James Elkind has a knack for breaking down facades. As in, piece by piece. In the early 1980s, Elkind scaled some of Manhattan’s most storied buildings, salvaging copper cornices, stone lintels and marble sculpture from an impending tide of sledgehammers. He sold his haul out of the basement of a Greenwich Village townhouse (later a sun-lit East Village storefront), to which he bestowed the befitting moniker, “Lost City Arts.”
If there were ever any doubts about how Elkind’s vanguard tastes would resonate with the public, they were quickly muffled by the locust-like wave of collectors who descended upon Lost City Arts to snap up the architectural artifacts. Elkind responded to his customers’ enthusiasm by serving up yet another round; this time a series of pop culture props, including a caravan of animal topiaries plucked straight from the Edward Scissorhands set which he quickly sold to Tavern on the Green. His later forays into Machine Age furniture (Brad Pitt was a fan), Mid-Century Danish design, and Harry Bertoia sculpture followed suit. Elkind, it seemed, had a gift. Call him a pulse-reader, an oracle, or a design-world prophet, but everything Elkind offered up to the masses became an instant sensation.
It’s now been almost four decades since Elkind founded Lost City Arts. While anyone you meet in the design world will readily admit that the industry isn’t as fond of doling out success stories as it once was, Lost City Arts has maintained its status as an industry eminence. So, what is Elkind’s secret? We recently sat down with him to ask just that and get his design predictions for the future—just in time to ring in 2018.
Tell us how you got started in the business.
I opened my business Lost City Arts in 1982, with the intention of rescuing decorative architectural artifacts from the wrecking ball. New York’s newly-enacted Local Law 10 required building owners to either replace or secure the existing rim around building tops, also known as cornice. Many tall buildings from the early 20th century had decorative cornice of a large scale. The large scale ensured that pedestrians could appreciate the decorative nature of the cornice from street level. In many instances building owners chose the easy and cheap way out, and replaced the cornice with nondescript metal flashing.
In an effort to make my business known, I introduced myself to all the demolition contractors, scrap metal dealers, as well as the managers of all the great skyscrapers. Business boomed, as calls came in from all the five boroughs, from demolition crews offering me monumental copper lions heads, gargoyles, and gothic copper work from such historic buildings as the Woolworth, the Studebaker, the Fireman’s Fund, the Corn Exchange to name a few. These heroic artifacts, with their incredible scale and patina found their way into the collections of law firms, investment banking, restaurants, and many lofts. My most memorable salvage was a group of 75 aluminum panels in deep relief, depicting art and music from the 1929 Barbizon Plaza Hotel for women. I bought them from Donald Trump, who replaced these beautiful pieces with flat golden panels which compromised the integrity of the building.
Over the years, markets shifted as demolition came to a standstill, I decided to pursue another field, popular culture icons from the 1940’s and 50’s. Road trips across Route 66, and pilgrimages to the enormous flea market Brimfield helped supply Lost City with memorabilia bought by collectors, restaurants, boutiques, showrooms, movie sets and customers from around the world. Those were fun times with movie stars, writers, and artists of renown frequenting the store. As that market eventually ebbed, as do fashion trends, I moved into a personal passion, Mid-Century design and fine art. That brings us to the present.
When you decide to begin sourcing a new style or genre of design, is it a strategic decision, or is it correlated to a change in your own passions?
Fortunately, every change in the look and style of Lost City Arts coincided with renewed vigor and excitement on my part. Buying patterns and interests change with time, but there always seems to be a recognizable aesthetic in what we sell. Hard to define, but it’s there.
Is there an underlying design ethos that unites all of the work that you source and sell?
If there is a common ethos to the countless pieces bought and sold at Lost City Arts, it is that they have a human quality that makes them easy to live with and they are imbued with a little magic. People want beauty and comfort in their living spaces. We give them both.
You’re regarded as one of the design world’s biggest authorities on Harry Bertoia. What is it about Bertoia’s work that captivated you?
I am best known for my involvement in the work of artist Harry Bertoia. I discovered his sculptures about a dozen years ago. I loved its close relation to nature in its form, motion and sound. His dexterity with a torch, and his ability to conceive an idea in the form of a monotype, and bring it to life as a fully dimensional sculpture, continues to amaze and excite me.
Has public interest in Bertoia’s work increased since you began sourcing it over a decade ago?
Interest in Harry Bertoia has increased exponentially over the years. It used to be I would bring a piece of his to a show and people’s comment would be “oh yes the chair designer.” Today nine out of 10 say “the artist”. Sculpture was his passion, and he will be remembered as a unique artist who brought joy to two year olds, octogenarians and every age in between.
Given the technological world we live in, do you think it’s possible to successfully re-discover a maker who flew under the radar for decades (like you did with Bertoia) anymore?
It is possible to rediscover artists who have been out of the public eye, or never brought to the public before. Most dealers don’t want the commitment of being a market maker for an obscure artist. For me this is the ultimate and exciting challenge.
What are you currently collecting?
I just bought several hundred works by two incredible artists, Nick de Angelis (1921-2004) and Adja Yunkers (1900-1983). Nick de Angelis was a highly regarded graphic designer for Madison Avenue ad agencies. He tired of that lifestyle in the 1960s, and devoted the balance of his life to painting and sculpting and became a life time member of both painting and watercolor societies. His work is a critical commentary of machines replacing the individual. The body of his work was largely intact when I bought it.
The other artist, Adja Yunkers was part of the Abstract Impressionist crowd. He was a close friend to Mark Rothko. His work is represented in most of the world’s important museums. When he died, his star undeservedly faded, as is the case with many artists.
How has the art market changed since you entered it?
The art and antiques market has changed dramatically since I entered it. Customers are more well informed, as a result of the Internet. Auction prices are readily available, and websites like Chairish are useful in providing comparable pricing. Margins for dealers have narrowed.
What do you hope to see in the future for luxury dealers such as yourself?
I see a favorable future for luxury dealers. Unfortunately, the disparity in wealth throughout the world, favors the high net worth individuals, who can spend outrageous amounts of money; Witness the inflated prices for some contemporary art.
You’ve been credited for repeatedly identifying trends before they take off. What do you see as being the “next big things” as we begin to move into the next decade?
I predict the following trends for the coming years:
I see a “look” being as important as a pedigree.
I see fine art being bought before design.
I see more discretionary income being invested in art and design.
All photo courtesy of Lost City Arts