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The Antique Business District South of Union Square: Charles Cheriff Galleries, 84 University Place

Picture this: fleets of trucks trailing containers full of antiques from all over the world converging in a few dense square blocks. A crowd of dealers from all over the country descend upon the area to examine the merchandise and make their purchase at any of the dozens of antique establishments that were the trucks’ destination. This sight was a common occurrence South of Union Square during the second half of the 20th century, when the neighborhood was the antique center of the country. Even today, the area features about a dozen antique businesses. Very few of them, however, can claim to have lived through the transformation of the neighborhood and of the antique industry over the past hundred years. Charles Cheriff Galleries, 84 University Place (between 11th and 12th Streets) can. 

Charles Cheriff Wachman founded his gallery in 1924. He had immigrated from a town along the Russian-German border and, before opening a storefront, made a living going from house to house purchasing and reselling 19th century pieces of furniture and porcelain. Eventually, he teamed up with two other itinerant antique salesmen and launched a store on a side-street in the area. It was successful enough that, before long, the three amicably decided to part ways and open their own stores. It was then that Charles Cheriff opened at its current location, occupying the first floor and basement of the building. 

Charles Cheriff

Wachman maintained his 19th century focus at his new store, using his keen eye to locate high quality pieces that he would be able to resell at a profit. The success of the gallery depended on this skill. Its longevity, however, depended on the willingness and ability of subsequent generations to develop that expertise and on their interest in joining the family business. During WWII, Wachman’s daughter-in-law helped out at the store. After the war’s conclusion, his son Murray joined the gallery and started traveling six months out of the year to England and France to purchase antiques.

Murray Wachman

Business prospered during the post-war decades, and the gallery expanded its footprint to cover three floors. During this period, however, the prices of European antiques gradually increased, eventually leading the Wachmans to limit the range of their purchases. In order to maintain their emphasis on top quality works of the finest craftsmen and artists, they would henceforth only deal in 19th century French-style antiques: furniture, light fixtures, mirrors, pianos, porcelains, fireplaces, sculptures, chandeliers, and sconces — a focus that persists to this day. 

During the 1970s, the third Wachman generation joined the family business — Murray’s sons, Stephen and Alan. Alan describes what amounted to an apprenticeship period during his early years. Although already acquainted with the operation from coming in on Saturdays to do the books, he had yet to develop a discerning eye for the product. To do so, he and his brother would go to auction houses independently from each other and from their father, take copious notes on what they saw, and then compare their findings (he also, on occasion, learned from the mistake of overpaying). Beyond training a new generation in the family trade, the Wachmans made a momentous business decision during this period — they purchased their building. Alan puts it plainly: “if we paid rent, we wouldn’t be here.” Instead, the gallery is not only there today, but it now occupies seven floors. Additionally, it has been joined by a fourth Wachman generation, Alan’s son Jonathan. 

A sound business model, savvy decisions, and good fortune has allowed Charles Cheriff Galleries to avoid the fate of most of its peers. Ownership of the building allows the gallery to deal in volume at low prices. A dealer can find there what would otherwise require visits to three or four galleries. A competitor might have five chandeliers and depend on the sale of each of them. Charles Cheriff has 250, can afford to sit on them, and, when it sells them, can undersell anyone who rents their space. 

The attrition of antique businesses in the area has stemmed from a variety of factors. Rents, for those that rented, and lack of family members interested in taking over figure highly among them. Far from cheering the closing of competitors, the Wachmans lament the contraction of the district. They count the business owners who remain as friends within the already tightly knit community that is, even internationally, the antique dealer world. Their respective parents were friends with each other and, occasionally, even their respective grandparents. Together, these surviving businesses have witnessed, not just the transformation of the neighborhood, but also of their industry. 

The rise of e-commerce has had an enormous impact on the operation of Charles Cheriff Galleries. The wide availability of information about antiques on the market has facilitated the participation of many more potential buyers and increased their ranks. For the gallery, this means greater competition in the purchasing of items. It also, however, means a far larger pool of buyers. Before, most of the gallery’s customers consisted of dealers. Now, the vast majority of them consist of end-customers all over the world. 

The way of transacting business has also changed. Gone are the trips to markets in Paris (or to anywhere else). Gone also is most walk-in traffic. Deals are now struck remotely, often through long standing associates. The Wachmans miss the personal dealings and relationships that have given way to email correspondence. Nonetheless, they have not only weathered the transition but managed to thrive in the current business landscape. Their hard-earned reputation, far-reaching network, specialized expertise, and vast inventory has insulated the gallery against competitors and allowed it to remain one of the preeminent destinations for 19th century French antiques in the world. 

Alan Wachman, 3rd generation (of 4) at Charles Cheriff Galleries

This area South of Union Square’s status as the center of the antique industry is but one of many facets of this neighborhood’s unique and interrelated role as a center of art, booksellers, fashion, photography, piano-making, publishing, civil rights, remarkable architecture, and so much more. You can explore all these and more facets of the area’s rich history on our South of Union Square Map+Tours.

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