Robert Newman had already sifted, sorted and sweated through untold mounds of paper — which to keep, which to sell, which to give away? — when he came to a closet door he hadn’t opened in 20 years. Inside, crammed floor to ceiling, were still more piles.
“Oh, Dad,” he muttered to himself. “What the hell did you do to me?”
His brother, Harry, has had a similar thought. “My father was the biggest pack rat there ever was,” he said. “And we’re dealing with that.”
To be fair, it’s not all Dad’s fault; Granddad and the brothers themselves had a hand in creating the clutter. This is what happens when you spend three generations building a family business out of buying and selling history, most of it on paper — beautiful, valuable, hard-to-part-with paper.
The business, founded in 1898 as the Old Print Shop, is in the throes of moving out of the storefront on Lexington Avenue in Murray Hill that it has occupied since 1921 and into a sleeker, second-story space several blocks west. For three months, the brothers have led an exhaustive effort to haul out, scrutinize, pack and transport an inventory of more than 100,000 pieces that includes Currier & Ives lithographs, John James Audubon illustrations, New York City scenes, antique maps, contemporary art and prints by early-20th-century American masters like Edward Hopper, John Sloan and Thomas Hart Benton.
The shop’s own history is awash in marquee names. Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Andy Warhol were loyal customers. Berenice Abbott shot promotional photos of the gallery and portraits of the owners’ family.
Even before the tumult of the move, the ground-floor gallery was a warren of desks, bins and file cabinets so jampacked that the staff of seven could be hard to detect. The scuffed pine floorboards and overhead ductwork look better suited to a hardware store, and the brothers come across less like curators and more like the chatty guys behind the counter who know just which drawer holds that discontinued dishwasher part. Their terms of art run from “really cruddy” to “rare as heck.”
Don’t be fooled. Robert, 65, the firm’s president, is trained as a master printmaker and promotes the art of more than 75 living artists. Harry, 60, the vice president, is a noted expert on sporting prints and maps. They’ve tracked down and authenticated pieces for dozens of private collectors and museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Portrait Gallery.
“I don’t know of another map and print dealer that’s been in continued existence that long, and their impact over time has put them at the very top of the pyramid,” said J. Kevin Graffagnino, a retired director of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan, who has acquired many of their maps and prints for museums and libraries. “But they’re not looking to be noticed,” he added, “and I admire them for that. They’re not flashy.”
They’ll be sorry to lose the walk-in traffic that street-level display windows attracted. But they’re notably unsentimental about saying goodbye to the spot where their grandfather, a door-to-door fabric salesman, transformed himself into an art dealer known in the trade as “Mr. Americana” and “the Prince of Prints.” At one time or another, various family members lived in a small apartment upstairs.
“I’m going to miss the old place, yeah. It was home,” Robert said. “But you’ve got to embrace change whether you like it or not because if you don’t, it’s going to kill you
In March, weary of the repairs and red tape involved in owning a geriatric building, the brothers sold the narrow property at Lexington near 30th Street to a developer. (“Luxury condominiums,” Robert said with an eye roll.) They closed their doors in August and hope to reopen in late September in the space they bought and renovated at 49 West 24th Street.
Embracing change isn’t always easy, especially for historians. The brothers spent a recent morning trying to cull mediocre material — engraved portraits of forgotten people, souvenir views of obscure places — but found it too painful to toss much.
A staff member was on the phone arranging a pickup of empty frames by Materials for the Arts, a city program that steers donations to artists. An earlier inquiry had come from Rikers Island, seeking frames for detainees’ projects. “One of our stranger requests,” Robert said. “But sure, why not?”
They’ll move about three-quarters of their holdings to the new shop, and store or donate the rest. “We’re looking to upgrade the collection in favor of quality,” he said. “We want to polish it up a bit.”
If clearing out the shop’s three floors has hit some speed bumps — mold, a scourge for anything made from paper, turned up in several boxes of prints — it has also yielded the occasional reward. The Newman brothers found a James McNeill Whistler etching they’d lost track of. Even the overstuffed closet held a prize: a rare watercolor view of New York City in the 1820s.
Finding gems in unlikely places is how the business began.
The brothers’ grandfather, Harry Shaw Newman, was cleaning the attic of his mother’s New Jersey boardinghouse shortly after World War I when he discovered a roll of prints by Currier & Ives, the New York publisher whose inexpensive lithographs became a household staple in 19th-century America. He sold them to Edward Gottschalk, who had founded the Old Print Shop years earlier in Greenwich Village.
Mr. Newman sought out other prints and paintings for Mr. Gottschalk and bought the business from him in 1928. As he taught himself about art and acquired important works, his renown grew. Roosevelt, a former secretary of the Navy and a collector of maritime prints, made a much-heralded visit to the shop soon after he was elected in 1932. He bought a Currier & lves portfolio to hang in the Oval Office. (As president, Kennedy, a Navy veteran, also purchased naval prints from the shop.)
Soon after World War II, Mr. Newman’s son, Kenneth, joined the business, and the two sailed to Europe to butter up art dealers — with real butter and eggs, then scarce commodities on the Continent — and snap up prints.
Kenneth’s sons, Robert and Harry, recall road trips with their father in the family station wagon, which returned home stuffed with antiques bought at flea markets and auctions. The handling wasn’t always white-glove. A ship model emerged from the car with a broken mast. An 18th-century globe their grandfather dropped wound up egg-shaped.
The brothers remain wary of an excess of caution — a concern for preservation so keen that treasures can be displayed only in pristine environments or for limited times or not at all. “When the conservation departments get hold of museums, they get less interesting,” Robert said.
At the Old Print Shop, the only temperature or humidity controls, even in the new space, are heating and air-conditioning. The Newmans take their cue from how the room feels: “If you’re comfortable, they’re comfortable,” Robert said of the prints.
The gallery has weathered floods from ancient plumbing. Fire is always a fear, but the brothers seem more nervous about water damage from the sprinkler system required in the new building.
Their biggest challenge is the shifting tides of fashion, which the shop has navigated with mixed success.
The family was prescient in buying paintings by 19th-century American masters like Frederic Remington and George Caleb Bingham. But it sold many of them in the mid-20th century before prices surged. A Winslow Homer oil painting was sold in 1964 for $45,000. Today, Robert estimated, it could fetch $45 million.
“In the 1960s, history was worth more than art,” he said. “Today, art is worth more than history.”
In fact, it’s worth more than almost anything: In May, a Warhol painting of Marilyn Monroe sold for $195 million, the most ever paid at auction for a work by an American artist. But back in 1979, Warhol proposed a trade of modern art for historic illustration: a complete set of his Monroe silk screens for a single Audubon avian print.
“Father wouldn’t do it,” Harry said. “He had no interest in that sort of thing.” And he apparently had little patience with Warhol, who once showed up at the shop in a revealing pair of ripped shorts. “My father almost threw him out.”
Today, the shop offers prints for all sorts of budgets, from a 2005 black-and-white etching of Midtown building ads for $75 to an 1894 color drypoint print by Mary Cassatt for $325,000.
The days of panning for gold in barns and tag sales are long gone. Buying and selling have migrated online. And “Antiques Roadshow” aside, the consumer appetite for anything that came before midcentury modern has slumped. “Antique has become a dirty word,” Robert said.
Still, the Newmans have been in business long enough to believe that will change. They already see it in their own family, where a fourth generation is fascinated by the past. Robert’s son, Brian, 39, works in the shop. Harry’s son, Scott, 23, spent the summer between college semesters helping with the move.
During a lull in the packing, Scott and his uncle paused to admire a wall-size map of New York City commissioned by the British government in 1766 (and now priced at $325,000). Their conversation rolled back in time, from Revolutionary War strategy to the burning of the Library of Alexandria to the fall of ancient Carthage and beyond. Against the swell of history in the room, the future felt like a footnote.