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Gilding the Gilded Age: Interior Decoration Tastes and Trends in New York City


Illustrated catalogue of the artistic furnishings and interior decorations of the residence no. 121 East Twenty-first street, New York City

Back cover of the Stanford White April 4, 1907 catalogue with Hearst tally of purchases from the sale ($4210) and the AAA insignia.

In 1879, Thomas E. Kirby, James F. Sutton, and R. Austin Robertson founded the American Art Association (AAA), a major New York auction house located at 6 East 23rd Street. Founded as the American Art Galleries, the name was officially changed to the AAA in 1883.[1] Kirby’s son, Gustavus T. Kirby, joined the firm in 1912 when Thomas Kirby’s health began to fail. By 1915, after the death of Sutton, G.T. Kirby became half owner and equal partner with his father.[2]

The AAA conducted hundreds of prestigious sales during the Gilded Age.[3] According to John Ott, auction goers included John Jacob Astor, Charles Crocker, Marshall Field, John Work Garrett, Jay Gould, Henry O. Havemeyer, Collis Huntington, Darius Ogden Mills, George B. Roberts, William Rockefeller, and William H. Vanderbilt.[4] Kirby recalled in his memoirs that California railroad baron Collis Huntington said on more than on occasion, “I would rather come to your sales and give ten times more than the object was worth and have the pleasure of buying it and outbidding some of my friends.” [5] Ott believed that the AAA flourished because it provided the nation’s corporate executives with a novel means of art consumption that articulated, consolidated, perpetuated and publicized a new brand of elite class identity and affiliation.[6]

The contents of a collection were carefully inventoried and catalogued in preparation for an auction. Different editions of the auction catalogue were produced, from simple volumes to elaborate limited editions. These special illustrated editions were usually published in runs of 500 copies, bound in red cloth and delivered to the doors of AAA subscribers.  Private sales conducted in a collector’s residence were by invitation only.  Entrance cards had to be applied for in writing prior to the event. Other AAA sales took place at Chickering Hall, located at 5th Avenue and 18th Street. Admission was charged to attend sale previews, auctions, and to reserve one of the events 1800 seats. The AAA also introduced special evening sales where paintings were properly displayed, fresh flowers were arranged in the galleries and classical musicians entertained the guests. In the late 19th century, there were twenty-three daily newspapers in New York and most of them held strong opinions on artistic matters.[7] Gilded Age publications such as American Art News and the New York Times reported on upcoming auctions and sales results. It was also customary to include the names of auction attendees and buyers in the report.[8]

Many of the catalogues included in the Gilded Age III project contain photographs of single decorative objects while special edition catalogues often include photographs of complete rooms. Catalogues that provide exceptional depictions of Gilded Age homes and their art objects serve to enhance the provenance of important works of art today.

Works cited:
[1] For a brief history of the American Art Association, see, The Frick Collection: Archives Directory for the History of Collecting in America,, accessed October 20, 2013.
[2] Wesley Towner, The Elegant Auctioneers (New York: Hill & Wang, 1970), 289.
[3] Gerald Bolas, “The Early Years of the American Art Association, 1879-1900.”  (PhD diss., City University of New York, 1998).
[4] John Ott, “How New York Stole the Luxury Art Market:  Blockbuster Auctions and Bourgeois Identity in Gilded Age America,” Winterthur Portfolio 42.2/3 (2008), 136.
[5] Ibid., 148.
[6] Ibid., 134.
[7] Towner, The Elegant Auctioneers, 59.
[8] Ott, “How New York Stole the Luxury Art Market,” 135-137.