Robert Newman had already sifted, sorted and sweated untold piles of paper – what to keep, what to sell, and what to give away? – When he came to the closet door, he hadn’t opened it in 20 years. Inside, crammed from floor to ceiling, there were still more piles.
He muttered to himself: “Oh, dad.” “What the hell have you done to me?”
His brother, Harry, had a similar idea. “My dad was the biggest rat that ever existed,” he said. “We are dealing with that.”
To be fair, it’s not all Dad’s fault; Grandfathers and brothers themselves had a role in creating the chaos. This is what happens when you spend three generations building a family business of buying and selling history, and most of it is on paper – beautiful and valuable and hard to separate from paper.
Business founded in 1898 in the name of old printing press, in the midst of moving from the storefront on Lexington Street in Murray Hill it had occupied since 1921 to a more elegant second-floor space several blocks west. For three months, the brothers labored to pull, examine, package, and transport more than 100,000 objects including Currier & Ives lithographs, John James Audubon illustrations, New York City scenes, antique maps, contemporary art, and prints by early 20th-century American masters such as Edward Huber John Sloan And the Thomas Hart Benton.
The history of the shop itself is replete with notable names. Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Andy Warhol were loyal clients. Bernice Abbott shot promotional images Gallery and photos of the owners’ family.
Even before the hustle and bustle of the movement, the ground floor gallery was so packed with desks, chests, and filing cabinets that the staff of seven was hard to spot. Crushed pine floorboards and overhead ductwork seem more suitable for a hardware store, and the brothers come across less like coordinators and more like the talking men behind the counter who know only the drawer has the recessed dishwasher part. Their technical terms range from “really blunt” to “extremely rare.”
Don’t be fooled. Robert, 65, president of the company, is trained as a master printmaker and promotes the art of more than 75 living artists. Harry, 60, Vice President, is a leading expert in sports prints and maps. They have traced and authenticated the pieces to dozens of private collectors and museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Portrait Gallery.
J said. Kevin Gravanio, retired director of William L. Library. Clements at the University of MichiganWho acquired many of his maps and prints for museums and libraries. He added, “But they’re not looking to get noticed, and I like them for that. They’re not glamorous.”
They will be sorry to miss the traffic that was drawn in by the street level viewing windows. But they are not particularly interested in saying goodbye to the place where their grandfather, a door-to-door textile salesman, turned himself into an art dealer known in the trade as “Mr. Americana” and “Prince of Prints.” At one time or another, several family members lived in a small apartment upstairs.
‘I will miss the old place, yes.’ said Robert. ‘But you have to embrace the change whether you like it or not, because if you don’t, it will kill you.’
In March, tired of the repairs and red tape of owning an old people’s building, the brothers sold the cramped property in Lexington near 30th Street to a developer. (“The luxury condominiums,” Robert said emphatically.) They closed their doors in August and hope to reopen in late September in the space they bought and renovated at 49 West 24th Street.
Accepting change is not always easy, especially for historians. The brothers spent a recent morning trying to get rid of mediocre items—engraved portraits of forgotten people, souvenir views of mysterious places—but they found it too painful to throw away so much.
A staff member was on the phone arranging to pick up empty frames art materials, a city program that directs donations to artists. An earlier investigation had come from Rikers Island in search of frameworks for the detainees’ projects. “One of our weird requests,” said Robert. “But sure, why not?”
They will move about three-quarters of their belongings to the new store, and store or donate the rest. “We are looking to upgrade the collection in favor of quality,” he said. “We want to polish it up a bit.”
If cleaning the three floors of the store hit a few speed bumps—mold, a scourge of anything made of paper, popping up in several boxes of printouts—it also yielded the occasional bounty. The Newman brothers found a James McNeill Whistler The inscription they lost. Even a stacked cupboard held a prize: a rare watercolor view of New York City in the 1820s.
Finding gems in unlikely places is how the business began.
grandfather of brothers Harry Shaw NewmanHe was cleaning the attic of his mother’s house in New Jersey shortly after World War I when he discovered a batch of prints before Currier & Ives, the New York publisher whose cheap lithographs became a home staple in 19th century America. sell them to Edward Gottschalkwho founded the Old Print Shop years ago in Greenwich Village.
Mr. Neumann sought out prints and other paintings of Mr. Gottschalk and bought the company from him in 1928. As he taught himself about art and acquired important works, his fame grew. Roosevelt, a former Secretary of the Navy and collector of naval prints, made a welcome visit to the store shortly after his election in 1932. He bought a Currier & lves purse to hang in the Oval Office. (As president, Kennedy, a Navy veteran, also purchased nautical prints from the store.)
Shortly after World War II, Neumann’s son Kenneth joined the business, and the two sailed to Europe to enrich art dealers—with real butter and eggs, then rare goods on the continent—and pick up prints.
Kenneth’s two sons, Robert and Harry, remember road trips with their father in the family station wagon, which came home full of antiques bought at flea markets and auctions. It wasn’t always the case with a white glove. A model ship appeared from the car with a broken mast. An 18th century globe that was dropped by their grandfather in the shape of an egg.
The brothers remain wary of being overly cautious – in the interests of treasure hunters, they are very careful to display treasures only in pristine environments, for limited periods, or not at all. “When museum preservation departments take over, they get less interesting,” Robert said.
In the Old Print Shop, the only controls for temperature or humidity, even in the new space, are the heating and air conditioning. The Newman family derives their cues from the room’s feel: “If you’re comfortable, they’re comfortable,” Robert said of the prints.
The gallery was subjected to flooding from old plumbing. Always afraid of fire, but the brothers seem to be more concerned about water damage than the sprinkler system required in the new building.
Their biggest challenge is the changing fashion trends, which the store has passed with mixed success.
The family had the foresight to purchase paintings by nineteenth century American masters such as Frederick Remington And the George Caleb Bingham. But it sold many of them in the mid-20th century before prices rose. a Winslow Homer An oil painting was sold in 1964 for $45,000. Today, Robert estimated, it could bring in $45 million.
“In the 1960s,” he said, “history was more valuable than art.” “Today, art is more valuable than history.”
In fact, it’s worth more than almost anything: in May, Warhol’s painting of Marilyn Monroe Sold for $195 MillionThis is the highest amount ever paid at auction for a work by an American artist. But in 1979, Warhol proposed the modern art trade for historical illustration: a complete set of Monroe silk screens for a single print of an Audubon bird.
“Dad won’t do that,” Harry said. “He had no interest in that kind of thing.” And he seems to have had little patience with Warhol, who once showed up at the store wearing revealing ripped shorts. “My dad almost kicked him out.”
The days of digging for gold in the barns and selling cards are long gone. Buying and selling have moved online. Regardless of “antiques promotions,” the consumer’s appetite for anything that came before mid-century modern has waned. “Antique has become a dirty word,” said Robert.
However, Al Newman has been in business long enough to believe that will change. They already see it in their family, as the fourth generation is fascinated by the past. Robert’s son, Brian, 39, works at the store. Harry’s son Scott, 23, spent the summer between college semesters to help with the transition.
During a lull in mobilization, Scott and his uncle stopped to admire a map the size of a New York City wall commissioned by the British government in 1766 (now priced at $325,000). Their conversation has slipped back in time, from Revolutionary War strategy to the burning of the Library of Alexandria to the fall of ancient Carthage and beyond. Against the swell of history in the room, the future seemed like a footnote.