N.Y. show embroiled in controversy


The Winter Antiques Show in New York, long considered America's best show and the most lucrative marketplace for dealers, appeared wounded and bleeding a month ago. Now it is looking better, even though it has resisted the strongest medicine -- "vetting" has been put off for another year.

Vetting committees are composed of dealers and experts who examine all the items for sale at a show and pass on their authenticity and correct labeling. Dealers believe vetting protects the public; however, it is imperfect. Guarantees by individual dealers are considered stronger.

This is only one problem the show has faced. There have been plenty of setbacks. Some good, longtime dealers resigned and a controversial new floor plan had to be revised.

The show will look quite different this year. There will be lots of new faces -- 19 dealers are new to the show. There is more emphasis on Americana, including American Indian material; there are fewer dealers in French antiques, three more London dealers and some new categories -- namely, China Trade paintings, tribal art, rare books and autographs.

Unfortunately nobody can predict if war or the possibility of war will cast gloom over the show, which is scheduled to open for the 37th year on Jan. 25, just 10 days after the United Nations deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. The show closes Feb. 3.

Mario Buatta, the New York decorator who for the last 16 years has been chairman of the show, which benefits the century-old East Side House Settlement in the South Bronx, wanted to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the settlement house with a gift of $1 million. The show raised $840,000 in 1988, $805,000 in 1989, but only $600,000 last year.

"Expenses just keep going up," complains Mr. Buatta.

The proceeds from the $500-a-ticket benefactor's tea, $250 preview party and $10 admission to the show, plus profits from the catalog and lectures, go to a good cause. The settlement house, with its after-school programs for teen-agers, day care for working mothers and programs for senior citizens, is important to life in the South Bronx.

Mr. Buatta was so aggravated by the politics of the show that just before Christmas he resigned. For the last five years he has not been on good terms with the show dealers. He repeatedly refused to recognize their committee, which wanted a say in policy decisions. Three years ago, when he dropped seven dealers from the show without warning, he and the East Side House committee were faced with a lawsuit. This year he dismissed six more dealers, arbitrarily. Troubled by the fact that 21 of his top dealers elected to show at the vetted fall International Dealer's show inaugurated in 1989, and then more than half of them decided to drop out of the Winter Show, Mr. Buatta countered by inviting more foreign dealers even though American dealers had expressed their hope that the Winter Show would remain all American.

Mr. Buatta comments, "They [the dealers] don't realize I break my back over this show and don't get paid for it; it's all for a charity." He contends the dealers "don't appreciate I made them rich. I brought in the people when the show was foundering. Not one of the dealers will go up to the Bronx and see what goes on at East Side House. If they would go they would understand what I am working for."

Mr. Buatta decided one way to make up the shortfall was by upping booth rents dramatically. Taking note of the high rent dealers pay at the International Show, where rent goes to the promoters, not a charity, Mr. Buatta raised booth rents from about $18 a square foot to $50 a square foot.

In addition, Mr. Buatta redesigned the floor plan with four aisles -- instead of three, making booths smaller and making room for a few extra booths -- there was to be a total of 73 but it has been revised downward to the original 67. Booths that cost $5,200 last year cost $14,000 this year. Dealers who had woodwork custom-made to fit their old booths can no longer use it in their shallower spaces.

Mr. Buatta said he likes to be able to stand in the aisle and see the entire booth. Dealers say with only 12 feet of depth instead of 20 they will be doing business in the aisles.

The threat of war in the Mideast and the troubled economy, coupled with their pique at not being consulted, made dealers reappraise the importance of the show and ask themselves if it was necessary for their business. More than a dozen decided it wasn't and resigned; a few others are still considering pulling out.

Now, less than three weeks before opening night, manager Penny Jones still must fill one empty space. Only in December did she finally get around to addressing the problem of vetting and when she asked dealers to help her with the vetting process, she found no support. Alan Chait, head of the dealers' committee, said there simply was not enough time.

"The vetting problem is just another example of Mario's not listening to the dealers or being aware of our needs," Mr. Chait said. "Mario does the social part of the show brilliantly, he has real talent for it, but he lacks the capacity to work with the dealers; if he did he would have listened and so many dealers would not have resigned out of sheer frustration."

Even with all the controversy, for every frustrated dealer who has dropped out of the show, another has been willing to pay up to be seen.

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