An Antique Dealer's Blog: Looking at English Furniture

Part II   What I was able to see in my new found passion were tangible objects still surviving today that directly related to and part of real history. But the London College of Furniture was nothing, if not thorough, about all that we should learn. We also had other courses to do with timber technology. In this class, we delved into botany, entomology, chemistry, hydrology, mycology—it was all on the table since all of these can affect furniture at some point or another. Of these, botany interested me the most in that I was fascinated why the primary show woods (surface timbers) in English furniture—oak, walnut and mahogany—became known to cabinet makers. Why not maple, teak, yew, sycamore, beech, elm, chestnut, etc.? </p> <p>The questions kept coming as you might imagine. The answers were not always logical, either. For example, the 18<sup>th</sup> century carvers were said to have preferred mahogany to walnut, but every carver I have talked to says that they are both good to carve. Apparently, thanks to the research of John Cross and Adam Bowett, the real reason for the switch to mahogany surfaced as being caused by stiff taxes being assessed on walnut from France. Economic theorists would enjoy the consequences of that action and would no doubt use it demonstrate the function of government overreach. In this case, it introduced an entire new timber to the English cabinetmaking world.</p> <p>There is more, of course, if you allow your mind to roam. There is the understanding of trade routes and the influences they had on taste. There is the history of tools and craft as well as the history of machinery and even metallurgy. All of these relate to the creation of furniture. Of particular interest to me was understanding the chemistry of finishes such as lacquer, varnish, paint, shellac, wax, and oil. Frankly, I realized after about ten years that it was the history of mankind and virtually all knowledge that I was studying, not just the history of furniture. To  put things in perspective,  I was doing the work that I could have done earlier, only now there was a context to it.


                                                               Part I

David Christian is an Anglo-American history professor teaching in Australia who decided that he would approach the teaching of history in a broader fashion, in a way that encompassed not just history but which would inevitably link history with all of the sciences and humanities. He called it “Big History” and he was extremely successful in converting at least one wealthy patron, the wealthiest as it happens, Bill Gates. You can see a short synopsis, 18 minutes, on Christian’s Ted talk, https://www.ted.com/talks/david_christian_big_history, which starts with the Big Bang and runs through to the present day.

When I attended the London College of Furniture in the early 1970’s I had no idea where it would lead me. I wasn’t sure of what I was getting into in the first place, I just knew that I wanted to get involved in life in London and that I might learn how to make furniture at the same time. It wasn’t long before I was turned off by the modern manufacturing process with its noisy and dangerous machines and was drawn to the antique restoration course, a small group of people whose commitment to the craft aspect of antiques was impressive. As I was new to craft and relatively inept at all aspects of restoration, I realized that I had to do more to catch up to what the course was about.

I started to catch up by going to the library and reading the books on furniture history. There was the legendary set of four volumes entitled, “The Age of Oak”, “The Age of Walnut”, “The Age of Mahogany” and “The Age of Satinwood” by Percy MacQuoid. There were also books by Herbert Cescinsky, R.W. Symonds and Ralph Edwards. All of a sudden, and not really putting a great deal of thought into what I was reading, I found myself immersed in English history. But the story of English history is the story of European history as well as American history, etc. In other words, I found myself looking at world history through the eyes of someone interested in furniture.

It seemed a bizarre turn of events as I had never taken any European history courses, I had in fact studiously ignored doing so. I remember not wanting to memorize dates and names and here I was learning about Catherine de Braganza from Portugal, Louis XIV and his defeat at the Battle of Blenheim, Catherine the Great, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, etc. But now I wanted to learn about them and that was, of course, the difference. I was involved in figuring out the pattern that led to how and why English furniture developed the way it did. It was political science that focused on the role of luxury design and its role as the enhancement of a monarch’s greatness.

Robert Morrissey is a good friend who is a dealer in St. Louis and has a penchant for understanding the history behind period decoration just as I do. He sent me a book that arrived yesterday called, “Richer Than Spices”, by Gertrude Z. Thomas, a book about how the exploration and trade with the Far East changed the decorative arts throughout the world. I could tell I was going to like the book the moment I started reading the prologue where Ms. Thomas explains that every object that we live with has a history and is a part of history, something that is very evident with antiques, but the treatise is true universally whether you own contemporary, Arts and Crafts, Nouveau or Deco or anything else.

In 1931, my grandfather needed a new car and my father remembers waiting for him and the new car in great anticipation. Instead of a Packard or a Buick, he rolled up in a Model A pickup truck. His heart, and those of his two brothers, sank. No wooing of dates with a fancy car. However, by 1954, Dad was a family man with a house and yard to look after and he also had to get to the train station every day. His father gave him the pickup and it became his station car and the car he used to drive to the dump on Saturdays to get rid of clippings, etc. I well remember him sticking his head into the kitchen asking, “does anyone want to take a trip to the dump”. I always went.

Last fall, my brother, David, had a party and as his property is large enough for running around in the pickup, he got it out of the garage and asked if I would give rides to anyone who wanted. The moment I sat in the front seat, floods of memories came back to me. I remember Dad taking the truck to Cooperstown with me and my oldest brother, Harry, and coasting down the long rolling hills of Route 20. I certainly remember going to the dump and the nonsense songs Dad sang en route. But, even more remarkable was the moment my niece’s husband sat in the car with his son, Edison, and his father, Ted, saying to his son, this is the car your great, great grandfather bought in 1931. Objects do have power.

You can find Robert at www.clarkgraves.com and the book can be found at http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?an=gertrude+z.+thomas&sts=t&tn=Richer+than+Spices

 

August is a month for eating tomatoes and corn and other things from the garden—if you have one. I don’t have one, but I used to and I have to admit that when those squash really started coming, they came at you fast and furious. A squash the size of your little finger in the morning would be the size of a banana by noon, a reasonably sized water balloon by evening and a phallic monster worthy of your favorite stallion by the next morning.

The antiques business is largely dormant in the summer, but one notable event has taken place affecting New York antique dealers this summer. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill into law banning the sale of ivory on Tuesday. I have to say of all the ill considered laws that I am aware of, this one is pretty stupid. How we are going to save the elephant by banning sales of antique ivory in New York State is beyond me. Yes, I want to save the elephant, but I really want to save the elephant. Think about it.

I don’t long for the end of summer. If we could stay stuck on August 15 for a month, I would be delighted, particularly as it is a really nice day in New York City today. We have had a very easy summer thusfar without too many really hot days. My son reports that London has been pretty nice and my daughter says that San Francisco has also been nice. Frankly, climate change, certainly a threat to mankind, has been beneficial this summer. Now that is something I wish our government would be proactive about.

There was an advertisement in the NY Times today for people who think that the legalization of pot is not a good idea. I can see why a lot of people feel that way. Pot is not an easy substance for everyone to control. But the ad, at one point, refers to it as habit forming. That is not true. Pot is not habit forming, but it can be a habit, and a bad one at that, it just isn’t habitual in the way that cigarettes are. Oops, that’s a mistake that they will be called out on.

The mischaracterization of an alleged fact seems endemic to this era. In an age where the internet allows us to check anything out, we go to sites that second our own point of view. I think this is absolutely fascinating in many ways. Critical thinking, something I remember studying in high school, has been abandoned since there is always someone who will state an untruth that backs up other untruths. Heartening to those living in alternate universes.

This might be called lying, but I am convinced that many people just don’t know the difference. It is as if at some point in our lives, we choose to be skeptical of some ideas, but not others. You see it on political broadcasts, you see it in Congress. Unfortunately, you see it in the fight to save the elephant as well as if anyone dealing in ivory is abetting the slaughter of elephants. Is there just too much (mis)information out there?

I read a review on PolitiFact the other day about a would be congressional representative running for office in Texas. She states that global warming is a hoax. PolitiFact makes short work of her criticisms as most are just the rehashing of other untruths found on the internet. What I find interesting is that denying the problem is easier than coming up with a solution. She’s just playing to her audience.  How sad given that our problems require thoughtful consideration.

The slaughter of elephants is also a knotty one. Coming down on those people who may have ivory artifacts that are old or antique is not the answer to saving the elephant. The attitude that endorses such a draconian “answer” is both lazy and intolerant. You want to tighten up the market? Come to those of us that know the market, know the true antique dealers and work with us. We will help. Too much work, I guess. Congress isn't the only slacker out there.

7/30/2014

I just finished reading, “The Swerve”, by Stephen Greenblatt, a story about the re-birth of humanism and an explanation of how the world became modern. The book won both a Pulitzer and National Book Award for non-fiction. I might add that it is a great read for a whole host of reasons, one of them being that the phrase in the Declaration of Independence about the “pursuit of happiness” has a source. That particular phrase sets America apart from all other nations in the world simply because happiness is such an opaque term and yet completely meaningful. As it happens, it comes from Lucretius’ didactic poem, “On the Nature of Things” (De Rerum Natura).

What did Lucretius mean by happiness? According to Greenblatt, it was the absence of fear in a metaphysical sense. Life for Lucretius, as well as for Epicurus, Lucretius’ philosophical teacher, was governed by gods. The gods needed appeasing in order to have a happy life. For Epicurus and Lucretius, the world was not governed by gods since it was made up of tiny little particles (atoms) that were constantly forming and reforming. If that was true, there were no gods. In the absence of gods, at least to Lucretius, there was a freedom of action. No gods would ever be displeased. Life could be lived by striving for happiness.

Greenblatt posits that the re-birth of humanism, which set the Renaissance in motion, was largely due to the re-finding of Lucretius’ manuscript by a former papal secretary, Poggio Bracciolini. Bracciolini did find the manuscript in a monastery in Germany, had it copied and forwarded it to Niccolo de Niccoli,  a like minded and wealthy patron of the arts in the circle of Cosimo de Medici. Whether Lucretius’ tract is entirely responsible for the modern era may be subject to critique, but it makes for a riveting story, particularly because we find that no other than Thomas Jefferson had four copies of “On the Nature of Things” when he died.

The New York Times had an article about reliable polling in the political realm yesterday (http://nyti.ms/1na5rUV ) stating that biased polls "employ dubious weighting and sampling practices." Of course the greatest poll blunder in the recent past was the one used by Mitt Romney, who believed he was going to win in 2012. But I have a beef with polls regarding issues as well.

The issue that I am interested in, the legality of antique ivory, is being affected by the slaughter of elephants. I am told that antique ivory generates a passion for more ivory, including newly poached ivory, as if owning ivory was an addiction. That is absurd. And yet polls conducted by conservationists, whose side I am, in fact, on, lean on such disinformation. Other than the fact that antique ivory comes from elephants, the slaughter has no relation to antique ivory. Any opinion poll, unless it is very clearly worded, will endorse the position that all ivory should be banned.

What is being lost when we rely on polls that are clearly of the moment and/or are being heavily influenced by some form of propaganda? To my mind, It is a bit like looking at a three dimensional problem through a one dimensional lens. In regard to antique ivory, there is a cultural relevance that is being ignored. It is odd that the Democrats, who are hot on the issue of banning ivory, don't see that in their haste to be politically correct that they are trampling on the culture of all mankind.

I don't think that the blindness that can be generated by weighted polls is the sole problem with the ivory issue. I also feel that politicians enter into arenas in which they are completely ignorant simply because of poll numbers. In other words, politicians looking for safe, vote getting issues, jump into areas about which they know nothing for the sake of positive publicity. This compounds the problem making any issue even more difficult to understand because it pits one side against the other and generates inane partisan debate.

Could things get more complicated? Yes, because the polling never stops. Numbers are used like bludgeons to score points.  Their reliability should be questioned. I am not talking solely about ivory at this point. This is our society. Clear, rational and moral action is set aside in favor of what a poll might say. This is not only absurd, it is pathetic. 

I was wondering about the value of polls the other day when it became clear to me that polling isn't a problem. The problem I perceive has to do with politicians who make decisions according to polls. This was made particularly clear by the email I read by one New York politician who claimed that 80% of New Yorkers wanted to ban ivory to save elephants and that passing such a law was a a slam dunk, no brainer thing to do. So much for having principles.

There are so many flaws to the construct of any poll. The foremost has to do with how a question is formatted. Then you might need to know how it was asked--by telephone, on the street, etc. The order of the questions has significance as well. Imagine the following three questions. Do you know that elephants are being killed for ivory? Do you want to see this stopped? Do you think the sale of all ivory should be banned? Once the first question has been posed, the answers to the second two questions are virtually a no brainer.

Governing by poll inevitably leads to mediocrity. Nuance is removed when someone is being guided by polls just as the inevitable answers to the three questions above ignores thousands of years of cultural development by focusing on one aspect of a crisis. Indeed, crises lend themselves to draconian measures, something all dictators have exploited through time in order to increase their control.

I would love to start a movement to get people to resist polling for a year, perhaps the year running up to the next presidential election. Let's hear what the candidates have to say without the benefit of a poll to guide them. I would love to know if they could figure out how to think, to run a course of thought to a conclusion based on their experience and brain power. This might just be too much to ask.

6/17/2014

I think about the function of museums all the time. What real purpose do they serve? The answer, of course, has to do with knowledge of the past. Or, at least I think that was the original function of museums. There might also have been an idea of presenting a picture of places that were far flung and remote to the average citizen. Is that function relevant today? I am not so sure, although perhaps it is for some museums. Certainly, you can go to the Metropolitan Museum, for example, and still have that experience, but today museums seem to want to present culture in a particular light, focusing on what they see as current and contemporary and worthy for our consideration. That is a responsibility and because it has been mishandled so many times in the past, museums are gun shy, in my opinion, about saying, “no”, even to some really strange ideas.

I just read John Banville’s novel, “The Sea”, a Mann Booker Prize winner that is a sensuous and vivid exploration of the past, specific times within the narrator’s life that he continues to try and grasp and come to terms with. Banville’s prose is poetic and painterly which heightens the confusion the narrator feels about these events. Clearly, the past needs interpretation as it can be read, and then read again, into almost any version that fits the psychological holes that need filling. Interpretation essentially becomes a function of necessity with the translation of events subtly changing. Inconvenient truths are possibly not remembered to enable the process. We don't know nor does it matter.

As I see it, the presentation of culture, any culture but particularly contemporary culture, to a museum audience is a tricky thing. Interpretation is necessarily involved and, as in Banville’s book, we know that interpretations change. I certainly don’t mind museums trying to do this. In fact, it is a relevant point of view, but it will almost always put a museum and its mission under close scrutiny, if not today, then in the future. This judgment will be necessarily focused on what and why museums have acquired the pieces they have--they are public trusts, after all. In some cases, I am quite certain, they will seem prescient, but in others—who knows? And is there any shame in being wrong? Not really because the mere fact that a museum, particularly large established museums, takes a stab at something will, in some way, give that idea credence. To my way of thinking, it is a rather peculiar state of affairs.

The Summer Exhibition of the Olympia Fine Arts Fair used to be one of the great events in London in the month of June. Olympia would open on the first Friday in June and then the Grosvenor House Fair would open the following Wednesday. It was a time when you could do some very good business, both buying and selling. But since the close of the Grosvenor House Fair five years ago and the opening of Masterpiece, which opens at the end of June, the incentive for attending Olympia, at least from my point of view, has vastly diminished.

The primary reason is that the fairs are now too far apart in date and of the two, I would rather see what is happening at Masterpiece. Masterpiece, having those dealers at the apex of the market, is what drives the market, not Olympia. This is a great regret as I have bought many wonderful items at Olympia over the years and, I have to say, that the level of knowledge of many of the Olympia dealers is such that they often uncover great and rare items. It was a great fair for visiting Americans in many, many ways with enough items available that you could be assured of getting something quite good.

The business has changed, of course, and there is less business happening all around. But I feel that the (bad) timing of Olympia is no different than the bad timing that auction houses, particularly in New York, have as well. I know that it is difficult for the houses to have French, English, American and continental sales as they did in the past, but the goods are now so diffuse that collectors are lost among all the catalogs they receive. Somehow, there needs to be a realignment of sales so that people who wish to buy can know when the items they are interested come up for sale.

It has been said that competition helps, not hinders a market. More sales of similar goods clustered together on a regular basis will only help the market. The only auction house doing the same thing they did fifteen years ago is Doyle Galleries and that regularity is, I would assert, one of the reasons why their sales have picked up over the last year. Sotheby’s and Christie’s, I suppose, feel that they have been slapped hard on the wrist for collusion and are chary of talking to each other about anything at all. I think that is a sad state of affairs although it is Olympia that I really miss, because there you were aiding and abetting the people in your own market when you bought something.

I read the latest Julian Barnes novel over the weekend, “The Sense of an Ending” in which he talks about how certain memories that seem so one dimensional actually have greater depth upon re-examination. This happened to me over the weekend as I remembered a gift from my mother on my graduation from college. The gift was three books on artists, two of which I remember, one on Louise Nevelson and the other on Isamu Noguchi, both sculptors. Noguchi was almost lost to my memory until I went to his museum this weekend in Queens.

The museum is great and so is a lot of Noguchi’s work. I particularly enjoyed the small number of drawings in one room that were done in Paris in the 1920’s when Noguchi was in his twenties. His sense of line and surface were extraordinarily fine, in my opinion, something that presages the work of his final years, at least as far as I can see. The space is Noguchi’s old studio and it has been cleverly  converted into a series of rooms that highlight different eras of Noguchi’s life. It is, for me at least, the first room that you walk into where you see the true power of Noguchi’s art.

The aging process clearly delineates an artist’s work. A chronological display will reveal the growth of both ability and vision of an artist. Some artists just continue to blossom finding new directions and refining their craft. Noguchi certainly did so as his work with stone morphed into a less is more aesthetic. A great deal more in my opinion as huge chunks of stone have small areas of textured surfaces, either polished or chiseled with the remainder left au naturel. The effect is very powerful. It reminds me of the Bob Seger line, “what to leave in, what to leave out.”

One thing I know about myself, however, is that I love surfaces. The attraction of English furniture is certainly in the design, but it is also in the surface. All wood, when treated well, will become something more than what it started out as. Time, not unlike the way in which it affects an artist, mellows timber and gives it a dimension that was theretofore non-existent. Noguchi stopped playing with his surfaces, a lesson that many restorers and antique dealers should learn as well.   

I attended the International Contemporary Furniture Fair at the Jacob Javits Center on Sunday. There were miles of aisles and it almost seemed daunting, except, of course, that I am looking at furniture. And there were some great things to see. Foremost in my mind was the folding furniture made by a company in Hoboken called Folditure. They make chairs and tables that fold up completely flat and, from my heart, I have to say they were truly marvelous. The technology and sophistication of the design are just amazing and that the chairs fold flat to ¾” is spectacular.

Creativity in the 18th century appears  as boring to non-existent, the same old, same old, cabriole legs, splat backs, etc. I understand why that characterization is made, but I would suggest that it doesn’t hold weight, particularly for high end furniture of the period. Furthermore, the creativity expressed by makers when transitioning from one style to another often led to unique pieces that combined numerous styles in one piece of furniture. That creativity was subtle, of course, but it was also unique to that maker. When this furniture is good, it is superb. Occasionally it missed as well.

The dimension of creativity today is broader than the 18th century. The variety of materials that contemporary makers can use is almost limitless. Furthermore, machinery helps in realizing some of the more fantastical designs from the point of view of design and construction. In the 18th century, craft was king and the craftsmen of the period had extensive apprenticeships and training. Ergo, design was a function of using those talents to their fullest extent. The differences between then and now seem wide, but they aren’t as wide as you might imagine. After all, the human body hasn’t changed all that much. 

 

 

I will admit to having some trepidation about defending the trade in ivory. There are two reasons. The foremost is that moral arguments are very hard to rebut. They always seem like such good ideas when they are proposed.  The second reason is that my self-interest could be seen as being entirely selfish. On the one hand, I want to be able to do what I do and on the other hand, elephants are dying. How can I reconcile what seems like wanton disregard to the plight of a species?

Of course, I don’t truly believe that what I want is selfish. That is because I know how to distinguish old ivory in the kinds of pieces that I trade. Indeed, all the antique dealers in their various specialties that I know, can quickly tell you what is and is not old. For the reputable antiques trade, this has never been a problem. We no more wish to sell fakes or look-alikes than fly to the moon. It is our job to determine authenticity and if we make a mistake, we often pay dearly for it.

This is the heart of the matter, in my opinion. To think that any of the people in the two top antique organizations would want to deal with poached ivory in any way at all is to misunderstand how we feel about our work as well as the morality of elephant depradation. We care about both. Hence, our solution to the dilemma seems fairly simple to us. Create a data base of those pieces that use pre-ban ivory. It will help to enlighten customs about what is and isn’t old and it will help to save the species.

The moral argument of banning the trade in all ivory needs very careful assessment. The idea behind it is fine, but the reality of implementing such a ban neither addresses the elephant’s plight nor the effects such a ban would have in demonetizing all antique ivory. Many people may comply with the new law, but many may not. What kind of enforcement will ensue? What do you do with someone who has sold a piece of ivory they have owned for generations? There is a Kafkaesque dimension to this scenario.

In the end, I feel that those wishing to ban the trade in all ivory must also do due diligence in understanding just what their law will and will not do. Is the moral high ground worth it? Is an ivory ban that doesn’t truly address the elephant’s plight valid, or is it just smoke and mirrors? The American public has many facets of opinion—one facet will applaud this legislation while others may feel it to be inadequate. I am one of the latter and it is because I, too, truly care about the elephant.

I visited the World Wildlife Fund website the other day. It is a terrific site that is devoted to the struggle of seeing our world’s ecosystem remain in balance. That includes climate change, over fishing and animal extinction. Their goal is essentially to get people to donate money to pursue programs that will allow them to pay for lobbyists to get legislation enacted. They also wish to encourage responsible behavior on the part of world governments, a goal that seems somewhat elusive in even the most idealistic of moments.

I applaud their efforts. I would like them to be successful for the most part, but I am beginning to wonder if they can be at all effective. I think this way because I oppose their current campaign of what they call a campaign to save the elephant. The cornerstone of the campaign is to stop all trading in ivory, no matter how old it may be. This is, they believe, the moral imperative that must be enacted to alert the world and to put a halt to the slaughter of elephants. It is an emotional approach that resonates deeply with animal lovers, but which, on examination, disregards some practical realities.

There is no question that the ivory from slaughtered elephants is being used to make goods, some of which are selling in America. Stopping the trade in ivory will certainly put a halt to the trade in this ivory. But how much of it is being sold in America? Apparently, 35,000 elephants are being slaughtered each year. A single tusk weighs close to 250 pounds so 35,000 elephants would yield up to 17,500,000 pounds of ivory. How much has been found in America? According to the Convention on Illegal Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) report of 2013, only two tons or 4,000 pounds of illegal ivory was confiscated. That represents eight elephants.

My numbers may be slightly skewed, but even if they are off by 50%, it is clear that the majority of illegal ivory is not coming anywhere near the US. My questions for the World Wildlife Fund are, what happens if we go and ban ivory and the elephants continue to be slaughtered? I fear that if Americans do ban the trade in ivory that 1) the slaughter won’t stop and that Americans will throw up their hands feeling they have done all that they could do, 2) an illegal trade will develop and 3) the current owners of valuable, formerly legitimate ivories, will form black markets and that our legal system will be burdened with yet another law that is hard to enforce.

As an owner of antique ivory, I see the legislation as a shotgun approach to a problem that could use a scalpel. The shotgun is an effective killing weapon, but it doesn’t discriminate between friend and foe. I know that antique organizations would agree and cooperate in creating a data base of antique ivory. I also know that a modest tax from the owners, sellers and buyers of ivory would be willing to pay a fee to be part of this data base. There are, according to Lark Mason who culled information and extrapolated from sales of ivory in Cincinnati over a 6 month period, 300-600 million pieces with ivory in America.

Even if Lark’s figures are three times too great, the taxing of the movement of 100 million ivories could go a long way to both setting up a data base, learning about the illegal trade and eventually in helping the elephant population. The World Wildlife Fund is a worthy organization and they need to get this issue right. They also need to get the right people on the right side of the issue. Currently, a lot of law abiding citizens who disagree with this approach will flout what they consider to be a bad law. Americans have done that before and will do it again. The WWF should work to get this right.

This is an art and antiques fair that should change the way that all art fairs look. It is absolutely sensational. Rafael Vinoly’s design not only works, it hums with energy as art and antiques pull you left and right around the Armory. I have never seen the likes before and I am certain that all future fairs that are in the Armory will have to reckon with how spectacular this design is for a fair. If you haven’t seen it yet, there is today and tomorrow. Hours are 11-7:30 today, May 3, and 11-6 tomorrow. The Armory is located between 66th and 67th on Park Ave. More on the fair next week.