Fortunate Son: Reading the memoirs of Albert Sack

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, July/August 2011 |

"I was a good student up through 6th grade but then my priorities became play, friends, and girls. Mother kept a beautiful home. Dad was prosperous in carving out his career which interested me not at all."

  So begins, and ends, Albert Sack's comically brief account of his early life in the rambling, free associating pages of an unpublished memoir he sent me in 2008, just after I joined Antiques. If he sounds less like the only remaining child of Israel Sack than the foolish son from the Passover Haggadah, that is how Albert sometimes portrayed himself. And yet in these disjointed pages written late in his life and filled with his trials and triumphs in the antiques trade I found another Albert-the son who, without necessarily realizing it, completed his father's astonishing legacy in a way quite different from his brothers Harold and Robert.

  To understand just how he did this I had to go back and consider his unusually privileged life as a second generation Jew in America with no memory of the privations of his Eastern European forebears. His father Israel had arrived in Massachusetts by way of Liverpool from Lithuania in 1903 in the third decade of mass Jewish migration from Eastern Europe. While it is true that many émigrés

of this period were more skilled and better educated than their predecessors, Israel Sack's rise was still remarkably swift. He did not linger in the sweatshops of the New World and had his own business in Boston by 1905.

  Albert was born in 1915 and remembers a childhood of luxury. It was the Depression that cut short his career as a gadabout at the University of Pennsylvania, sending him back to his family to witness Israel Sack's bankruptcy. Albert writes of how impressed he was by his father's courage during this period; it was then that he saw immigrant grit firsthand and then that his father's career buying and selling Americana began to interest him quite a lot.

 I used to think that discovering the overlooked quality of Philadelphia Chippendale or Newport block-and-shell furniture and then selling Americans on their own neglected heritage was the genius that allowed the Sacks and the Levys and their cohort to join patriotism to belonging to money. Reading Albert I discovered that there was something else: his father identified with this furniture; he admired it as the heroic and handsome result of struggles akin to those of the Jews of Eastern Europe, that nation without a nation.

  Albert quotes his father as saying, "If you can't take into consideration the circumstances of hardship and struggle the Pilgrims endured to carve out this experiment in freedom and produce the wonderful things our forebears wrought, you can't appreciate Pilgrim furniture." Hovering just out of sight of this statement are the pogroms of Eastern Europe just as there is a distant echo of them in Albert's memoir too: "When you think of the settlers of Deerfield and the Connecticut River Valley who were fighting off Indian attacks at the end of the seventeenth century and returning home to carve out Hadley chests for their brides, you can marvel at their achievements." And, he might have added, they built a nation as well.

  The Sacks did not so much assimilate into American society as they adopted and adapted its culture to heal the rupture with their own past. Their gratitude took the form of patriotism and their patriotism expressed itself in the celebration of Pilgrim furniture. The worst thing Albert Sack can say in his memoir concerns a dealer with a "dark larcenous streak." He is not simply troubled by the man's dishonesty, he is outraged by the way his faked furniture "clouds the true picture of our artistic heritage."

  Israel Sack and his sons rescued a significant part of American culture but their project would have been incomplete without Albert's crucial contribution, Fine Points of Furniture, Early American: Good, Better, Best and its successor The New Fine Points of Furniture, Early American: Good, Better, Best, Superior, Masterpiece. Here from the former gadabout was the missing element of his Eastern European heritage-the kind of scholarship, and an almost Talmudic attention to detail, that his forebears valued above much else: He taught the world how to read furniture. From this point on Albert and his brothers were poised to become the Johnnny Appleseeds of Americana, sowing pieces in important collections and museums around the country. "Think of it," he exclaims about a 1980 exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, "American furniture accepted as art!"

  Without Albert Sack, of course, that would not have been possible. What follow are some of the lives and objects he touched with his messianic fervor for Americana.

When it sold in 1986, this tea table, which Albert had discovered in Philadelphia, was the first piece of furniture in the world to bring a million dollars.For Albert, American furniture was more than great art. The virtues of each piece for him were a foil for America: the success of a piece depended on the strength and vigor of its design...and always the singular pride of its being American. John Hays, Deputy Chairman, Christie's

Albert was a great friend and advisor and truly one of the most important figures in American decorative arts.  Peter M. Brant, collector

 

My husband and I were friends with Albert for almost fifty years going back to the early 1960s. He was a marvelous teacher. We'd go to the shop and spend a whole day going over only one or two pieces with him and then go out to dinner and talk about people and furniture. We learned a great deal about proportion from Albert- if the proportion isn't right, nothing is. His passion was a great part of his charm.

June Hennage, collector

I always enjoyed and benefited from my periodic visits with Albert. During one of these he related an anecdote that has always stayed with me. On December 6, 1955, Ima Hogg was in NewYork and dropped by the Sacks' shop. On this particular day, with neither Israel nor Harold Sack in, she met with Albert. Whereas, the firm is justly associated with the superb furniture that passed through its doors, on occasion they handled some very fine early American silver. Albert had recently obtained a Jacob Hurd cream pot-one of those beguiling examples engraved with a series of bucolic vignettes. Miss Hogg was drawn to it immediately, describing it as "a darling." Discussion followed and Albert eventually quoted a price of $2,500, to which she coyly responded, "Really?" As their conversation ensued, Miss Hogg pointed out a solder line positioned just below the spout. Was it a repair? Albert, at a loss for words, suggested telephoning Charles Montgomery. He reassured them that the cream pot was absolutely right, explaining that on early Boston examples the spout was fashioned separately and then soldered onto the body. Satisfied with this explanation, Miss Hogg agreed to purchase the vessel, and, with their negotiations complete, she and Albert went out and celebrated her acquisition over popovers.

Michael K. Brown, curator, Bayou Bend Collection

Albert Sack told great stories, and I loved to listen to them. Back in 2002 and 2003 he agreed to give two taped interviews at Winterthur. In each case, I began with a question and scarcely had a chance for another word. Albert filled the tapes with fascinating recollections of his life. Throughout these delightful rambles, the names of major collectors continually cropped up- Helen Temple Cooke, Maxim Karolik, Henry Francis du Pont, Ima Hogg, Faith Bybee, Mitchell Taradash, and Charles K. Davis. Each name sparked memories of particular objects. This girandole clock brought a smile as Albert recalled how it had been part of Parke- Bernet's very first sale in 1937, a sale he missed, but where other dealers thought the clock a reproduction and it was purchased with a left bid of $50 by a New York dealer in arms and armor named Schnitzer. Albert called on Schnitzer and spotted the clock draped with a large price tag marked $150. He asked if he could take the clock off the wall, to which Schnitzer responded "Look, that's an old clock and I wouldn't take a nickel off it." Albert managed a quick inspection, gave the dealer a check for $150, and returned to the Sacks' shop with a masterpiece. It went to one of their best clients, C. K. Davis, and subsequently to Winterthur. For me, Albert's passing marks the loss of a friend-a friend who had a marvelous memory, a gracious charm, and a genuine affection for the furniture he so passionately sought and sold.

Brock Jobe, Professor of American Decorative Arts, Winterthur

If you want to appreciate the accomplishment of Albert Sack's Fine Points of Furniture try to separate good from better from best in your own field. I am a surgeon and I know how difficult that would be for me. We bought our sideboard and chairs from Albert. His passion for the furniture really impressed us but he was just as eager and passionate about educating people who came to the shop and didn't buy anything. I admired that.

Dr. Arun K. Singh, collector

Shortly after the Museum of Fine Arts,Boston established a new Department of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture, Albert Sack donated this English clothespress with an American history to the collection. He recognized the crucial importance of imported objects in the transmission of styles from England to America: in this case, the clothespress undoubtedly served to stimulate a preference for the bombé form that became a hallmark of Boston furniture. As Albert noted in Fine Points of Furniture, this reliance on imported objects did not diminish the work of American cabinetmakers, inasmuch as "America's interpretations of English designs provided original contributions." Over the years Albert assisted the department in obtaining other key objects, adding to his legacy here and in the field of American furniture as a whole."

Gerald W.R. Ward, Katharine Lane Weems Senior Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

I began collecting just out of college. When I visited Albert at the shop in NewYork he was always game for diving under a piece of furniture to give me a closer look. I think he was happy to have a young person interested in the furniture he loved. I first saw this Carver chair in Israel Sack, Inc. just as the shop in the Crown Building was closing in 2002. I had to wait until the estate was settled but then when Albert gave me the word I went up to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where it was being stored and purchased it. Albert, always gracious, invited me to lunch where he told me a couple of his great stories. Somehow we got onto the Warner House museum in Portsmouth, so after lunch he took me on a tour of it, an incredible visit. He just loved the objects and the history.

Glenn Hillman, collector

Albert Sack used to drop by the Yale Art Gallery's Furniture Study from time to time in the late 1960s and early 1970s when I was the assistant curator there. As we went up and down the aisles he taught me how to identify replaced veneers or foot problems on chairs. One day I asked him about an unusual Connecticut block-front desk. The Ionic capitals at the top of the reverse blocking were unique but I was troubled by the extreme weight of the slant lid and the way the drawers fell downward when opened. I wondered if the desk were really old. Albert looked at it, pronounced it a marvelous thing, and waxed rhapsodic about its features. It has since been featured in The Great River and Connecticut Valley Furniture and is widely admired by other furniture scholars. Albert was above all a great connoisseur who shared his knowledge freely.

Patricia Kane, Friends of American Arts Curator, American Decorative Arts, Yale University Art Gallery

Albert Sack's memoirs describe his longing for a Boston japanned piece and his joy in the 1970s when his friend Zeke Liverant turned up a superb japanned William and Mary highboy and lowboy in original condition and offered them to him. "Zeke and his son Arthur showed me the pieces in the yard outside their store. I was giving them a hard time about the problem we would have removing the outer varnish and preserving the original colors but of course I bought it. I didn't realize my buddies had taped our conversation until they played it back to my embarrassment." As Arthur recalls, "Albert tried to keep a poker face. He was a well known card player. He pretended there were issues with the later coat of varnish and then with a gleam in his eye said, ‘I'll take it.'" When we were beginning to establish an American decorative arts collection at the High Museum in the mid-1970s, Albert Sack was an enthusiastic supporter as well as a generous scholar and teacher. He encouraged us to acquire only top quality pieces such as the Whitehead sideboard and we followed his advice.

Kitty Farnham, former curator of decorative arts, High Museum of Art

The Whitehead sideboard was a perfect example of Albert's finding something of great quality for a fledgling collection. It came with the back story of having been a wedding present to Robert Fulton but Albert hired a researcher and established that it was actually made for John Fulton of Red Hook, New York. Albert knew the sideboard did not need that concocted history. It was a masterpiece without that. In helping us and others Albert gave more than he ever earned.

Deanne Levison, dealer, Atlanta, Georgia

Marcee Craighill, curator of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms for the State Department, described for us a letter from the late Clement Conger to Albert Sack expressing his gratitude for his friendship and for his and his family's help in buildingthe State Department's great American furniture collection. The State Department's John Townsend desk with its handwritten paper label reading "Made by/John Townsend/Rhode Island /1765" was a piece that Albert describes in his memoirs as having pursued for months, eventually purchasing it in the 1970s from a woman who had it in her apartment on Second Avenue in New York. He sold it to Stanley Sax, who bequeathed it to the Diplomatic Reception Rooms.

 

 

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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