, $250,000, or $450,000. In such an environment the pieces can —and do—speak for themselves. That is, they speak for themselves with the aid of full documentation by the Sacks. As Heckscher points out: “The Sacks have very consciously done more publishing and documenting of what they’ve done than any other firm and have shown a greater sense of interest in the history of collecting of American furniture. And the net result is to reinforce their reputation today.”
In part this is filial loyalty; in equal part it is an awareness that a good name is good business. When the remodeled American Wing opened at the Metropolitan Museum in 1980, it contained three Israel Sack galleries, donated by the firm to commemorate their father’s long association with the museum. Many of the American Wing’s finest pieces came from Sack.
When Berry Tracy, then curator of the wing, approached the firm with the idea for the galleries and a projected price of a third of a million dollars, the Sacks were aghast, Harold says. But, he adds, they changed their minds as they thought what that would mean, “to have our name up there in the American Wing.” Today, he says: “I’m so glad that we did it. It’s a memorial to my father; he would have liked it. It’s a great tribute to the name. And it certainly can’t hurt businesswise, though it surely did take a hunk of capital out of us. When they first approached us, it sounded like such a tremendous amount of money, but when I started thinking about it—it’s forever . And that’s only pennies a day when you amortize over forever.”