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Antique dealers vying for one last deal before they go
[NEW YORK] Surrounded by 59 paintings, 21 trays of cuff links, seven chandeliers and a statue of the Hindu god Shiva, two veteran antique dealers faced off.
"US$800," said the buyer, Fern Elkind, 72, who had already increased her initial bid by US$300.
The seller, Karen Murphy, 62, demanded more. "Every dime counts."
Just a day earlier, the treasure at the center of this drama — a modernist textile — was going for US$15 in a parking lot.
But improbable discovery is what it's all about at Showplace Antique + Design Center in Manhattan.
Showplace, which occupies four stories of a building in Manhattan on 25th Street between Broadway and Avenue of the Americas, is home to about 50 antiques stalls. The basement alone includes stalls offering ancient Egyptian statuary, early radios and Chinese vases.
Ms Elkind and Ms Murphy held their negotiation in the basement's makeshift cafe. Along the wall in the very back are four tables, a coffee pot and a display case with sandwiches. Mounted above it all is a vintage McDonald's Golden Arches sign.
Here, antique dealers bargain and gossip. Smaller-scale scroungers hock their wares. Old friends reminisce. It's a comfy place for eccentric people.
Beverly Sacks, an octogenarian who is widely considered the cafe's grande dame, referred to the space as "my personal salon."
Yet like so many of New York's independent businesses, Showplace faces a choice between adapting to changing times or perishing. Its owner has chosen the former. And getting rid of the cafe is part of the plan.
Showplace lost nearly its whole ground floor in a recently renegotiated lease. As part of the consolidation process, the shabby basement will be converted into a fancy auction and exhibition space. Amos Balaish, the owner, said that he wants to draw in a more "serious" clientele.
Balaish founded Showplace in 1993, during the heyday of the Chelsea antiques industry, which spanned the 1980s through the early '90s. During this time, on sunny weekends, some 15,000 people would visit the area — Avenue of the Americas between 24th and 27th Streets — including celebrities like Queen Sofía of Spain, Susan Sontag and Andy Warhol, said Alan Boss, 79, who ran markets at seven different locations, including the famous Antiques Garage.
The weekend thrifting mania would start around 3 a.m. Saturdays, when sellers arrived with merchandise. They would be followed, Mr Boss recalled, by 50 to 100 of the most fervent collectors, armed with flashlights.
"It was like a feeding frenzy," he said. "It was like blood in the ocean, and the sharks are coming."
But by the early 2000s, the enthusiasm had waned. Mr Boss cited several factors: AIDS decimated a generation of sellers and buyers; young people lost interest in antiques; and perhaps most important, zoning regulations brought new construction to the area.
These days, Mr Boss leases only a single parking lot, across the street from Showplace. Every other location he once rented, he said, has been replaced by a high-rise.
Showplace's basement is the latest casualty. Dealers will begin moving out in early October, followed by the closing of the cafe at the end of the month. After the renovation, stalls of a reduced size will be packed onto the second floor and the perimeter of the third floor.
So long as the cafe remains open, it will continue to provide a glimpse into the classic Showplace experience, which was something maybe a bit more cluttered, but also, more casual and intimate.
Take, for instance, Ms Elkind and Ms Murphy's haggling over the resale of the US$15 textile.
It all began at Mr Boss' parking lot. Ms Elkind saw Ms Murphy purchasing a linen drape, hand-printed with floral motifs. "I think it could be Wiener Werkstätte," Ms Elkind suggested to Ms Murphy, referring to the early 20th century Viennese design collective.
The women agreed to meet early the next morning at the cafe to discuss a possible deal. There, Ms Murphy quoted a heart-stopping price. Ms Elkind struck back by pointing out faded spots and a tear.
But by around 10 a.m., Ms Elkind had given up US$950 for the linen. "I just didn't want to spend US$1,000," she said. "I know," Ms Murphy replied with sympathy, despite having just mercilessly turned a 6,000 per cent profit.
Showplace's cafe society analyzed this transaction for the rest of the day.
First, Ms Elkind approached a dealer who requested to be identified only as Bill. ("I am an underground person," he said. "I can't be too known.")
"Doesn't it look like Wiener Werkstätte?" she asked him.
"No," Bill said. "I saw it in a pile."
"You're stupid," Ms Elkind said.
Ms Sacks arrived and soon joined the play-by-play. "Why'd you open your mouth with the Wiener Werkstätte?" she said. "All you had to say was, ‘I love it.'"
"I am not an idiot," Ms Elkind said. She paused. "Well, I am an idiot."
Next came Michael Rodriguez, 51, a cuff links dealer who had witnessed some of the bargaining earlier in the day.
"I asked your opinion to try to talk me out of it, but you left," Ms Elkind said to him.
"I couldn't talk you out of it," Mr Rodriguez said. "She was right there."
Ms Elkind sighed. "I'll buy less groceries."
Scrutiny of hard-to-identify antiques is the main social activity at the cafe. Ms Sacks wears three magnifying glasses around her neck for deciphering painting signatures and appraising the quality of jewelry.
"It's the place to hang out when you want to discover something you never knew existed in the world," said Cedric Benetti, a photographer and cataloger for Showplace. "Something bizarre shows up, you have no idea what it is — and you end up with it."
Mr Benetti, 35, might be the youngest cafe regular by more than a decade. He has adopted the role of an apprentice.
For six months, Mr Benetti helped Ms Elkind sort through 84 boxes of reference books she had collected over the years. He continues to lend Ms Elkind a hand with errands.
"You get stories," Mr Benetti said. "You get to hear about the old New York that doesn't exist anymore."
You get the occasional celebrity sighting, too. In December 2017, Bill and Hillary Clinton dropped by the cafe.
"It was all of us and Beverly hanging out," said Tom Dziadual, who works with Rodriguez. "Beverly had strewn all her jewelry on a table."
Without the cafe, "I don't think I would have seen them," Ms Sacks said of the Clintons. "They may have just walked by."
Most shoppers in the Showplace basement have been coming for years, like the salesman at Tiffany & Co., the mechanic who immigrated from Taiwan, and the retirees from West Orange, New Jersey.
But Mr Balaish, the owner, hopes that the 21st-century Showplace will have "a different traffic," he said. The new "upscale" auction house and gallery, which will apparently feature lots of glass and chrome, is scheduled to open early next year.
"By creating an event, you bring people in," Mr Balaish said of auctions. "This is an experience in addition to buying online."
In their current form, Showplace's auctions occur amid the jumble of antique stalls. Sparkling wine is served in plastic flutes, and there are fold-up chairs painted gold. Mr Balaish's plan for the upgrade was inspired, he said, by the Parisian auction house Drouot, which he visited last year.
Despite having to remove dealers from two floors, Balaish said he hopes all of them will stay. But here, too, he talks about changes, recommending that dealers focus more on brands like Gucci and Hermès.
Aesthetics aside, some of the longtime dealers said their new offers — 20 per cent to 30 per cent more rent for smaller stalls — might not be worth it.
Mr Rodriguez, the cuff links dealer, plans to stay. Ms Sacks, who conducts much of her business online these days, said she wasn't sure she could.
"The only thing that's sad for me is that we'll lose this social life," she said of a future without the cafe. "It's the only time I see my friends."