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Antique textiles: A boom from the loom as museum buying and new collectors hike prices

As other items become inaccessible to some collectors, many in the middle market have turned to textiles

New York

The market for textiles, from 17th-century English embroidery to 18th-century Venetian bed hangings and Qing period court robes, has long been a bit of an arcane speciality. Once dominated by only a handful of collectors, this field is now booming on a number of different levels in the US.

"Ten years ago, people had never even heard of ikats," says Gail Martin, a New York dealer who also curates the noted Goldman collection of ikats. "Now it's rare if someone is not familiar with antique textiles."

Responding to the growing interest, museums nationwide are mounting textile exhibitions: 14 devoted to either textiles or costumes were on museum rosters in the first six months of this year.

Recent shows have drawn surprisingly high attendance figures; for example, Guido Goldman's ikat collection racked up 150,000 visitors at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

The textile collections of most major US museums were first built in the early part of the 20th century, when privileged ladies were the backbone of museum collecting and their focus was lace. After that, textiles became the "stepchild of museums: underfunded, understaffed and rarely shown," according to Titi Halle, of Cora Ginsburg, the country's leading dealer.

This all changed in the 1960s, when interest resurged, largely due to hippies and their interest in the Orient and its weavings. "They travelled and they collected ethnic pieces," says Dr Alice Zrebiaec, Denver Art Museum curator of textile arts, who spent 16 years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She has seen the number of people interested in collecting textiles double in those years: "Now, when we propose a textile show, there's far greater awareness around the table from the head of marketing to the head of the gift shop," she says, "and financial backing is easier to obtain." Textile donations are also increasing, and Carol Beer, director of the Washington DC Textile Museum says she has double the number of potential donors now contacting her.

Acquisitions are increasingly sharply, and Helen Fioratti of New York's L'Antiquaire & the Connoisseur Inc. says that while two decades ago her sales had overwhelmingly been to privates, now she makes close to a dozen sales annually to institutions.

One reason for the recent spurt of museum shopping sprees could be the soaring market for fine arts. "As paintings become financially inaccessible to institutions, some turn to textiles. For $20,000, they can buy a piece of fine English crewelwork whereas that amount would only get them a mediocre drawing. “For $100,000, they can buy 17th-century English embroidery in mint condition—the best of its kind and totally unique," says Titi Halle, for whom 70% of total sales are to museums.

As for private collecting, at the top end of the market there are still few buyers, probably no more than 10, according to Tita Halle. They are like stamp or book collectors, content to own but not display, and this being dictated by the fragility of their treasures.

The surge in growth is in the middle market: Gail Martin claims to be seeing more and more new clients buying at the $20,000 level and up. “They want a ‘knock-your-socks-off’ textile that is reminiscent of 20th-century painting," says Ms Martin. So they will purchase an Indonesian silk lawan that is like a Rothko in tonality or a piece that is like a Minimalist painting. A contributing factor is the American taste for bigger and bigger homes. "I am seeing more requests for large-scale textiles, especially in California'" says Helen Fioratti. Decorators are also using textiles: "They will buy a great Venetian bed hanging, encase it in Plexiglas and decorate an entire room around it", adds Ms Fioratti.

At the same time, prices are rising. Only five years ago, a fine 19th-century ikat from Central Asia was $10,000, now it would be in the $17,000-19,000 range, if you can find one, reports Ms Martin. Bizarre silks (the name given to an artistically rich design of silk weaving in France in the late 17th century and 18th century) is another area where prices have tripled in five years, says Ms Fioratti.

As a result of the increased interest, the numbers of textile dealers in art fairs is also surging, and this year Caskey-Lees' Arts of Pacific Asia in New York featured more than 20, compared to five in 1995.

Many Asian art dealers at the Haughton's International Asian Art Fair now show some textiles, even if it is not their speciality.

The latest area of interest is 20th-century designer fabrics. Gillian Moss, curator of New York's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, sees California designers, such as Angelo Testa and Maria Kipp, growing in importance. At that institution's recent show on designer Alexander Girard, his Op Art fabrics were included and the Tribeca gallery Form + Function, which deals in 50s furnishings, saw strong sales of the fabrics for $65-100 a yard, while at Cora Ginsberg, Angelo Testa's Bauhaus-type fabrics sell for $200-500 a yard.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A boom from the loom'