Bernd Goeckler’s antique shop on 10th Street is crammed with elegant, twentieth century pieces, mostly from the thirties and forties but then there are surprises too, like contemporary Italian blown glass objects that look like giant, sparkling sea urchins. As well as being a successful dealer, he has something of a designer’s eye. Also, as we pointed to out to him, he seemed “quite normal” for an antique dealer – we’re used to them being more eccentric (which we thoroughly enjoy too). You need to go into the store and get him to talk to you – he has rich, deep voice, but we couldn’t get him to sing – there’s still a little Swiss reserve there after all his years in New York but he apparently on Sundays, he sings along with Frank Sinatra.
You’re not very visible on the web – your stuff is, but not you.
Well, that’s a good thing.
If I were to ask you if there was a unifying theme to the pieces you sell, what would that be?
Um … ninety percent twentieth century, starting right after Art Nouveau, Art Deco then the forties, early Italian design and we specialize in ceramics from Denmark.
That’s a vast treasure trove of things – what specifically are you looking for, even within these periods? What speaks to you when you look at an object?
I’m fascinated by design, and everything which speaks of development of design. When I started dealing, I was selling classical furniture,18th century, mostly French. The French forties are actually a development of 18th century Neo-classical furniture, those very strict forms but different materials.
So it’s the legacy you like to see?
Absolutely. In the thirties and forties there was a renaissance in the skills of French cabinet making. Between the two wars there was a lot lost and with the fresh economy, there was new push in fashion and design right after the war. In the fifties, America was very, very strong [in design].
What is your own background?
I was an antique dealer in Switzerland. I started really early, like when I was 18. I had very good connections with New York through Swiss friends, and they said, why don’t you try New York? I lived a very comfortable life in Switzerland but everything is so slow.
How tough was it to break into New York?
[Sighs] As you can imagine it was the nineties. It was just bad. On the other hand it was easy to find good locations. The first three years was tough.
How are you at coping with situations like that?
I do well. I have no family. I’m not married, so I’m responsible for myself. I have no children, which makes things so much easier.
What has changed about the business?
It has changed so much from what it was fifteen or ten years ago. Completely changed. In Europe to find good merchandise you have to have good connections to lawyers who take over estates.
I never thought of that but it is obvious.
People are grateful for a lawyer to take care of that. And in the last ten years, the auction houses have become so powerful. And, many, many dealers did not play an honest game, so people go to the auction houses instead. There’s so much information out these days and people have become educated … “labels” … they’re very conscious of those.
And that didn’t used to be the case?
In the 18th century, furniture, for the purposes of taxes, had to be signed by the cabinet makers. When it reached the merchant many of them took off the signature because they didn’t want their clients to know who was making it in case they went direct to the maker.
We have increasingly come to believe that younger generations are not going to be decorating with antiques. They’re not going to be having dining rooms or fine china or grand silver. They may buy expensive art but they’re also going to continue having these big open plans kitchens with dishes from Crate & Barrel. Do you agree?
Um … we did last year a really wonderful apartment in New York. The couple is young, early thirties. They are very much into design and the husband fell in love with one designer, André Sornay, from the early twenties. He wanted whatever was possible from that designer.
Well, maybe the stuff you sell, but we can’t see the 18th century brown furniture becoming popular in the same way. It’s fallen by the wayside. Why?
Fashion. But young people who have come from an established family, they have the taste for that furniture.
Oh. Well, let’s hope so.
No, no, I truly find this, specifically in New York.
Now you have all these beautiful things in your shop and your home – how do you live with someone breaking something?
Ah … there is a very funny story. I was brought up Catholic and for my first communion we had a big party at home. My grandmother liked porcelain and glass and there was this beautiful, beautiful vitrine in the living room. And I just wanted to see one specific thing. I climbed up and the whole thing fell on top of me. So … lots of broken glass. No one was really happy but of course I was protected because of the day.
God protected you.
[Laughs] It left an unforgettable lesson that if something breaks, I’m very generous. If anyone breaks something in my household or in the shop, I say, “Hey, it happens.”
So you seem quite normal for an antique dealer …
[Laughs and blushes] Thank you!
And finally I have to ask you, are you good at singing—you have such a nice voice?
I used to be a good singer but I haven’t trained.
Can we end with a song? Who is your favorite singer?
For the first part of my life, it used to be all classical music. I used to play the violin. My whole family played an instrument. It was wonderful. Unfortunately I lost my parents very young, so that made me very strong. I have six siblings. On a Sunday I listen to Frank Sinatra.