A giant of the New York antiques world: Niall Smith and his ‘gutsy’ Neoclassical collection

 Art Topic     |      未知    |    2023-12-15 13:59
With an eye for Biedermeier furniture, the dealer Niall Smith attracted followers such as Gianni Versace, André Leon Talley and Paloma Picasso. His personal collection comes to Christie’s this fall

Angus Wilkie was an undergraduate at Yale when he first met the antiquarian and dealer of Neoclassical furniture Niall Smith. Strolling down Bleecker Street in 1979, Wilkie wandered into an exceptional antiques shop, and there, sitting behind a cloud of smoke, was Smith. Thus began a lifelong friendship. Christie’s is offering Smith’s personal collection of decorative arts — the pinnacle of his famed and bold taste — in The Collector: New York on 13 October through 1 November.

Wilkie, an antiques dealer himself and the author behind Biedermeier recounts that although Smith would become a figurehead of New York’s antiques community, it wasn’t easy for him when he started dealing in the early 1970s. Having emigrated from Ireland to New York City in his early thirties, he was dealing in a shop at 344 Bleecker Street by day whilst working as a waiter at The Running Footman by night to pay the bills.

Niall Smith in his shop at 96 Grand Street, New York, c. 1990


Everything changed when Smith bought his first piece of Biedermeier furniture. ‘He fell in love with this very simple Neoclassical chest of drawers. He loved the figuring of the wood.’ His curiosity piqued, in 1974 Smith travelled to Germany, the birthplace of Biedermeier, and returned with a container of furniture. It marked the beginning of his business specialising in the style.

Shortly afterwards in 1979, The Victoria & Albert Museum held the exhibition Vienna in the Age of Schubert: The Biedermeier Interior. ‘Biedermeier became a household name after that exhibition,’ says Wilkie. ‘He was suddenly able to sell four secretaires that he’d had for years. He credited that show as a turning point for his business.’

A Biedermeier satin birch, burr birch and ebonised secretaire, South German, c. 1820. 76¾ in. (195 cm.) high, 42¾ in. (108 cm.) wide, 21 in. (53.5 cm.) deep. Estimate: $6,000-10,000. Offered in The Collector: New York on 13 October to 1 November 2023 in New York


By the early 1980s, Neoclassicism was becoming much more popular, and Smith’s shop started to attract well-known designers and architects like Michael Graves and Robert Stern. Word was spreading fast, and his antiques business took off.

‘Niall was not your average collector,’ Wilkie says. While he spent a lifetime acquiring treasures for his clients, he rarely kept objects for his own collection. He would go to Europe four or five times a year on buying trips, returning with suitcases bursting at the seams, and his shop on Bleecker Street was so overflowing with treasures that he had to move some to a warehouse in Long Island City. ‘Only occasionally would he buy one thing for himself,’ Wilkie says.

Smith would host renowned dinner parties every weekend, declaring that if the number of empty bottles at the end of the night didn’t outnumber the guests, then it was a failure. He received hundreds of letters throughout his life and spoke for hours on the phone most days. ‘He developed very personal relationships with people, and in a sense, I think he developed quite a personal relationship with his own possessions too.’ He wasn’t interested in having more just for the sake of having more.

A Roman micro-mosaic plaque of a loutrophoros, possibly by Giacomo Rafaelli, c. 1800-1810. 4¼ in. (11 cm.) square, overall. Estimate: $5,000-8,000. Offered in The Collector: New York on 13 October to 1 November 2023 in New York

‘Niall was driven by the desire to find something unusual,’ Wilkie explains. ‘For example, he had a real passion for micro-mosaics and collected them throughout his life. There are many micro-mosaics that are quite repetitive, so he wouldn’t buy those, but if he had never seen a similar one, and it was very fine, he might go for that.’ One example of this in the sale is a Roman circular plaque depicting a twin-handled Greek loutrophoros, on orange velvet ground in ebonized square frame. Possibly a work of Giacomo Rafaelli, c. 1800-1801, Smith had never seen a micro-mosaic like it and was especially enthusiastic about its purchase.

Smith was, in many ways, the kind of collector who thrives best in New York: he was down to earth and devoid of pretence, with a certain grittiness, and these aspects of his character connected to his unique skill as a collector. As Wilkie puts it, ‘He presented things in an architectural, theatrical way, but not in a precious way. He cared about proportion and whether something was gutsy.’

This is encapsulated by the stories of his Long Island warehouse, which Smith called ‘as exclusive as Studio 54’. To get there, Wilkie recounts that Smith’s loyal patrons — an impressive roster from the upper echelons of the New York art and design world, including Paloma Picasso, Robert Mapplethorpe, André Leon Talley and Gianni Versace — would have to jump in the ‘black hole at the back of his van and bounce around with the dogs’, their chauffeured car trailing behind.

A pair of Biedermeier walnut armchairs, probably Hungarian, c. 1825. 36 in. (91.4 cm.) high, 26¾ in. (68 cm.) wide, 21¼ in. (54 cm.) deep. Estimate: $2,500-3,500. Offered in The Collector: New York on 13 October to 1 November 2023 in New York

The interior designer David Netto corroborates this, saying ‘Niall was both a great dealer and a great friend. He always had time to meet me in his incredible warehouse in Queens, which was where the real VIP treatment was given to Mica Ertegun, Bill Blass, etc. — but God forbid you were ever late’.

He fondly recalls, ‘I’ll never forget when Niall told me why Irish furniture had such guts and drama — the ships bringing mahogany from Cuba stopped there first on their way to England, so they had the first pick. Who cares if it was true, he always stood up for the home team.’

As an expert on Biedermeier furniture, Wilkie is enthusiastic about the works offered in Christie’s upcoming auction, from the miniature mosaics to an impressive Biedermeier birch and ebonized armoire that towers over 6 feet. ‘The sale is a real cross section of his collection, and there is some especially good Biedermeier furniture that is very rare.’

A group of four Italian giallo antico marble and composition models of ruins, 19th Century. 14¼ in. (37.5 cm) high, 4⅞ in. (12.5 cm.) wide, 4¾ in. (12 cm.) deep, the largest. Estimate: $5,000-8,000. Offered in The Collector: New York on 13 October to 1 November 2023 in New York

Wilkie singles out the Biedermeier satin birch, burr birch and ebonised secretaire and its companion, the Biedermeier satin birch, burr birch and ebonised armoire — or ‘faux secretaire’. ‘They basically match — their facades are identical although they function differently, creating a trompe l’oeil effect. Niall told me about the day he bought those. He was in upstate New York in 1979 at a small country auction. He bought the first lot, which was the secretaire, then he went after the armoire, the consecutive lot. The room burst into applause when he got it, because it was just meant to be. It’s very uncommon to still have these ‘matching’ pieces together after 200 years. I've actually never seen a companion pair survive except in a museum collection,’ he says.

A Biedermeier satin birch, burr birch and ebonised armoire, South German, c. 1820. 81 in. (206 cm.) high, 45¼ in. (115 cm.) wide, 21 in. (53.5 cm.) deep. Estimate: $4,000-6,000. Offered in The Collector: New York on 13 October 2023 to 1 November 2023 in New York


Smith never truly retired from the antiques business — he was at an auction the week before he died in April 2023. He was competitive and loved the hunt for exceptional works. ‘I think Niall would be thrilled to have a sale at Christie’s,’ says Wilkie. He wanted a major sale of his collection at a great auction house, it was always one of his dreams. He would be extremely proud.’

David Netto corroborates this, adding ‘Niall was a teacher to me, and like the best teachers he was also a little scary — one wanted to keep up. Education, character, humour, patience, passion for real taste — he was a star, as much as anyone he sold to. And his furniture was a star in any room, certainly mine. If you knew you knew, and if he liked you he liked you — and thank goodness for that! I miss him every day.’