Bruce Newman, Leading Man of Antiques, Dies at 94

Bruce Newman, a New York antiques dealer once known as the Cecil B. DeMille of his profession for his outsized personality and extravagant wares, died on Feb. 9 at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 94.

The cause was congestive heart failure, according to his daughter, Emily Greenspan.

Mr. Newman, a dashing figure in impeccably tailored black suits and scarlet pocket squares, was the proprietor of his family’s business, Newel Galleries, which was founded during the 1930s as a prop house for theater and film productions and ran for a time out of a small shop under the Second Avenue El in Manhattan.

During his reign, Newel was in full, overwhelming flower by the 1980s, housed in a five-story building on East 53rd Street, near the East River, each floor teeming with two centuries’ worth of treasures, most costing upward of five figures. The business was a glittering antiques mall for set designers, party planners, decorators, society lions and Hollywood royalty.

Vintage carousel horses? Check. Ruhlmann desks? Yes! Benches from the Paris Metro? Of course. French Victorian dining chairs swirled in bronze trim? No need to ask. Mr. Newman carried it all and in staggering amounts: Victorian wicker. French salon furniture. Art Deco. Art Nouveau. Gothic revival. Biedermeier. Directoire. English Arts & Crafts. Renaissance and Medieval pieces, and the “quality camp” or “fantasy furniture” he favored — weird and whimsical pieces embellished with mythical creatures; chairs sprouting antlers, torcheres bedecked with gargoyles, commodes atop griffin feet.

Paul Rudnick, the playwright, screenwriter and author, called the shop “a wonderful cross between Hogwarts and the warehouse at the end of Citizen Kane.”

Mr. Newman was like a Hollywood agent, Stephen Drucker, the design editor, said.

“He was always selling, always exaggerating just a little — which you both knew,” he added. “He truly loved the hunt and the scheming required to get stuff.” (It was Mr. Drucker who, in a House & Garden article, described Mr. Newman as the DeMille of his trade, a moniker Mr. Newman loved, and so it stuck.)

When Queen Elizabeth II visited Manhattan in the mid-1970s, the royal advance phoned Mr. Newman requesting a throne for her to sit upon before a dinner in her honor at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. Mr. Newman had just the thing: a Louis XV throne, which he reupholstered with blue silk, adding a bolster so she’d be more comfortable.

The royal anecdote is one of many from Mr. Newman’s 2006 memoir, “Don’t Come Back Until You Find It: Tales from an Antiques Dealer,” a rich celebrity dish.

Jackie Kennedy was a polite and thorough shopper; a year into her husband’s presidency, she toured Newel to fill their weekend house in Virginia. Michael Eisner liked Black Forest furniture and asked for a discount — Mr. Newman never gave discounts. Michael J. Fox, he said, was speedy and decisive. When Mr. Fox once chose a dented silver candlestick, Mr. Newman pointed out the imperfection. “Yeah,” the actor replied. “That’s why it’s beautiful.”

In the early 1980s, when Claus Von Bulow was between trials for the attempted murder of his wife, Sunny Von Bulow, he sold Mr. Newman two 18th-century Venetian lacquered commodes, which, Mr. Newman wrote, came from the couple’s Newport, R.I., estate. He assumed that the sale was to raise cash for Mr. Von Bulow’s legal bills. Years later, when Mel Bourne, the production designer for “Reversal of Fortune,” the 1990 movie about the trials, was shopping at Newel for props, he snapped them up.

On Barbra Streisand’s first visit to Newel, Mr. Newman fed her a chicken sandwich. “Nice place you got here, Bruce,” she told him. “I like it.”

She knew her stuff, Mr. Newman wrote: the difference between Art Deco and French 40s as well as the names of the great furniture designers of the ’30s and ’40s: Jean-Michel Frank, Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann and Jules Leleu. Yet later, on a visit to her Central Park West apartment, Ms. Streisand proudly showed him a kitschy pink and blue porcelain mirror, its frame covered with cupids, flowers and ribbons.

What did he think? Mr. Newman recalled her asking. He noted delicately that it was not the most beautiful object.

“I know,” she told him. “I bought this mirror with the first buck I ever earned singing. I keep it here to remind myself of the time when I didn’t have any money.”

Bruce Murray Newman was born on Jan. 27, 1930, in Brooklyn. His father, Meyer Newman, had a business delivering props and furniture to theatrical companies that were renting to the silent film industry, which had production facilities in Queens and the Bronx. His mother, Evelyn (Kantor) Newman, was her husband’s bookkeeper.

Meyer Newman went bankrupt in the years after the 1929 stock market crash and later started his own theatrical rental company, at first by selling the family’s own furniture and other furnishings from a Second Avenue storefront and delivering them from his Nash rumble seat coupe. Bruce recalled being traumatized as the family house emptied out.

To build up his inventory, Meyer Newman sent an employee, Sam Goldberg, to trawl Park and Fifth Avenues in a horse-drawn wagon. When tenants at the fine apartment houses redecorated in the early 1940s, they typically didn’t call auction houses to haul away their old stuff and sell it — they just threw it out. Thus, building supers had to figure out a way to get rid of the “garbage.” Enter Mr. Goldberg, to whom they paid a few bucks to cart it all away.

Meyer called his new business Newel Galleries, and Bruce joined it when he was 15. He studied interior design at Pratt, graduating in 1953, then went to work for his father full-time.

In 1965, he married Judith Brandus, at the time an assistant personnel director at the Hertz Corporation. She later wrote the copy for Newel’s distinctive ads, which were designed like celebrity portraits: An Art Nouveau armchair, for example, appeared under the headline “For the Price of a Small House, You Can Own This Extraordinary Chair.” (Mr. Newman was proud of his extravagant prices.)

Meyer Newman died in 1972, and Bruce took over the business three years later.

He moved to California in 2016. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by two grandchildren and a sister, Marilyn Laundau. Judith Newman died in 2023.

In 2001, Mr. Newman sold Newel to a nephew, Lewis Baer, whose son Jake Baer is now the company’s chief executive. Thanks to the number of productions now filming in New York City, most of the business is once again rentals — lucrative, to be sure, but the clients are perhaps not as exciting as the characters Newel once served.

In Mr. Newman’s day, even rentals could cause a stir in Manhattan’s social circles. In 1988, Newel supplied the gilded palm trees that formed the chuppa at Laura Steinberg and Jonathan Tisch’s wedding, as well as $250,000 worth of Louis XV bronze centerpieces and candelabra to accessorize the reception at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

All of the treasures were rented from Newel — and returned. But in The New York Times coverage of the event (under the headline “Candlelight Wedding Joins 2 Billionaire Families”), the reporter Georgia Dullea noted that the antiques were from the Steinbergs’ own collection.

Mr. Newman was incensed by that assertion and demanded a correction, as the magazine Manhattan Inc. later reported. Ms. Dullea declined because Gayfryd Steinberg, the bride’s stepmother, had declared that the antiques were her own. But when The Times reached out again, to do a follow-up article on how Ms. Steinberg was pretending to own things that didn’t belong to her, Mr. Newman refused to participate and dropped his request for a correction.

His pride had been stung, but not enough to malign a good customer.

Sumber: www.nytimes.com