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Behind the scenes of the 65th antique Winter Show, a 'museum' you can shop

Items for sale range in price from $1,000 to more than $3 million.

A Victorian amethyst and pearl necklace (circa 1840)

A Victorian amethyst and pearl necklace (circa 1840) is valued at $56,000, and is one of thousands of antiques on sale at the Winter Show in the Park Avenue Armory. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

Behind the brick facade of the century-old Park Avenue Armory sits a large Amethyst and pearl necklace, its jewels glittering beneath bright lights and expert stares. The necklace hails from the 1840s, and wouldn't look out of place hanging from Queen Victoria's neck.

But this necklace, as elaborate as it is, is only one of thousands of pieces on display at the annual Winter Show, which starts Friday and runs through Jan. 27 — and functions, as its organizers have put it, like a museum where  you can actually shop. Organizing a show as extensive as the Winter Show, which assembles more than 150 experts in close to 70 fields and takes nearly the entire year to prepare, is no small feat. 

"There are thousands of pieces, but they're in every price range. There's kind of a find for everyone and anyone," said Helen Allen, the show's executive director. "What’s important to us as organizers for this show is that we really maintain this kind of accessibility for our audience. As an art lover and as an art historian, my goal is for people to get the exposure and see the work."

Planning for the show, now in its 65th year, is a yearlong process, Allen said. By April invitations are sent out to dealers, and by the beginning of December committees are vetting all the pieces that the dealers intend to bring (which range from about $1,000 in value to a mind-boggling $3 million or more). Proceeds from ticket sales, which cost $25 and are available on the Winter Show's website, benefit the East Side House Settlement, a nonprofit focused on education.

As the last touches of paint went up on columns on Thursday, flowers were set out as the 67 dealers finished unpacking their wares. Small rooms filled with detailed paintings and intricately cut, multicolored Tiffany Studios lamps (worth upward of $850,0000) were set out, ready to be both admired and, as dealers hope, purchased.

Though several experts said the ultimate rule when buying an antique is to buy what you love, value inevitably plays into the equation. Most antiques at the fair are over 100 years old. Allen said the 100-year mark is generally the definition of an antique. But a smaller collection of contemporary pieces can be found as well (dealers who are invited as antiques dealers are only allowed to have a handful of items that date after the 1960s).

"When you come to a show like the Winter Show, you know that something is a bona fide antique because it’s been vetted, it’s been looked at by experts in the field and approved," Allen said. "By working with the objects and really engaging with the objects, there’s a lot that the experts know about craftsmanship, quality, structure."

Committees vet each of the thousands of pieces that are displayed and up for sale, and collectively rule on an object's authenticity. 

"Every single piece that’s in the show is looked at and studied. Some things you can look at very quickly, others you have to really scavenge over ... Therefore, it gives the novice the assurance," said Joan Boening, of James Robinson Gallery, a fourth-generation antique vetter. "I pick it up, I look at how it's been made. I look at its condition ... You have to look at the proportions, you look at how it's made, you look at the enamel work."

Boening specializes in jewelry and scrutinizes details, verifying that the hinges in a bracelet or the gold used are appropriate for the time period.

"I have been looking at these things for 40-plus years. Can I get fooled? Absolutely. But there's a group of us there and we have a discussion," she said. "It's years and years and years of working with things, touching things, feeling things... An expert becomes an expert by studying form, studying style and studying what the pieces are supposed to [be]. The only real way to understand your art is to be working with it."

Boening added: "Taste never comes into this. It's not about taste, it's about being right."

Ultimately, Boening (who is an exhibitor at the show herself and the seller of that Victorian Amethyst and pear necklace) said the dealers want to help attendees understand what they're looking at. 

"We love to talk and tell stories about things," she said. "Everybody at the show … we’re there to help people understand why you want to love some of these pieces and what is interesting about them, why we bought them, why we think they're worth reselling."

ANTIQUE SHOPPING 101: 

Arlie Sulka, the owner of Lillian Nassau LLC, offers some expert advice on what to look for when shopping for an antique:

Knowledge is power. You should educate yourself about the object you’re considering buying. If you can, even educate yourself about the source from whom you are buying.

Condition is critical. Certain condition issues are acceptable and they’re not going to effect the value of something. In certain realms, the philosophy is no restoration at all. In some areas, however, it's ok to do something. You need to be able to ask about condition and make sure they can explain it. 

View in the flesh. You really need to see and touch the objects. It’s never exactly what you see on the internet. 

Be an informed consumer. A good dealer will educate the client. It’s important that you have all the information you can possibly get.

If it seems it’s too good to be true, it most often is. It’s almost impossible to find a bargain. Most people who are selling things today have done their homework. It all comes down to trust and guarantee — go places where you will establish trust and where people will guarantee.

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