Welcome to Bleak House
In the antiques trade, Niall Smith carved a household name for himself back in the 1970s operating an eponymous shop the size of a shoebox on Bleecker Street in the West Village. Irish by birth, he stuck to his roots and imported stock from Europe to America; his taste for neoclassical objects and furniture was legendary, his keen eye served him well, and his demonstrated pluck and bristling brogue are among the lofty attributes he’s fully maintained despite living more than half a century in New York City. When times were tough on Bleecker Street, banter prevailed. “Welcome to Bleak House, my dear, evidently ‘tis a day for carriage trade !”
The antiquated euphemisms for affluent patrons visiting dire circumstance invariably charmed the cognoscenti who flocked from far afield to Smith’s tempting micro-mosaic of Biedermeier furniture, Wedgewood black basalt, neoclassical bronzes, marble columns, bejeweled Irish mirrors, Grand Tour souvenirs and English Regency sideboards with time-worn patina. Indeed, the mellow aspect of shop furnishings had an air of landed gentry. One day in the 1990s the Earl of Warwick, a friendly neighbor with an apartment on Lower Fifth Avenue, ventured in having spotted an impressive copy of The Warwick Vase, an ancient Roman marble vessel with Bacchic ornament, on display. His idea to purchase, however, was flatly rebuffed as Smith took umbrage. “No bloody way will I sell it to you!” he declared. “Your family owned the original – foolishly sold it recently !”
Reprimands and a point of view do a reputation make and Smith’s colorful character is a good match for his wares. Over time, his emporium expanded to a second gallery on Soho’s Grand Street and a vast warehouse in Long Island City. The latter was strictly off limits, accessible by appointment only. Antiques teetered to the rafters while gaining entry was a coveted invitation akin to being chosen by the bouncer at Studio 54. Rather than give precise directions, Smith liked clients to meet him outside his shop where he waited inside his wreck of a van to lead the way across the bridge. Charmed by the raconteur at the wheel, many clients begged to hop in back – a dusty mattress and strewn packing blankets as company — while dispatching their own, chauffeur-driven Mercedes to follow in convoy.
Over the last two decades, Smith consolidated business somewhat, moving uptown to a larger showroom on East 61ststreet; yet his estimable eye has rarely wavered. Stair’s sale “The Neoclassicist: Niall Smith” presents a uniquely distilled vision, elements of which were recently rediscovered in closets under protective layers of dust. Choice pickings assembled over decades, there’s even a worthy copy of the Warwick vase available.
Time & Location
The Neoclassicist: Niall Smith
May 6 at 11am ONLINE