Irish antiques dealer to the stars to sell New York shop contents
Catherine Deneuve was ‘incredibly beautiful and pleasant’, says Corkonian Niall Smith
Irish antique dealer Niall Smith with artist Edwina Sandys (grand-daughter of Winston Churchill) in New York 2007
At the age of 84, veteran New York-based antiques dealer Niall Smith is finally calling it a day at his showroom in Greenwich Village. After more than 50 years in the business, the contents of his treasure trove will be auctioned by the Stair Galleries of New York on May 6th.
The Kanturk man, who was described by Ralph Lauren as “displaying a dazzling array of 19th-century neoclassical furniture ... in his small jewel-box shop”, was initially destined for a very different life.
After a degree from Shannon College of Hotel Management, he set off for the bright lights of the United States, only to discover that his accreditation wasn’t recognised.
“They thought I was a culchie, but I was young with my whole life ahead of me, so I went to California for two years but then thought ‘I cannot live on my wits’,” says the affable octogenarian.
A love of art and antiques was instilled in him from an early age, stemming from “travelling to every auction in the south of Ireland with my parents”. It was most certainly in the blood – his sister, the late Satch Kiely, was a well-known dealer in the west of Ireland.
Smith credits his mother, Birdie, gifting him his inheritance as the nascence of his success. On a subsequent trip to London, he returned with a container full of British and continental furniture, and that was the beginning of his glittering career.
“I found this tiny little shop on Bleecker Street where I’d give the windows a theme – and then everyone came in.”
His vignettes paid off; numerous designers and collectors, featured in a plethora of publications, credited his taste and his shop became hallowed ground for professionals and amateur enthusiasts alike.
French actor Catherine Deneuve “arrived in the early days and I hadn’t a clue who she was – as she was in jeans with hair tied back”.
“But later she arrived in a ball gown to collect a piece of majolica, and I thought, Oh my God. Of course I recognised her immediately – she was incredibly beautiful and pleasant.”
He recounts how he first met Paloma Picasso, who became a dear friend.
“I had been asked by Mrs Davidoff [of the cigarette family] to come and look at a piece in her residence at Trump Tower, but I had to be there at 5pm sharp, as she was heading to the Met Gala. Then Paloma wanders into the shop after four, and it looked like she was here for a long browse. I eventually said to her, ‘Madam, I have to close’ as I was heading to the Davidoff place, and she asked if she could accompany me.”
“The doorman nearly tripped over himself outside Trump Tower, yelling ‘You can’t park that van here’, but we went inside and I introduced Paloma as Mrs Lopez Sanchez (her married name). Mrs Davidoff – dressed to the nines in a ball gown and jewels, said to Paloma: ‘You must be French as you are the image of Paloma Picasso’.”
After realising she was indeed the daughter of the surrealist painter, “the Met Gala went out the door”.
His vast warehouse in Long Island was by admission only, creating a coveted source for interior designers as well as for Bill Blass, the noted fashion designer and antique connoisseur who bequeathed half of his $52 million estate to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
“Paloma would often ring and say, ‘Niall, can we go to the provinces?’, which was her way of asking could she have a look in the warehouse. She’d hop in the van and off we’d go with her chauffeured car tailing behind us.”
The New York sale, on May 6th, has some wonderful treasures from Smith’s trove, and is full to the brim with obelisks, architectural ruins and busts. Gouaches of Naples and coloured engravings of architectural excavations are listed alongside coveted pieces such as books of plaster intaglios from the 19th century.
Highlights include a mid-19th century Irish mahogany console table with marble top, from Westport House ($5,000–$7,000, or about €4,190-€5,870); a set of 14 Regency brass inlaid rosewood dining chairs from the Williamses of Tullamore ($10,000-$15,000/€8,480-€12,570) and an impressively carved mahogany armoire ($4,000-$6,000/€3,350-€5,030).
Of its gothic style and large stature, Smith says (referring to the Guinness ancestral estate, which is understood to have been purchased by Italian financier Count Luca Rinaldo Contardo Padulli di Vighignolo, and his American wife, Carolyn Dolgenos): “It would really be ideal in Luggala as it fits perfectly with the architecture.”
He reflects on what could have been an alternative life in the hotel industry: “I would have completely died from the monotony.”
And on retirement from his little shop in Greenwich Village, the colourful Corkonian says: “I’m not ready to take up knitting quite just yet.”