Dean F. Failey, Antiques Expert

Oct. 6, 1947 - May 19, 2015
Dean F. Failey, Oct. 6, 1947 - May 19, 2015

Dean F. Failey, who was the East Hampton Historical Society’s first fulltime director and went on to national prominence as an expert on antiquities for Christie’s Auction House in Manhattan and “Antiques Roadshow” on television, died at home in East Northport on May 19. He was 67 and had a heart attack in his sleep, his family said.

Mr. Failey was the author of “Long Island Is My Nation: The Decorative Arts and Craftsmen 1640-1830,” which Richard Barons, the director of the East Hampton Historical Society, described as “practically the bible” for collectors of Long Island antiques.

Besides deep knowledge of his field, Mr. Barons recalled Mr. Failey as a man of humor and “amazing enthusiasm for American arts. He could look at a chair and tell you within six miles where it was made.”

Mr. Failey’s book was published in 1976 by the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Anti­quities, for which he had been a curator. The East Hampton Historical Society initially hired him in 1978 on a part-time basis, but asked him to stay on as full-time director within a matter of months. He arrived in East Hampton in time to manage a large collection of local antiques donated by the John Hall Wheelock family. Mr. Failey left the East Hampton post in August of 1979 for Christie’s, where he was senior vice president of American arts for many years and became a consultant to the firm after retirement.

Robert Hefner, the East Hampton Village director of historic services, who assisted Mr. Failey with research for “Long Island Is My Nation,” said his friend became an expert on the work of the Dominy craftsmen of East Hampton and had been instrumental in obtaining their tools for the society.

Marie Failey, who survives, said her husband relished appraising antiques, enjoyed the fast pace of auctioneering, and found it exhilarating to manage the sale of items at record prices. A desk and bookcase, for example, which he helped secure for Christies, sold in 1989 for $12.1 million.

“I was sorry we couldn’t keep him longer,” said Robert Osborne, a trustee emeritus of the East Hampton Historical Society, who recalled Mr. Failey as a pleasant man who “always had a big smile on his face.”

Joy Lewis of Sag Harbor spoke of a long friendship with Mr. Failey, calling him a scholar whose demeanor was like the “boy next door.” She also said he played the baritone horn and was a world-class gardener.

Mr. Failey, a recipient of the Antiques Dealers Association of America 2007 Merit Award, was born on Oct. 6, 1947, in Huntington and grew up in East Northport, the son of Harold Arthur Failey and the former Maurine Tiivola. He graduated from Northport High School and Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Meeting the curator of decorative arts at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Mrs. Failey said, he became so intrigued that he asked how one got into the field. A fellowship to study for a master’s degree at the University of Delaware’s Winterthur Museum followed, where his thesis was on the Southampton silversmith Elias Pelletreau.

   He was hired after graduation by the Bayou Bend Collection of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. He and the former Marie Whitty met there and were married in 1973. They moved to Long Island in 1974 when he became the curator of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities for five years.

Mr. Failey was buried on Friday at Genola Rural Cemetery in East Northport after a service at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church there. In addition to his wife, he is survived by his mother, a son, Dr. Colin Failey of Bernardsville, N.J., a daughter, Brooke Prestano of East Northport, a sister, Dawn Hutchison of Runnels, Iowa, and four grandchildren. He also is survived by Vladimir Sismov of Boston, who had become a second son when he lived with the family as an exchange student from Macedonia.

The family suggested memorial contributions to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, 129 Vernon Valley Road, East Northport 11731, the Archives Building of Huntington Historical Society, 209 Main Street, Huntington 11743, or the Northport Community Band, c/o Donald Sherman, director, 34 Clarke Drive, East Northport 11731.