An Antique Dealer's Blog: Looking at English Furniture
Leaving Bhutan was, for me at least, an emotional experience akin to walking away from a friend that you knew you were unlikely to see again. The memories—the endless prayer flags, the Bhutanese people, the yaks in the mist, the dogs that were everywhere and barked endlessly at night—to name just a few, will last a life time. When you are leaving, you would like to see just one more emblematic aspect of this wonderful country to remember it by as if you haven’t quite had your fill. Bhutan will remain with me always, but I sure would like to return.
And, of course, we were leaving other things behind. The physical camaraderie of our group would be broken, as it had to be. We were also leaving behind our wonderful Bhutanese guides and our leader, Zach, and our river guide, Doug—they were off to kayak rivers only accessible by horse. (All the companies rafting in Bhutan are asked to look for vehicles that have fallen off the sides of mountains—just in case. Glad I didn’t know that fact on our foggy night drive.) The comfort of being looked after and catered to was also a thing of the past.
I don’t dwell on sentiment, but as our plane ascended in the clouds, I felt this sense of loss and yet I could not stop smiling. It was a fabulous time and I only wish that I could sell something from Bhutan in my gallery so I could return on a regular basis. (Believe me, I looked hard at all the artwork, carving, etc., but it was just not right for my gallery.) Bhutan seemed so unspoiled and protected by the seemingly eternal conflicts that beset the rest of the world. I hope that Edenic quality will endure and give someone else the pleasure that I so enjoyed. Shangri-La indeed!
Our penultimate morning was, again, bright and sunny and we loaded into our buses for the journey to the starting point for the climb up to Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Paro Taktsang). The starting point for the climb is at an altitude of roughly 6,500 feet and the monastery is at roughly 10,000 feet. In other words it is quite a climb and I am very happy that we did not try it on our first day. As it was, when we were on the Paro Chhu on the first day of rafting, I had a moment of dizziness and disorientation that lasted for about twenty minutes which I attributed to the altitude. By the last day, my lungs were used to the altitude, but my leg muscles were not. Fortunately, there is a halfway point where you can rest and have a cup of tea.
There was a woman having tea, she must have been well into her seventies possibly even older, who had climbed halfway and chosen to stop. This was her second visit to Bhutan and she had been to the monastery before and chose to relax and gaze on it from the privileged few of the halfway house. That she had made halfway was quite a feat and she well knew that you do not climb directly up to the monastery, but instead climb high on one peak and then descend 400 feet or so and then climb up to the monastery. It is hard, but because it rests on this second peak, you always have a view of it as you climb and it is just stunning, clinging to the cliff in ways you don’t really want to figure out, particularly when you are walking around inside it. And, there is the spectre of prayer flags draped from one impossible peak to another. Another breathtaking sight in Bhutan.
I forgot that we would be entering a monastery and so only wore shorts. Fortunately, Anne Harris had a pair of pants and gave me her tights which made the bottom half of my body feel like a sausage, or what I think a sausage must feel like. There must have been four or five separate rooms to visit in the monastery and it was extremely cold on the feet—the air up there was cool and the heat we had generated in climbing evaporated forthwith. Furthermore there is no ergonomic standard to these old buildings (1692) so it is easy to stumble on an odd sized step if you are not careful, and very tiring to be looking out for such anomalies. One of our group, Corinne, was two months off a knee operation and managing so I could hardly complain.
Lunch at the halfway house, back to chicken and rice, allowed me to ditch the tights. Our descent was uneventful and running the gauntlet of vendors at the bottom of the walk was vaguely stressful. You wanted to buy something, but the suitcases were full and I was running out of ngultrum, the Bhutanese currency. Also, we had an hour and a half hot rock sauna at the hotel that I knew we had to pay for so I passed them by. After the hot rocks, I found that my cousin Peter was having a fancy dress party with all the men who had purchased ghos (the male dress of Bhutan which is required for every Bhutanese who wishes to enter dzongs or monasteries) attempting to learn how to put them on. This is another little mystery of Bhutan. Alexander might have dealt with the Gordian knot, but donning a gho, I can assure you, would have been beyond him.
Our last dinner together, another table for 20 magically in place, was punctuated by toasts from just about every one of us. It was an extraordinarily enjoyable group of people to share Bhutan with and the party that came to pass after dinner expressed this as well as any of the parties we had in the span of eight days, so much so that we had Bhutanese, British, German and other Americans singing and dancing along with us to celebrate. As vacations go, it was absolutely sensational and not just because I was in Shangri-La, but because I was in Shangri-La with people that I enjoyed sharing Shangri-La with and furthermore, it came about without being planned—it just happened. Makes you want to believe for a second or two.
The fog of the Phobjikha Valley was a thing of the past as Thimpu was bright and sunny. A relaxed day began with a visit to a craft center where they taught carving, sculpture, weaving and painting. It was fascinating as they were all working on religious based themes. The wood carving is well executed and very tight, but any interpretation by the carver is de minimis. This was equally true of the weavers, sculptors and painters as tradition trumps individual expression. I find an appreciation for the work that is being done, but not great excitement at what is being created. As my brother, David, remarked, however, anyone who has been through such training will know how to paint, sculpt, weave or carve.
A craft shop by the school was packed with tourists buying all sorts of things and from there, Anne, David, Susie and I went on to the Taj hotel of Thimpu for lunch. It is located in a new building which I understand caused some concern as architectural standards are very strict in Bhutan. The Taj is both large and tall, but done in the traditional Bhutanese style with a very mildly peaked roof as all roofs in Bhutan are. I don’t know what the controversy may have been about, but I will say that the food was excellent. It was tempting to have a hot rock bath and a massage, but our lunch lasted so long that we didn’t have enough time to fit it in and make our next event.
The Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) runs tournaments all over the world. In Asia, it is the King’s Cup which dominates the schedule and we were lucky enough to be in Thimpu for a match between a Bhutanand Thai teams. Our entire group went and looked totally out of place in our North Face and Patagonia jackets. We tried out a few cheers (Ole, ole) and moves (the wave) which firmly cemented us as an attraction at the match. Interestingly, we found that the Bhutanese applauded Thai goals (there were 5) because they thought it polite. We, however, never got to do the wave as Bhutan went scoreless.
The only food that would suffice after a sports event was pizza and beer and Thimpu hosts at least one very good pizzeria. (What is truly miraculous is how every restaurant and every bar that we went to had a table set for twenty.) Eating in Thimpu meant that we would not arrive at our next destination, Paro, until quite late, but it was our first western style food—no rice—in a week. The bus ride, at least compared to the previous day, was a short two and a half hours, although there is a section by the Paro airport that is kidney shaking and clearly woke everyone up for the last half hour of the journey. Our Bhutan journey was just about over with only one full day left.
The Valley of the Black Necked Cranes is one of three areas in Bhutan where the Black Necked Crane winters. It is hardly tropical, but I presume the crane doesn’t mind the snow and cold temperatures it faces and is always able to find daily sustenance and quiet ground, without predators, in which to breed. To enable tourists to see the cranes, there is a visitors center that has a number of telescopes set up for long distance watching. It feels a little removed, but then if we were allowed to get close to the cranes, they would hardly stick around. The center also had a film and lots of information about the cranes movement, the most daunting being that there were 25 less this year than last. I feel very lucky to have seen Sandhill, Whooping and Black Necked cranes in the last four years. Long may they fly.
Susan held a yoga session in a local school and those of us that sat it out tried sleeping in the bus. When this proved futile, Zach led us up to the dzong that overlooked the valley and which the cranes circle three times before flying up over the Himalayas and into what used to be called Tibet. As you can imagine, the crane imagery in the temple stood out from other monasteries. What I most enjoyed was the lack of fresh paint on many of the wall surfaces, so rare for these religious and maintenance obsessed people, giving an aura of slightly dilapidated grace and making the surfaces far more interesting to gaze on. It is hard to take the antique dealer out of me at the best of times. Some might find it tedious, but I find the aesthetics of what has borne the hand of time that much more intriguing.
After the rest of the group had joined us and the dzong was ensconced in our memories, it was time for the very long ride back to Thimpu. This required our fabulous drivers to go over two mountain passes. I secured a seat for Anne and myself behind the driver and we were off. The roads in Bhutan, as I have mentioned, are not super highways. Indeed, the roads in Bhutan are under constant construction. And the construction is all done by hand. Laborers from India are given an 80 day visa and they come to the country to work, sometimes pounding rock, building walls, digging trenches. The pace is slow and I would suspect that people who visit the country annually might have a hard time distinguishing newly made highway. Might be a little wider, might be a tad smoother, but it will never, at least not in my lifetime, be fast.
Since we were returning on the same roads we came out on, we all knew what to expect. Delays are the rule, particularly when you have situations like the one we had where a truck with two long tree trunks—50 feet at least, twenty of which hung over the back—slowly crept along the road. No driver in Bhutan backs down, they all go forward and often it is the barest of margins, less than two inches, which allows the drivers to pass one another. Surprisingly, we saw very few accidents although the one we did see was a complete total. It is driving for the patient minded, hot rodders need not apply. But what really shook us, particularly those of us who could see out the front windshield, was the total fog that our driver flawlessly coped with. Trina, and this is my favorite moment of the trip, was transfixed as she sat in the co-pilot’s seat. “Don’t talk to me”, she would say to anyone addressing her, “I’m driving”.
It truly felt that way and I have to say that the sense of helplessness Trina and I felt was equally evident in Anne and Richard, across the aisle from me. The last bad fog I drove in was in England on the M1 in 1971—there is nothing more scary since not only are you unable to see anything, but no one else can either. The legendary pile-ups on the M1 are just that and periodically there are reminders of that past as people refuse to learn caution. In Bhutan, there were three things that scared me, the abyss down the mountain on the side of the road, oncoming cars that couldn’t see anything and drivers who felt that they were in a rush and had to pass us. But our driver, who I gladly would have given a medal, proved far steadier than his four hysterical co-pilots. What was truly unbelievable was the party that was happening in the rear of the bus. They had no idea! We lived to tell the tale obviously, but I felt no greater relief than arriving in Thimpu.
I am not sure whether we did the Mho Chhu or the Pho Chhu first, but our last day of rafting was similar to the previous day where we rafted to just beyond the Punakha Dzong. The difference was that we started by visiting the dzong which, as I said yesterday, was one of the most opulent we were to see, and which clearly was the pride and joy of the Punakha area. The previous evening we had seen it all lit up, not unlike a Loire Chateau, which it certainly rivaled in splendor. The interior was equally impressive and beautifully maintained, but then most dzongs were well maintained. The concept of wear and aging which I happen to love, particularly in regards to color, is not esteemed by the Bhutanese.
From the dzong, we started walking up the river and I have to say that I was particularly impressed by my sister-in-law’s taxonomic abilities when it comes to flora. I used to know trees, but I was a one noter in that regard—I didn’t know shrubs or flowers—but Susie was figuring out all sorts of plants. My mother had that forte and it was always impressive. As it is, Bhutan is not that far from the one of the great epicenters on the planet for biological diversity in southwest China and that diversity is no less apparent in Bhutan. It helps that the range is from the sub-tropical to mountain grasslands. Few botanists would be bored in Bhutan.
Our rafting, the last day of it, was not unlike that of the previous day and really good fun. I felt far more secure in my paddling, possibly because it was easier, but I was also making progress. We ended up at a beach just below the dzong where another al fresco meal was waiting. All the men in the group were cajoled into going swimming, a pain for someone who wears hearing aids as I do, but I eventually flung myself into the river waters with the rest of the group. (It also gave the women a chance to change out of rafting clothes in the buses.) Any water below sixty degrees Fahrenheit is cold and this was well below sixty, but machismo lives, even in a bunch of old guys, and no one groused. We shivered, however.
Our afternoon bus ride was going to take us over another pass to the Valley of the Black Neck Cranes in Phobjikha (which I pronounced, rightly or wrongly, pa- cheek-a). The road was not dissimilar to the one up the previous pass we had taken, switchbacks being the rule, not the exception. It was long but we were amply rewarded as the buses stopped at the top of the pass where we unloaded to see the local yaks, not that they would have been imported. Yaks are a little territorial and we were given a short and effective rhyme. Yaks attack, stay back. We did and again, we had a nice downhill walk of several miles to loosen the legs, mine stiff with yoga excess, before we piled into the bus again and made our hotel.
It was clear that we had not come down nearly as far as we climbed as we were surrounded by mist, which I suspected was cloud, even when we arrived at our hotel, one of the nicest we stayed at on the entire visit. It had an alpine feel to it with lots of raw, unfinished wood everywhere. The dinner, where I found my favorite Bhutan dish, tofu in curry, was excellent and, before we knew it, we had the entire dining room singing along with us. (That resourceful fellow, Richard, seemed to know the words to a vast array of songs.) We wondered if it might have been a defensive reaction on the part of the other guests to sing along, they didn’t stand a chance at conversation, but no bar fights ensued and everyone was smiling. It is hard not to in Bhutan.
The next two days were to be based around rafting, which made the wardrobe choices difficult. In starting the third day, we had to be prepared to hike, raft and visit monasteries. Monasteries required long sleeves and trousers, hiking just a pair of shorts and a short sleeved shirt (it gets hot going uphill all the time where the monasteries prefer to locate themselves) and then rafting clothes which were guaranteed to get wet. Sounds simple, but when the sun goes behind clouds, it feels cold and, even though you are paddling, you will get cold once you got drenched in the boat.
In essence, we were going to raft the Mho Chhu and Pho Chhu (Bryan, I need you and your notes here with me) or the mother and father rivers which joined at one of the more impressive and opulent dzongs (Punakha Dzong) that we were to see on the whole of the trip. Again, the water was beautiful and, for the first time, we started to see some bird life including cormorants, ducks and the odd kingfisher. Fishing is outlawed in Bhutan, although one of our kayak guides did find some fishing line which had hooked two fish and which were dead. That is very unusual for Bhutan as the respect that they show for Buddhism and non-violence is immense.
The rafting was not quite as exciting as that of the first day, but it certainly was fun. We were given the choice to walk the first mile and meet at a monastery or raft and meet at the monastery. I rafted and got behind another experienced rafter, Darrell, making my paddling thoughtlessly easy. We were at the first monastery quite quickly, well before the hikers, and so started the hike through rice fields and then a reasonably long ascent to a monastery overlooking the river. The view was, dare I say it, breathtaking, but then most of the views in Bhutan are breathtaking.
This is where yoga caught up with me. Susan corralled me and I found myself almost dead center of the group by a quirk of fate. I should have had the smarts to just move away, but instead labored, as I haven’t labored in quite a while, to keep up. My muscles were turned to jelly and the descent was a loose lope characterized by nonchalance engendered by muscle fatigue. That core of mine needs work, I know, but this was a holiday. It started to be a holiday again when we sat down to an al fresco lunch and I quickly inhaled a Druk 1100 beer to steady myself. Alcohol is occasionally the perfect palliative.
The afternoon’s rafting was not unlike the morning with a great deal of pleasant sight seeing with an occasional person shouting hi as we rolled along. English is the lingua franca of Bhutan as there are sixteen dialects and I suppose, in order to suppress regionalism, it makes sense to just choose a language. So, as a matter of course, you will walk down a street and a seven year old will engage you in conversation. It is basic primer stuff but they love to engage and use what they know. Quite often at the end of a conversation, they will say, “thank you”. It is beyond charming.
Our group was regaled with a mini-concert by my young cousin, Jenner, who has a delivery that would warm any club owner’s heart. He truly connects with his audience. Whether it will translate beyond intimate venues is yet to be seen, but the charisma he showed with our small group made him a ready favorite. Nobody wanted to intrude once he got going although he pulled us all in as we discovered a few quality voices that had heretofore remained silent. There seemed to be no end to our ability to entertain ourselves. Makes for very smooth sailing.
Our second morning was just as bright and cheerful as the first. Yoga was again offered at 7 and Anne, my girlfriend and muralist extraordinaire, decided to go. To say that she was leveled by the experience would not be too far amiss and I realized that, sooner or later, I would be in the same boat. Yoga was going to catch up to me and I would probably be turned into jelly from fatigue and, before long, stiff from the lactic acids hardening around and through my muscles. Anne’s spark, something that never seemed to waver, was severely dimmed and to say that I trembled at my fate is under statement.
Our journey to Punakha, our next destination, was over a mountain pass of 11,500 feet. Zach wisely allowed us to go to the Ambient Café to enjoy a latte and some chocolate confections leading us to believe that the drive would not be that extreme. It wasn’t but it was long and it was hairpins or switchbacks that went on and on. All good things come to an end, however, and we reached the pass which had an extraordinary view of snow covered Himalayan mountains about 20 miles across the valley that stand 22,000 feet high, the highest in Bhutan. The beauty of the view cannot be overstated.
Like all prominent locations in Bhutan, there was a monastery at hand for the traveler. This one, and I wish I had stolen Bryan’s notes on this, a man who always had a pen and paper to hand to note names and location, was quite new. Indeed the arms room, for men only, sported a number of automatic rifles and grenades. All the surfaces were painted and decorated with traditional Bhutanese art that included gods surrounded by symbols, the four friends (elephant, hare, monkey and peacock or some variation thereof) were always present. But the presentations were never identical. I realized it would take me years to fully understand the whys and wherefores of such art.
Our descent was not dissimilar to our ascent and, riding in the back, I felt the brakes as they groaned again and again. (You don’t have to be a genius to know that there were lots of brake shops in Bhutan.) Furthermore the roads often narrowed to a single lane and you would occasionally see the odd boulder that had tumbled off the mountain to come to rest in the road. We were often passed by more nimble vehicles which was fine by me, only they often chose what seemed was the most inopportune moment to do so. Ever so slowly, the vegetation reverted away from the alpine to lowland flora and you knew that the ride would shortly be over.
Our intrepid leader wisely understood the value of walking for people who have been on buses for four to five hours and we were given a lovely walk across rice fields to the monastery of the Mad Monk. I am equally unversed in Buddhism as I am in Bhutanese art as applied to Buddhism, but it was very clear that the mad monk was extremely keen on phalluses. We passed house after house with painted phalluses and you could buy penis key chains if you so desired. I was surprised that they were circumcised as Bhupen, one of our guides, said that circumcision was not at all common. Little mysteries are everywhere in Bhutan.
The first morning in Bhutan was bright and sunny and the window of our room looked out over the Paro Valley. I was not quite up for 7AM yoga with Susan and so I went to breakfast, the meal that I quickly learned offered a western selection of offerings that usually included toast and eggs, cereal or oatmeal. This was to be our first rafting day and the puzzle was what to wear. Not being a rafter, my purchases for raft wear were shots in the dark. The chances of getting thoroughly soaked and not being near a change of clothes was my primary worry. The secondary worry was just not to catch a cold.
The two buses pulled up to the Paro Chhu (river) where three rafts and a pontoon rowing boat were inflated and waiting. Helmets, vests and paddles were laid out as well and we were set to go fairly quickly after a run through of just what to do when on the rafts when approaching white water and rocks or getting flipped out of the boat or watching someone else getting flipped out as well as paddle commands. It is easily learned, hard to make second nature. In less than a half hour, we were on the water as I found myself behind an experienced rafter, Juliet, making it far easier for me than trying to figure out whether I was to paddle forward or backwards.
The Paro Chhu is crystal clear with some deeper stretches, but also with a lot of white water. As it was my first white water experience (in a raft) I found myself very much in the moment. Remembering every detail is hard, but I would say that it was exciting as could be. Lunch was an al fresco buffet and we learned that the afternoon paddle was hard with a short portage and that we could, instead, do yoga at the base of the large sitting Buddha that is on a hill overlooking Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. I chose to raft and that is when the rafting got really fun. We hit some really great rapids and it was exhilarating. By the time we finished, we were cold and wet, but it hardly mattered as we had a beer and chocolate which helped a great deal.
We arrived in Thimpu at a nice five story hotel and had our first tequila party in Susan and Peter’s room. Peter, a first cousin who I have had little contact with in the last forty years, plays the mandolin and his son, Jenner, one of our river guides, plays it as well as any other stringed instrument related to the guitar. Their singing and playing melded the group with ease as we rollicked through a number of old standards and before we knew it, we were all dancing. A great day. http://www.nwrafting.com/
The approach to the Paro Airport in Bhutan requires weaving through some impressive mountains and so I was thankful for the sunny day and hoped that the pilot was not discomfitted by his passengers anxiety, which was palpable in the cheap seats. The landing turned out to be uneventful and the sixteen of us that had signed up for the “white water rafting and yoga in Bhutan” trip organized by North West Rafting Company, were relieved to arrive in the land that many call “Shangri-la”.
Bhutan is a country with a very distinct identity and character. Tourists are strictly controlled and are required to pay a daily fee for being in Bhutan ($250). The Bhutanese are open to western culture, and to some extent they embrace it, but there is also a distance between the Bhutanese and the rest of the world. The lack of incidental foreigners just hanging around separates Bhutan from almost every other culture on the planet. It is a place that enjoys welcoming tourists, but it also has an equal enjoyment in saying au revoir.
We were met by our tour leader and owner of NWRC, Zach Collier, at the airport with two buses with Bhutanese drivers and two Bhutanese guides, Bhupen and Dhiraj. We were piled into the buses after a quick loosening up session by Susan Fox, our yoga guru, and taken into the center of Paro to enjoy the festivities in progress to celebrate the fourth king’s 60th birthday. (That king abdicated in favor of his son and now has a passion for bicycling the roads of Bhutan.) The celebrations included dancing, singing, hanging about and archery. It was the archery that most captivated our attention as the archers shot arrows at a target about the size of a trash can lid from about 120 yards. When an archer hit the target, there were whoops and celebration and when he missed, there was taunting from the other team. Periodically, they would take a break and have a drink at the shed which was about half way between the two targets.
Needless to say, the taunts, although in Bhutanese, were clearly about an opponent’s ability to hit the broad side of a barn and if not that, something very close to it. From there we walked to the Rinpung Dzong (government building that also houses monasteries). It was uphill, not that far, but it felt like a hike, probably because we were at 6,500 feet of altitude and were only just getting used to the thin air. The dzongs were built as fortresses, not unlike castles, only with a separate building within the walls that would be equally difficult to breach should invaders get into the courtyard. And it was all painted and decorated with colorful and mannerist designs. And, of course, it housed at least one Buddhist monastery.
The food in Bhutan is not inspiring. Nothing is killed in Bhutan which means that all meat is imported from India. The quality of the butchering is de minimis and so if you are eating chicken, beware of bones. The rice is fine as are the vegetables and potatoes. It is a great chance to go vegan or vegetarian and, save for one or two meals, that is what I did. A visit to a monastery after lunch and then finally to our hotel which was far better than I expected, spacious with comfortable mattresses and very clean. It was my first day in Shangri-la and I have to say I was not disappointed. The company I used for this trip: http://www.nwrafting.com/
There was an interview with the geologist/historian, Naomi Oreskes, in the NY Times the other day. She has written a book of science fiction with Erik M. Conway about the collapse of the earth due to man’s use of, among other things, carbon based fuels. Part of her inspiration was due to the lack of concern for climate change and man’s role in exacerbating it and part to both the nonchalance and misinformation of the anti-climate change activists. She admits that she thought that climate change was the opinion of only some climate scientists, but found through her research that virtually all peer reviewed articles in scientific journals agree with the premise that man is responsible for climate change.
The biggest hindrance to selling English antique furniture is how people process the information that you give them. Clients of old cared about “pretty” furniture more than anything and the antiques trade did its best to supply them with such. Early collectors, on the other hand, understood antique furniture style and yet even they did not know if, for example, there were replaced legs or feet or if the piece was enhanced. Trying to explain these vicissitudes today makes the field seem complex and even incomprehensible. Who wants to buy something that, if it is not in its completely original state with Chippendale’s bill describing it, isn’t perfect? It is the question du jour in the trade.
Misinformation is designed to lead people away from the truth. When we are confronted by what we believe is a fact, as was Dr. Oreskes, she chose to question further. Oddly, Dr. Oreskes, found that the purveyors of the misinformation were doing it because they believed that capitalism would solve the problem. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case and the damage they have done has lent credence to the anti-climate change skeptics. That damage is almost insurmountable when it is endlessly repeated—so, too, with misinformation about English furniture. It is just considerably more dire when our ecosystems are at stake.
This has been an active week for English furniture in New York City. The International Show, also known as IFAADS, opened Thursday evening. Openings have become less and less serious at the Armory, and more and more cocktail parties. There is nothing wrong with this unless you are a dealer and you have people camping in front of your booth with hors d’oeuvres spilling around the entrance to your booth and possibly a real customer blocked from entering. In any case, the English furniture at the show is worth the price of admission. Like every show, there are many things worth looking at and a few that aren’t, but that is the way things are these days.
You often wonder just why it is that there a group of dealers whose love and dedication to what they sell hasn’t been enough to sustain them in business. You could say this is what has happened to Kentshire Antiques whose inventory, sadly, was sold at Sotheby’s last Saturday. Bob Israel and Fred Imberman are two of the principles of the firm and I have found myself at Laguardia at 11PM waiting for a flight to Maine with them on a very cold night which was even colder in Maine. After a short night in a motel near Portland, we were up and on the road by 7 reaching the auction house by 9. We spent a lot of money together. It was great fun.
The joy of buying and selling great items is something that few people who have not done so cannot comprehend. Of course, profit is always nice and sustains the passion, but it is the passion which sustains the business. We know and love English antique furniture and are supremely excited by finding that rare item which resonates with all the knowledge we have accumulated in the last 40 years. The dealers at IFAADS are no different nor are the ones that don’t do major shows. Their joy is in finding, saving, researching and resurrecting the past through objects. When people reduce the job to numbers, everything takes on a flatter less interesting dimension.
I hate to say it, but at the moment, numbers are what seem to count the most. People with money are reluctant to give profits to dealers because they see no added value. And, from time to time, particularly with certain types of dealers, there is no added value. Contemporary art is proselytized by many passionate buyers and sellers, but there are some dealers whose eyes never leave the bank balance and they make the process far less enjoyable. I am thinking of the Larry Gagosian, Ronald Perelman feud, a feud about money. Not about art.
Since I have subscribed to the New Yorker, I find that my book reading input has vastly diminished. That is, of course because of the quantity of material that is in the New Yorker. It is a densely packed magazine with excellent writing that is always a great read. What I like the most about it is that you get more than one side of a story—indeed you get many sides of the story.
The problem I have with the magazine, however, has to do with subject material. I always read the articles, no matter what they are about, but I find that I remember about one in ten of them. On a recent hour long train journey, I read about three articles and when I arrived, I realized that I didn’t remember one of them. It could be me, but when I mentioned this to my brother, he wholeheartedly agreed. The writing is worth reading, the subject of the writing often isn’t.
I suppose I ought to be more selective about which articles I choose to read. I certainly find that the editorial page of the NY Times is a little like “Ground Hog Day” as the writers tend to beat the same drum the same way on every editorial. You can’t fault them for that, but you can get tired of reading the same thing over and over. What’s the answer? Well, Russian literature has never let me down, I just have to be willing to dive in. Ocean swimming versus lake swimming.
I have visited a great many museums over the years and more often than not, I have to say that I am pleasantly surprised by what I see. That was true for the Toledo Museum in Ohio, the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, the Portland Art Museum in Maine and a host of others. But I have to say that I had almost forgotten the Philadelphia Museum of Art. What an error of omission! It is easily one of the finest museums I have (re-)visited in the last ten years.
The museum is probably best known these days for the “Rocky” steps, the steps leading up to the entrance that were pictured in the “Rocky” movie. The day I was there, a fellow ran up the steps and raised his arms in triumph at the top, a la Sylvester Stallone. The fact that he had an extra twenty-five pounds around the middle didn’t seem in the least ironic to him or his companions. As beneficial as the publicity has been for the museum, however, it hardly needs it. It is filled with wonderful things.
I steered towards the wing where the American decorative arts are located and was waylaid by some select drawings by Georgia O’Keeffe and Charles Demuth. From there to American furniture where this is some spectacular pieces by Thomas Affleck, the Philadelphia cabinetmaker that was among the greatest imports to Philadelphia in the 18th century. His work has been mistaken as being English because of the sophistication of his carving and his style (Chippendale) that he brought with him on emigration. His work is spectacular.
It is, however, the American fine arts that are really familiar to me and the galleries are lined with iconic works of art by America’s greatest artists. Charles Wilson Peale’s portrait of two of his sons, Raphael and Titian on a staircase, the last step of which is a real step making it, I suppose, a multi-media piece, is incredibly endearing. The whole room of Thomas Eakins paintings gives you a much broader definition of this artist than his famous paintings of pugilists. There is almost too much to mention.
It is English furniture that I went to see, however, and I particularly wanted to see the Thomas Johnston tripod torcheres. I look at the matching pair to the set in London at the Victoria and Albert and they remain one of the few items that, if I owned them, I would not sell. Easy to say, but to me they are priceless. There was, however, so much more including some wall brackets—again by Johnston—console, tables, a suite of carved mahogany furniture, and much more. I am leaving out the superlatives, but it is all crème de la crème.
Aging is, I believe, a function of re-discovery. Our initial introduction to things, particularly works of art be they decorative or fine, get redefined every time we see them. The re-definition may, in fact, be a downgrade, but in most cases I find even greater depth than I did the time before. The Johnston torcheres, for example, appear to me as the best examples of the mature rococo that I know of. They are furniture as art and as a philosophic expression. Shortly after their completion, there was a new style altogether which, in turn, reached a maturity and subsided. Visit Philly, it is a treat.
The belief that the world will end if we don’t take an action, almost any action, has come to be the norm for governments. It is a dangerous state as it forces everyone to think in black and white, good guy vs. bad guy. The harm that it can do is enormous and, if you think about such moments in history, they tend to lead to authoritarian rule. People in power make decisions that are based on instinct and if those instincts are wrong, oh boy.
This is what is happening on a layer of different levels in the US government. The ISIS threat has assumed massive importance and though it should not be ignored, I can’t believe in the omnipotence of their ability to sow mayhem. On a different level, but one that means a great deal to antique dealers, is the rhetoric surrounding the plight of the elephant. What has never been fully explained by anyone is how the banning of the sale of antique ivory will save the elephant.
Hysteria has a number of downsides. The worst of them is how it undermines the confidence of people who are working to solve a problem in a rational fashion. In essence, the cry of “wolf” is self defeating and liable to disillusion an important audience. This is how a number of dealers feel about non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the World Wildlife Fund, a terrific organization, but one that is not open to compromise.
Our globalized society has distinct opportunities to do good, but not if situations are hyped on emotions and instinct. Thoughtfulness can save both time and money and be far more effective in dealing with problems. The pundits that love to talk in a black and white fashion should not be given the platforms they have as they are not looking for dialogue, they are playing to an audience that wants to hear their kind of message. The hysteria epidemic is on us. We need to take it down a notch.
In the first year or two of “The Antiques Road Show”, the hugely popular PBS show that encourages people to bring in their treasures for valuing by “experts”, there was an episode in Seattle where a man brought in a highboy, I think it was from Connecticut or Massachusetts. It glistened like a new penny and the owner was clearly delighted with himself for the condition it was in. However, the expert informed him that, without the original finish, which the owner had stripped, the value of the high boy was far less, from a high of $100,000 to around $35,000.
I tell this story because the most important lesson that I learned at the London College of Furniture was to do as little as possible to a piece of furniture—don’t remove anything and make sure that whatever you may be adding is reversible. This is the philosophy behind all conservation and it is not an easy one to maintain. At times, conservation can seem like the opposite of restoration, at least in the minds of the customer. But philosophical conversion is easier when you relate the story of the man from Seattle. And that is where you are led when you focus on a subject—you develop an understanding and a philosophy which will be a large part of your life.
David Christian’s “Big History” demonstrates how history is whatever you want to make it, not in terms of re-writing it, of course, but as a porthole to engagement. You can stop off at any point in the history of the earth and be fascinated by the steps that led to us being here now and you can even try to glimpse the future as he does in his TED talk. I found the fascination of history by starting small and branching ever outwards into more and different areas that in some way related to the history of antique furniture. Frankly, I feel that I only skimmed the surface, that the potential for exploration into why things are the way they are is, well, limitless.