Breaking the Mould

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A portrait of Aileen Pei and family on display at a special exhibition hosted by the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) at the 69th edition of The Winter Show at the Park Avenue Armory.

Friday, January 20, 2023. Raining in New York, all day and well into the night. Not like what’s been happening in the West, however. Temperatures have remained mild for this time of year, yesterday into the mid-40s.

Last night was the Preview at the Park Avenue Armory for the 69th edition of The Winter Show, the country’s leading annual art, antiques and design fair which runs through January 29th after being away for two years. The fair took place virtually in 2021, and last year it was held at 660 Madison Ave, the former flagship location of Barney’s New York.

The Show features 68 exhibitors representing a dynamic global mix of fine and decorative arts and objects from ancient times to the present day. Featured works in the 69th edition include painting, sculpture, tapestry, prints, ceramics, jewelry, antique furniture, and contemporary design.

Aileen Pei.

It’s an extraordinary show. I went down to the preview. The show benefits the East Side House, a community-based organization in the South Bronx which every year provides more than 14,000 children and families with resources to reach their education and career goals.

This year there is a special exhibition hosted by the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in partnership with East Side House and Bank of America.

The exhibition displays dresses which belonged to Aileen Pei, a daughter of Modern China, who was born in Beijing just after the Republic of China’s founding. Her father was an ambassador based in Rome and Paris where she studied. She married her husband Tsuyee Pei, the chairman of the Bank of China in Paris when she was 18 years old. Once they returned to Shanghai, their social circle included Ambassador Wellington Koo, opera singer Mei Lanfang, and banker T. V. Soong.

Shanghai in those years was the cultural capital of China, very much influenced by a deep-rooted international population. Her dresses reflect the spirit of her creative experimentation and a cosmopolitanism that made 1930s Shanghai a fashion capital. In 1949, Aileen and her husband moved to New York with her husband and became socially active in her newly adopted city by supporting The China Institute and helping to establish the Chinese Garden at Snug Harbor in Staten Island.

A selection of Aileen Pei’s dresses on display at a special exhibition put on by the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) at this year’s 69th edition of The Winter Show at the Park Avenue Armory.

I learned about the exhibition through her daughter Patty Pei, who was born and has lived here in New York all her life. What was interesting to me was how very modern Mrs. Pei’s wardrobe (she died here in 2016 at age 104) appears. In fact, the classic design on display greatly resembles the dresses sold at the Karen Roberts, the shop here on Lexington Avenue and 72nd Street.

Last night before leaving the Armory, after photographing Mrs. Pei’s dresses, I took a brief tour of this year’s show (I’m going back to cover more of it over the weekend), and it’s fantastic.

The showstopper last night at The Winter Show, a 1936-37 Rolls Royce Phantom at Kelly Kinzle (New Oxford, PA).

Also when it comes to fashion (and culture!) this weekend is The Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Estate Auction, featuring 22 sculptures by the Whitney Museum founder who was the great-granddaughter of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt from her landmark Old Westbury, Long Island studio. The auction includes Vanderbilt family silver, Chinese vases, jewelry, paintings and decorative arts and will be simulcast live online tomorrow (Saturday) at 12 Noon ET by Richard Stedman Estate Services LLC of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Mrs. Vanderbilt Whitney was particularly prominent in her day for her work as an artist/sculpture and her studio and founded the Whitney Museum here in New York. The statues are the sculptor’s personal examples from her Italianate villa decorated with murals by prominent Gilded Age to Art Deco artist colleagues and the site of legendary soirees attended by a Who’s Who of actors, painters and philanthropists.

Lot 0038: Portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney photographed by Baron Adolph De Meyer. Estimate: $1,000-$5,000.

Included in the auction are six of the large bronze garden statues, more intimate plaster maquette models for the Titanic Memorial on the Potomac Arlington Fountain, Lindbergh and Wallflower; a standing portrait of her daughter Barbara for which two different height bronze versions are also included in the sale as separate lots, plus additional portrait and figural bronzes often with illustration citations from various publications.

Equally important are works by Vanderbilt’s colleagues and a sampling of generations of Vanderbilt and Whitney family collections including a watercolor and gouache study of Leslie Caron as Gigi by Cecil Beaton from his Academy Award winning costume commission, plus London silver hollowware by Paul de Lamarie and Paul Storr; a selection of Chinese Qing Dynasty vases, including a turquoise dragon bottle, signed Kangxi gu, Famille Rose kong, and a large bandchuping a/k/a rouleau; as well as a few examples of gem set gold jewelry, French animalier bronzes, a Hunt Diederich terracotta floor vase, and early Vogue era photographic portraits of the heiress by Baron de Meyer and Jean de Strelecki.

Lot 0040: A portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, photographed by Baron Adolph de Meyer. Estimate: $1,000-$5,000.

Mrs. Whitney’s studio is one of the last Vanderbilt properties in family hands stretching from the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, to the Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina. Her studio was once part of her Whitney family’s sprawling estate incorporating an adjacent mansion, stables and vast acreage.

The studio had originally been listed for sale with an option to purchase contents but now the property has been staged and these contents removed for individual sale. Fabulous and fascinating items and auction opening prices are eye-catching, the kind that make you think maybe there’s even something for me! 

Click here to view the auction. The live bidding starts on Saturday, January 21st at 12PM ET. Here are some of our favorite lots …

Lot 0001: Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Young Lady Bronze, bust portrait sculpture statue, 1923, signed and dated, stamped Roman Bronze Works at back of flange. Estimate: $10,000-$20,000

Lot 0002: Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Titanic Memorial Maquette, plaster sculpture with wax overlay, portrait bust study for the head portion of her USS Titanic White Star Line shipwreck victims memorial statue. Estimate: $2,000-$20,000.

Lot 0034: Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney 7ft Bronze Shepherd sculpture of a young nude male figure wearing a fig leaf; one of six bronzes from the artist’s studio widely publicized gardens. Estimate: $10,000- $20,000.

Lot 0024: Cecil Beaton Gigi Watercolor. Isabel Jeans as Aunt Alicia bathes in the tub while Hermoine Gingold as Madame Alvarez is seated in conversation. Estimate: $10,000-$100,000.

Lot 0051: Two Tropical Watercolors of courtyard trees and trellis, both signed and dated, 1934, by Jo Davidson. Estimate: $800-$1,600.

Lot 0043: Grace Vanderbilt Whitney, photographed by Jean de Strelecki, signed lower right within image. In 1917 Mrs. Whitney included Strelecki, de Meyer, Genthe and Stieglitz in a New York portraiture exhibition. Estimate: $1,000-$5,000.

Lot 0048: Heiress Portrait of Pamela Tower, granddaughter of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, by Charles Edmund Brock. Estimate: $1,000-$5,000.

Lot 0047: Large Italian Horses; equestrian and figure painting by Venetian artist Ettore Tito; 0il on canvas. Estimate: $10,000$20,000. NOTE: A smaller study or pendant oil of this work was sold in May 2022 at auction by Cambi auction of Milan, Italy for approximately $15,000.

Lot 0008: Chinese signed Kangxi Gu vases; antique porcelain enamel, turquoise blue with bats underglaze decoration (both damaged, see condition report). Provenance: Vanderbilt Whitney family landmark Old Westbury, Long Island, NY. Estimate: $800-$8,000.
Lot 0030: Paul Storr Silver Gilt Centerpiece, acanthus pedestal English sterling silver centerpiece bowl with gadrooned interior and Romantic organic twist handles, stamped Storr and Mortimer active 1822-1839, with Paul Storr London British hallmarks. According to family verbal recollection, a companion piece was known to exist and the item may have descended from Cornelius Vanderbilt. Estimate $60,000$120,000.

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