An Antique Dealer's Blog: Looking at English Furniture
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.
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.
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.
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.