Books record 20th century collecting


December 15, 1991|By Lita Solis-Cohen

As the end of the century approaches, authors and publishers are rushing to document public and private collections, recording for posterity the unsurpassed penchant for antique collecting in the 20th century.

The glossy, illustrated books for gift giving this holiday season survey such things as the antique treasures of the State Department, antique garden ornaments, the decorative arts of the China Trade and the Winchester rifle.

"Treasures of State, Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State," edited by Alexandra Rollins (Abrams, $95), with photographs by Will Brown and essays by Clement Conger, Wendell Garrett, Jonathan Fairbanks, Ellen Paul Denker, J. Jefferson Miller, Beatrice Garvan and Wayne Craven pictures the finest items in this previously unpublished collection. A college of 21 curators wrote the descriptions of the 350 objects selected from the more than 4,500 that furnish the reception rooms in Washington where foreign dignitaries are feted and treaties signed.

The book is a tribute to Clement Conger, the 80-year-old retiring curator, dubbed the Grand Acquisitor, who traveled the country over the last 30 years and charmed owners into donating their antiques to the nation, and foundations and individuals into giving money, so he could transform the State Department's ceremonial rooms from airport modern into Jeffersonian baronial. Conger created splendid period settings with polished mahogany furniture, much of it inlaid with American eagles, sofas and chairs upholstered in rich red or blue silks, cupboards filled with gleaming silver and walls covered with paintings of historic significance, in order to show visiting dignitaries and tourists that our nation has a history of good taste that is distinctly American.

The book project took more than four years to complete. Before being photographed, each piece had to be conserved, which kept a battalion of private furniture and painting restorers, upholsterers, gilders and polishers in business and exhausted the endowment fund. Moreover nothing was sent for restoration until a brain trust passed on its authenticity and quality.

CIn addition to celebrating Mr. Conger's achievement, it is a useful and educational book with up-to-the minute information by the nation's top scholars. Collectors and history buffs will want it on their shelves next to similar books on the collections of the Metropolitan Museum's American Wing and the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.

"The Decorative Arts of the China Trade," by Carl Crossman (Antique Collectors' Club, $89.50), is an ex

panded and updated edition of Mr. Crossman's 1972 pioneer book which introduced the subject. What was a relatively new and unmined field then is now widely collected. There are books on China trade silver and porcelain, but Mr. Crossman has pulled together the latest research on China trade painting and China trade furniture and has made paths into the forest of other exotic exports, Chinese wallpaper and lacquerware and carvings, while acknowledging there is much more to be explored. He raises the question of where so-called China trade furniture was made and suggests some of it was not made in China but in India, Africa and the Caribbean.

With photographs from public and private collections, and information shared by dealers and scholars, Mr. Crossman has compiled a useful, if wordy, reference.

"Antique Garden Ornaments: 300 Years of Creativity; Artists, Manufacturers and Materials," by John Davis (Antique Collectors' Club, $79.50), is the first collector's book on what has been a major interest of the very rich for more than a decade. In Sotheby's sale in 1989 of the estate of the late John Dorrance, garden statuary was brought to public attention when a pair of 18th century Portland stone lions sold for $66,000 and a marble model of a boar, a 19th century copy of a Roman original in the Louvre, went for $88,000. Now Sotheby's holds annual sales of garden sculpture in June in New York, and stone, iron, lead and zinc figures and fountains are a staple at antiques shows.

The English have been placing stone gods and goddess, shepherds and shepherdesses, kings and queens in their gardens since the 17th century, but little has been written about them. Mr. Davis discusses their materials, manufacturers and artists, and publishes illustrations from old catalogs. In the back of the book are advertisements for major English dealers in period garden ornaments for whom Mr. Davis acts as consultant.

"Winchester: An American Legend," by R. L. Wilson (Random House, $65), celebrates the 125th anniversary of the Winchester rifle with the definitive history of Winchester arms and ammunition. First introduced in 1849. Winchesters range from models for sport or target shooting to presentation arms embellished with gold.

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