- Historic Sites
Israel Sack made a fortune by seeing early the craft in fine old American furniture
February/march 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 2
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.
Prior to the centennial celebrations of 1876, there had been little interest anywhere in early American art and antiques. The taste for handcrafted furniture, in particular, had been all but eclipsed by the popularity of the machine-made pieces that were mass-produced after the Industrial Revolution. In addition, Americans still tended to look overseas for culture, and American furniture was thought to be primitive, inferior to more developed English and French forms. The unskilled colonial cabinetmakers, so the reasoning went, were incapable of producing fine furniture; thus any fine Chippendale and Queen Anne pieces, such as those found in the homes of the Boston aristocracy, had to have been made abroad.
Local centennial celebrations often included exhibits of objects of local historical interest—a piece of silver, the jacket of a famous patriot, perhaps an oak chair or table—but there were few extensive exhibits showing techniques of American craftsmanship: too little was known about the subject. Nonetheless, the celebrations themselves awakened national pride, which soon translated into an interest in American art and antiques. In the following decades a few adventurous souls would begin collecting Americana, especially china.
Misconceptions about the origins of American furniture prevailed at least until 1891, when Dr. Irving W. Lyon’s book, The Colonial Furniture of New England , proved that the early oak pieces found in New England had been made there and not abroad. A decade later Luke Vincent Lockwood’s Colonial Furniture in America classified the major forms up to the early part of the nineteenth century, detailing the development of the styles and providing a handbook for collectors. Once and for all the myth that much of America’s antique furniture had been made elsewhere was laid to rest.
These early collectors still tended, however, to value American antiques more for their link with the past than for their intrinsic beauty. And that link came to assume a social significance. As Elizabeth Stillinger puts it in her book The Antiques , such heirlooms served “to establish that one’s family had been in America long enough to have handed them down,” thus distinguishing one from the immigrants of the early 190Os. Appreciation of the furniture’s design, construction, and detailing was meanwhile only beginning to be seen among the most discerning collectors.
Curiously it was one of those new immigrants who first came upon these American antiques and on very short acquaintance recognized them as works of art. By all accounts Israel Sack was instantly taken by the superbly made New England pieces that were brought into Stephenson’s shop for repair. “The form, the durability, the elegant simplicity—the very nature of the pieces—this was what he loved,” says Harold. Albert, who is four years younger than Harold, adds, “He saw not what we’ve learned in books today. A piece that we now know to be a Massachusetts piece he might have called a Goddard piece. But he knew it was unique to America, he knew it was finely made and genuine, and he knew that, in its understated way, it was beautiful.”
Once Sack was asked how he could tell the difference between English and American antique furniture. “It’s easy,” he replied. “By the accent.” English furniture, made primarily for the aristocracy, emphasized detail—carving and ornamentation—over form. American furniture, on the other hand, although made for people of means, was intended for a simpler life and focused attention on line and form. American pieces were often marked by elegant proportions and endless variations on standard patterns.
During a recession in 1905 Israel Sack was temporarily laid off by Stephenson. Realizing that he could do at least as well on his own as working for someone else, he opened a furniture-repair shop on Charles Street with a capital of thirty dollars. Very soon thereafter he began, timidly at first, to buy pieces of American furniture, repair them, and resell them at a small profit.
By fortunate accident he happened to be situated right in the hub of interest in American antiques. At the time, most collectors came from New England, where early pieces were plentiful and where interest in history and genealogy had a long tradition. To serve their needs, a loose network of dealers and scouts had arisen in Boston, the financial capital of New England.
The scouts, or pickers, as they were called, would take a horse and buggy into the countryside and knock on the doors of farmhouses in search of old furniture. Many pieces had long since been relegated to barn or attic, so prices were low and people were often happy to get rid of what appeared to be junk. The pickers would bring their haul back to their garrets on Lowell Street in Boston, and dealers and a few collectors would come by to see what had turned up. Much of the furniture was just a cut above rubbish; occasionally a choice piece or two would appear.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.”