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Antiques Dealer Vito Giallo, Who Worked for Andy Warhol, Unearths His Gems

The body of the stone dealer had been decaying for several weeks by the time it was found in an Upper West Side apartment. It was hot and the smell of decay was so strong that Stanley, the building’s supervisor, was ordered to remove everything from the unit. Stanley believed he could make some money from the man’s antique furniture so he called Wally Gibbs an antiques dealer who called Vito Giallo, his peer, for an appraisal.

This story was told by Mr. Giallo at 91 during an interview at his Brooklyn home.

Here’s what he found: A table, a dresser and a desk in the apartment of the deceased man. Although the city tried to locate the relatives of the deceased, it was unsuccessful. There were no heirs.

At first Mr. Giallo was skeptical that any of the items would be sold at his antique shop on the Upper East Side. He gasped when he saw the tiny trunk. He said that the trunk contained thousands of gems. These included amethysts and rubies, emeralds and topaz as well as moonstones. They were almost every type of precious or semiprecious gemstone, except diamonds. He said they were sized from “pinhead” to “thumbnail” and stored in hundreds of disintegrating envelopes. The man had lived off the stones for his entire life until Mr. Giallo saw the stack of checks.

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“I don’t know anything about him,” Mr. Giallo said. “Absolutely nothing. “I don’t even know if there was a business that was open to the public.” The super couldn’t believe the stones existed, so he said to Mr. Giallo that they could be kept. Stanley was also in luck and Mr. Giallo couldn’t believe his luck.

Andy Warhol was one of the few customers he sold a few stones. For the past five decades, the majority of the gems were kept in a storage facility. Tara Marrale, the founder of sustainability start-up Grooted, suggested that Mr. Giallo put them to good use during the pandemic. They approached an established jeweler about collaborating on a line cocktail rings, necklaces, and earrings.

In 1969 Mr. Giallo was given a trunk containing gems found in an apartment of a deceased man. Todd Heisler/The New York Times

“I must have looked through 20 or more jewelers,” Ms. Marrale (33), said before reaching out Catbird, a Brooklyn brand that has stores in Williamsburg, and SoHo, which uses recycled stones in its designs. She wrote an email explaining that Mr. Giallo was an antiques dealer to “the who’s who”, including Elton John and Greta Garbo. He also “put on Andy Warhol’s first show in 1954.”

“This might seem like a crazy idea,” Ms. Marrale wrote. She was preparing for the possibility that Catbird’s team wouldn’t be happy with her pitch. They did .

The brand’s executives were entertained by stories from Mr. Giallo about New York’s midcentury art scene. Leigh Batnick Plessner (creative director at Catbird) received a copy his unpublished memoir. It traces his serendipitous journey to Madison Avenue.

Ms. Plessner stated that “His New York,” as he said in his memoir, was a city that had vanished.” This is a city that nobody cared about being famous for more than 15 minutes, at least not yet.

Mr. Giallo was born in Brewster in N.Y. He said that his father, a bootlegger, operated 19 stills in various associates’ homes. “We had to be careful with the phone. It was always tapped,” Mr. Giallo stated. We couldn’t tell where he was. He would say “Put the water to boil” when he was ready for home. His father had taped several $100 bills to Vito’s body at age 12 and told him to send them via train to a relative. The F.B.I. His father said that he was watching the house.

After winning an illustration contest scholarship, Mr. Giallo made the move to New York at 19 to study at Franklin School of Professional Arts. Ebby Weaver would be his life partner for 51 years.

He illustrated for “Mad Men”, a style of ad agencies like Young & Rubicam or J. Walter Thompson after completing his degree. At the age of 23, Giallo opened Loft Gallery in the Jack Wolfgang Beck’s studio. Mr. Giallo stated, “By word-of-mouth, it leaked that they were looking for artists” Nathan Gluck, a friend, connected the gallery with Andy Warhol (a young artist) who contributed an origami collection to the first group exhibition.

“It was Andy’s first show,” Mr. Giallo stated. Mr. Warhol’s origami would not stay attached to the wall. Pieces fell like snowflakes every few seconds. Mr. Giallo said that the artist once told him to “just leave it on the ground and let people walk around it.” He had a solution for every problem, and he always found a way to do it.

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Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Mr. Warhol invited Mr. Giallo within a year to become his first paid assistant. He worked out of Mr. Giallo’s East 34th Street railroad apartment, which he shared with his mother. (Mr. Giallo lived one block away in a two-bedroom apartment that he and Mr. Weaver rented for $85 per month from Bert Carpenter. This was an art professor at Columbia. Mr. Warhol and Mr. Giallo worked together on much of Warhol’s early work, except for the ” shoe drawings“.

While Mr. Warhol sketched with a pen on his knee, Mr. Giallo used the light box to create blotted lines. His mother prepared sandwiches and Campbell’s tomato soup for lunch and did the lettering.

They went out at night. Mr. Giallo stated, “I didn’t like wild parties.” Andy loved them. Everyone wanted to meet him. They were disappointed to find out that he didn’t speak any words when they finally met him. He rarely spoke.” Mr. Giallo prefers jazz and quartet shows, such as Ella Fitzgerald’s, Billie Holiday’s, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, and Ray Charles. These tickets cost only a few dollars each. Although Mr. Giallo claims he has never attempted to sneak in, it was very easy.

He said that people could have the best meal of the life for as little as $1.85 in the 1950s. Then, they would walk into Lord & Taylor and ask for a reference for “a light guy.” Alexander Calder was their best friend. Mr. Giallo stated, “It was much more fun.” “You could easily sleep in Central Park and not be in danger. Many people did this on extremely hot days.

After a disagreement between the two, Mr. Giallo quit working for Mr. Warhol’s in 1957. His replacement was Mr. Gluck who became Mr. Warhol’s most important assistant. His first antiques shop was opened on Third Avenue by Mr. Giallo in 1961. He attracted a large clientele from Abstract Expressionist painters like Lee Krasner, Franz Kline, and Mark Rothko. “When they bought something I delivered it to Rothko’s apartment, which is just around the corner,” Mr. Giallo stated.

Mary Gabriel, an art historian noted that these artists were often open to welcoming strangers into their spaces. She said that if you wanted to see the work of an artist, you would visit their studio and talk to them. “It hurts me to think that people can look at a 10-foot painting online.”

After Mr. Giallo had moved his store to Madison Avenue in the 1970s, Mr. Warhol stopped by and said, “Wow, you must have been on Easy Street.” He loved the idea of me being on Madison Avenue. He came back every day for the eight years that followed.

After their reconciliation, Mr. Giallo informed Mr. Warhol of the trunk of gems and offered to buy some for his upcoming venture into jewelry design. “He looked at one of the 35-40 stones and said, “I’ll take all of them.” But Warhol died from complications after surgery and the gems were sold at his estate sale for approximately $10,000 in 1988, according to Sotheby’s.

It is fitting that Warhols gems ended at a Sotheby’s estate sale. For most of his career Mr. Giallo bought his wares there every Sunday. He was such an avid buyer, that Sotheby’s guards gave him keys to unlock display cases so he could examine pieces like Art Deco jewelry boxes or porcelain tableware.

Kevin Tierney, a Sotheby’s silver specialist and who joined the house in 1964, said that Vito was “a pro in between $50 and $5,000.” He described Mr. Giallo to be “a charming individual with a keen eye on quality and style, quick at offering a friendly discount for young employees at Sotheby’s.”

Giallo described his buying approach as instinctual. “When I see something I am interested in, it is a vibration you feel with the item. He said that it was difficult to explain. It’s hard to explain where it is, who it belongs to, and why. You just wonder about all that. That feeling is what I love. It gives me a thrill to touch something two- or three hundred years old.”

Limited-edition pieces of the Catbird collection Vito’s Gems include an aquamarine cocktail band, lapis earrings and pink tourmaline cocktail rings.

Sotheby’s appraisers often underestimate the value of an item and Mr. Giallo would purchase it for a mere dollar. He said, “I bought so many crystal chandeliers as glass,” He said, “They made big, huge mistakes on rock crystal.” One time, he purchased a $100 silver whiskey glass that turned out be solid gold. “A lot of things get lost at auction. This is one of the reasons I go every two weeks.

He would often go on weekend trips with Mr. Weaver (an interior designer) to visit sales outside of the city. He once bought a Chinese drinking vessel from China made of pottery from Han dynasty at a roadside store. It was later sold for $1500.

He said, “When you have a lot of them, you start to get excited about antiques.” He said, “You just want to find the one treasure.” His greatest success came at a Connecticut estate sale where he bought a $12 watercolor painting depicting a pastoral scene. It turned out to be a Charles Demuth. It was sold at auction for $180,000.

“An object that I believe is worth buying, it somehow speaks to me,” said Mr. Giallo. “You must be curious about everything.”

This trait is more evident than anywhere else, including on the walls and surfaces in Mr. Giallo’s apartment. It is easy to feel overwhelmed at first by the volume of blink-and-you-miss-it marvels, including a narwhal tusk, a rectangular meteorite chunk and Italian paintings from the 18th century, as well as works by Warhol, Matisse and Picasso.

At first, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the amount of art and objects found in Mr. Giallo’s apartment.

Ms. Marrale is Mr. Giallo’s grandniece through marriage and helped broker the Catbird collaboration. She lives in an apartment upstairs with her husband Jonathan Marrale. She has been helping Mr. Giallo to organize his collections. “You think that you’re going down for five minutes,” Mr. Marrale stated. “But he is so fascinating that you are there for two hours and it feels as if nothing has happened.”

Before the pandemic, Mr. Giallo spent every morning at the café across the street. He would order coffee and a pastry, then sit down and begin talking to strangers. Ms. Marrale stated, “It was something for him.” He really digs in.”

Ms. Plessner of Catbird has enjoyed asking Mr. Giallo questions about her art heroes like Frank O’Hara. He said that Mr. Giallo had only met him briefly, but that he was “very dear friends” with another poet. “Have yo heard of John Ashbery?”

M. Giallo is an introvert despite his many successes. When Ms. Marrale suggested the jewelry line, Giallo replied, “Why would people want to?”

She told him, “Because your amazing story is incredible.” “Like, it’s not like a normal life.

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