There's a gem of a vintage Christmas display right in the
middle of New York's diamond district, on the second floor of that venerable writers' bookshop called the Gotham Book Mart.
For the past 14 Christmases Andreas Brown, owner of the bookshop, has decorated a 12-foot fir tree with antique ornaments. (This year, some of the items on display are from the collection of a Marylander.)
The tradition began in December 1977 when Phillip Snyder came to the shop to show Mr. Brown a book he had written. "We often give parties for authors, so I assumed it was a novel or a book of poetry; but it was not a serious literary property, it was a book called 'The Christmas Tree Book,' about antique Christmas ornaments," Mr. Brown recounted. "I read it and was just bowled over. There were all the memories of my grandmother's house at Christmastime."
Mr. Brown said he told Snyder he would have a party for his book on one condition -- that Snyder bring his collection to the gallery and decorate a tree.
The publicity generated by the large tree hung with vintage Santas, cupids, cats, clowns, pears, birds, snowmen, sailboats, shimmering stars, snow dusted silver and gold pine cones and glowing balls brought crowds to the bookshop. And it brought some wonderful antique ornaments to the shop as well.
The following year Mr. Brown decided to do another tree and have the ornaments on it for sale. He scavenged flea markets all summer and invited dealers to consign decorations and toys for sale. More publicity alerted the public to the value of vintage Christmas ornaments.
Now grandmothers from Vermont, schoolchildren from the Bronx and avid collectors from as far away as California come to his bookstore on 47th Street during the Christmas season.
Some collectors specialize in German glass balls, others in American paper cutouts; there are connoisseurs of Santas wearing blue coats or yellow coats and collectors of photographs of Christmas trees. The most serious collectors fight over the offerings at Gotham Book Mart.
Most, but not all, of the ornaments on the tree are for sale, and nearly all were made before 1930 when, as Mr. Brown puts it, "cardboard stopped and plastic started." Jim Morrison, Mr. Brown's chief scout, who finds the tree and trims it, always hangs at least one plastic toy, just to tease, and this year insisted on two shiny deco reindeer perfume containers, one silver and one blue.
Mr. Brown uses a 1903 photograph of a tree as his guide. "Often little gifts were tied onto the tree," he explains. "I hang things that will fascinate a child, and some of them don't look like what we think of as Christmas. I like funky, scary animals, quaint miniature dolls in winter clothing, handmade wooden jumping jacks. I once had one that had been painted red and green. I like a little train chugging down a branch with tiny cotton balls for smoke."
Larger vintage toys are put under the tree, but since toys and Christmas ornaments have become so valuable, the costliest are displayed in cases, some for sale and some just on loan.
In memory of Phillip Snyder, who died in June, the display this year is especially fine. Snyder's widow and daughter have lent some of their favorite Dresdens and other paper, fabric and glass ornaments and other collectors have lent rarities.
Also on display are toys and ornaments from the collection of the late Tom Anderson, a Rockville lawyer and well known-toy collector who died in September.
The "Santa on a Sleigh with Goats," made by Althof Bergmann in New York in the 1870s, was one of the stars at the fabled sale of the collection of the late Barney Barenholtz last December. Anderson bought it for $85,000. Santa is dressed in red crepe paper and has a composition face and a wooden body. When the toy is wound, the goats prance and the bells jingle.
"It is probably the largest American clockwork tin toy from the late 19th century," says auctioneer Noel Barrett, who will sell Anderson's collection of American clockwork toys, folk art and Christmas decorations at the Eagle Fire Hall in New Hope, Pa., on April 7. The collection includes the "Walking Santa" made by Ives and Blakeslee in Bridgeport, Conn., in the 1880s, still in its original box.
Anderson's large array of kugels, late 19th century thick-walled glass silvered balls, some in the shape of blue, yellow and red bunches of grapes, fills a large glass bowl. Among his paper "primitive" ornaments on display are shoes, carriages, stars and angels.
The glass ornaments for sale at the Gotham Book Mart are priced from $15 to several hundred dollars for rare figural ones in the forms of animals and children. Some miniature toys cost hundreds of dollars and the rarest gilded paper "Dresdens," in the shapes of trains and boats, cost thousands. A toy wooden village under the tree is $3,500; a sleigh, 2 1/2 feet long, pulled by reindeer with nodding heads, made of wood and composition, is $3,800; and rare Santa figures are $7,000, $8,000 and $10,000.
Gotham Book Mart, 41 W. 47th St., two blocks from Rockefeller Center, is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, and will be open from noon to 5 p.m. today and Sunday, Dec. 23.