Gilt-Free Shopping for the Coming Depression

Collect yourself—and some collectibles

How come it's so crowded at the Museum of the City of New York's Paris/New York exhibit? It's a Tuesday, and I'm here because it's my job, but who are all these other people? Then it dawns on me: Maybe they're unemployed, and instead of scanning the help-wanteds, they decided they'd rather watch a 1920s film of Josephine Baker, the notoriously foxy African-American expat chanteuse, perform a naughty dance wearing nothing but a skirt made out of bananas.

I love Paris/New York, which examines the symbiotic relationship between these two design capitals and offers a treasure trove of Herman Miller furniture, Mainbocher frocks, and oddments like a vintage menu from New York's Le Pavillon (foie de veau l'Anglaise, $3.50).

The majority of stuff on display is from the 1930s, when the world was in the throes of the Great Depression—you know, the one before this one. Did people spend a lot time in museums 75 years ago, too? I've never been much of a gallery-goer, but these days, wandering aimlessly around department stores—my previous consuming passion—has become desperately melancholy. What could be sadder than an empty shop on a bright Saturday in October, where happy customers once waved credit cards over piles of overpriced ensembles?

Flapper escapism
Courtesy the Rennert Collection, New York City
Flapper escapism

Instead, I'm ogling a silver-plated Art Deco Christofle vegetable tureen made for the dining rooms of the S.S. Normandie, which was launched by the French in 1934 and featured gilded lacquer panels, Lalique chandeliers, a promenade inspired by Rockefeller Center, and other spectacular flourishes. After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. seized the Normandie, which had been languishing in New York harbor since the beginning of the war, intending to outfit it as troop ship. (The ship, as if to protest this ignominious fate, burned down.)

Luckily, the Yaeger family wasn't still in Europe in the 1930s; we had left the inhospitable old country decades before, and it wasn't, you can be sure, on a ship featuring gilt panels and chandeliers. Nor were my forebears, cute as they were, garbed in anything like the 1939 tricolor embroidered-silk organdy Chanel dress on proud display here. Want to know why this was Coco's last collection until 1954? Because she closed up shop when the Germans occupied Paris, though hardly out of any laudable political convictions. In fact, Chanel spent the war holed up at the Ritz canoodling with a German officer and only narrowly escaped being branded as a collaborator and having her head shaved when the Allies won the war.

As it turns out, any attempt to substitute museum visiting for compulsive shopping is, at least in my case, in vain. I no sooner see a Paris/New York showcase featuring a diamond and emerald Van Cleef & Arpels brooch or a 1939 New York World's Fair compact than I think: I should sink my negligible disposable income into pins and powder tins! After all, if a Balenciaga coat is virtually worthless as soon as you get it out of Barneys, the same cannot be said for a Van Cleef bauble—no matter how tough times are, jewelry invariably retains at least some of its value. (I myself recently bought a ring on 47th Street that spells out "1934" in tiny diamonds—I know, I'll buy anything—proof that even in the depths of the last Depression, some people had money.)

With this new philosophy in mind—buying collectibles is way smarter than giving my money to Barneys or Smith Barney—I begin to look forward with rabid enthusiasm to the 500-plus deal Pier Antiques Show coming up November 15 and 16 at the passenger piers on Twelfth Avenue and 55th Street. (If you have ever, for one second, craved a 1930s Art Deco vegetable tureen, the Pier show is where you will find it.)

The Pier show comes along only twice a year (there's another one in March), but some New Yorkers feel the need to go antiquing every weekend. For years, this meant strolling over to Sixth Avenue in the 20s, an area that used to be known as the Chelsea Antiques District. Now, many of the parking lots where these markets flourished have been replaced by apartment towers—the "district" has dwindled to one lot, a few swanky indoor centers, and the wonderful Garage, still extant on 25th Street.

So you can just imagine how upsetting it was when the rumors began swirling months ago: "The Garage is closing in a few weeks!" "No, it'll be here 'til Christmas!" "No, it definitely sleeps with the fishes!" In search of the straight story, I phone up Alan Boss, the guy who singlehandedly invented the Chelsea Antiques District decades ago, and who also runs the Garage.

Boss confirms that the Extell Corporation bought the Garage for an impressive $47.2 million, and in July '07, they notified him that the jig was up. "I mean, $47.2 million—why would I have anything to say?" Boss tells me. "But then, this September, they called and said, 'We want you to stay for awhile.' " Now that the bubble has burst, plans to erect yet another glass-and-steel behemoth in Chelsea may well have been put on hold. (Who says a Depression is all bad?) So, how much longer have we got, Alan? "As it stands right now, it could be three months, or it could be 10 years. Between you, me, and the lamppost, I would say it looks to me like a good year and a half, two years."

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