Thomas Stewart of Fred Silberman

Shop Talk

Thomas Stewart of Fred Silberman

As told to Adrienne Gaffney
March 16, 2018
Photographs courtesy of Fred Silberman

The Fred Silberman partner knows the next great find is just around the corner

Fred Silberman opened the business in Manhattan in 1970, but originally, he was located in Huntington, Long Island, where he had a small shop. He was buying things locally but he was also going to London, Paris, Germany, and Austria. Most people weren’t going to Germany and Austria at that time, but he wanted to go further—different places to see different things.

I walked into the Antique Center of America, I think in 1970, and I met Fred Silberman there. I was very young—a teenager. I loved the decorative arts movement, the things that were going on in Vienna and Germany. He asked me, “Why are you interested in this stuff?” I said, “It’s new, it’s different, it’s exciting.” In 1974, I believe, or 1975, he decided to move the store to Madison Avenue and I worked for him fulltime. By the early ‘80s, I became a partner.

A pair of ‘40s beechwood chairs by Mario Quarti stand in front of a Rosewood art deco liquor cabinet by Dassi
A pair of ‘40s beechwood chairs by Mario Quarti stand in front of a Rosewood art deco liquor cabinet by Dassi

Around the end of the ‘70s, we had a very good friend, a dealer that we brought from in Germany. When we went to his apartment, we saw a lot of incredible furniture and lamps. We said, “Where is this stuff from, Bill? This is not German, Austrian, or French.” He said, “No, it’s Italian.” So the next year we went to Italy. We were the first Americans to go to buy 20th century decorative arts, not 18th or 19th century. It opened up a whole new world to us in design and quality.

At center, a cabinet by Paolo Buffa that was a single commission from 1948. At left is a ‘50s-era floor lamp from Stilnovo.
At center, a cabinet by Paolo Buffa that was a single commission from 1948. At left is a ‘50s-era floor lamp from Stilnovo.

When it came to lighting, we were buying things made by Fontana Arte, Stilnovo, Bernini, Seguso, Arteluce, and many more. We were buying furniture from such firms as Borsani, Paolo Buffa, Gio Ponti, Dassi. Everything was at our fingertips; wherever we went we saw some amazing things because it was coming out of people’s homes. We were buying very unusual things that nobody ever saw before. I guess you would call us pioneers, because at the time nobody else was buying this type of thing.

A Luigi Brusotti illuminated sculpture features landscape of Diana, acid-etched into salmon-colored glass with mirrored sides and lit from behind
A Luigi Brusotti illuminated sculpture features landscape of Diana, acid-etched into salmon-colored glass with mirrored sides and lit from behind

We’ve been focusing exclusively on Italy for a good 30 years now. Of course, you don’t get as much as you did before, but I’d rather buy less and better. The problem is that there was only so much produced, but we’re still uncovering amazing pieces. Just when you think you’re never going to find another wonderful thing again… something great shows up. I love that about this work.

A great deal of the pieces from Italy were made on commission. So if you don’t buy it when you see it, you’ll never have a chance again. It’s not as if you were buying a piece of Lalique lighting, if you don’t buy it today you could buy it next week, next month, next year because they made it over and over. Italians were not interested in that kind of production. They wanted very special pieces. So do we—and that’s why we’ll keep going there.

This nearly four-foot-wide glass light sculpture was designed by Gianmaria Potenza for La Murrina in the ‘60s.
This nearly four-foot-wide glass light sculpture was designed by Gianmaria Potenza for La Murrina in the ‘60s.