An Antique Dealer's Blog: Looking at English Furniture

A former client approached me at the Winter Antiques Show to tell me that he was making English "antiques" in Viet Nam with the help of craftsmen who were made redundant by a very famous English firm that recently went out of business. His words were that, "I would not be able to tell the difference..," between his table and a period one.

Color is perhaps the most important ingredient to an antique dining table, along with the choice of timber. If the timber is an interesting cut of first rate mahogany and it has good color and patina, a dining table can be remarkable. Neither of these things can be faked. You can make an interesting finish, but you can't create an old patina.

Whenever Congress wants to throw a diplomatic bone to a country, they usually delve into "cultural heritage" and offer incredible chauvinistic bribes prohibiting the import of antiques without licenses that bureaucrats can really sink their teeth into. I can see one of those Vietnamese dining tables in three hundred years coming before some cultural commission to determine just what it is and where it belongs. Imagine such a table, made in Viet Nam to an English design by English craftemen. Where does it belong?

6/12/2009

The business of writing about the art market is a very difficult one. As each work of art is different, it isn't possible to generalize and yet space usually requires some form of short hand. When I suggested that Souren Melikian does not have a point of view that I understand, it was to do with his rare forays into English furniture. In my opinion, he doesn't get my field. Having said that, I find his articles extremely dense, referenced beyond my ability to understand and written, or so it seems to me, for the experts. His success is huge and his presence in the market is undoubted. May he stay with the things he understands best. That, of course, should be true for all art journalists.

6/11/2009

The International Herald Tribune is yet another newspaper that I both love and hate. In reading an article on the art markets and how contemporary art was faring less well (it is in the tank as far as I can tell) than several years ago, it was suggested that people could use auction houses to sell through private treaty. I think this is what dealers do, but having only been a dealer for thirty years, I may be mistaken.

The IHT has been publishing Souren Melikian for many years now. I met him many years ago with my then editor at Art and Auction, Lin Vincent. She signed Souren to write for A&A and I must say that, after having read a number of his articles over the years, I am still not quite certain he says anything at all. His writing is erudite but empty, at least to me and his point of view jumps all over the place. He once wrote an article on an English furniture sale at Christie's South Kensington which touted all the bargains that were available. I guess I missed that sale as the bargains in my business are few and far between.

The reason for being in London, my location at present, is to attend the Olympia Fair which opened on the fourth and the Grosvenor House Fair which opened yesterday, the tenth. The Grosvenor House Fair far exceeded my expectations with some superb booths. It would be silly to name them as there are only eight English furniture dealers at the Fair. Suffice it to say, that it was worth the trip. The Olympia Fair, which has been striving mightily to overtake the GHF, is not really living up to expectations. Although the space is great, the broad mix of dealers showing there has diminished as the cost of booth space has risen. Nothing is forever in this economy and it is certain these two fairs have changes in their futures.

6/2/2009

I have to salute my daughter, Alice, who is currently riding in a six day AIDS/Lifecycle event from San Francisco to Los Angeles. She has raised nearly $4,000 from a host of relatives, friends and former employers who have been extremely generous. She is greatly enjoying the ride for several reasons including a thirty mile flat stretch, something she doesn't see too often around San Francisco where she lives. It is almost an ideal vacation in that she is doing good, getting exercise, getting to know even more of California and doing something she could have only dreamed about one year ago. Long may she run.

If you substitute the word tennis for taste in the phrase, good taste, you realize one of the shortcomings in trying to define taste. Tennis has results, win or lose, that determine how good someone is at the game. The same is not true for taste. And yet, unlike tennis where people have to admit whether they are good or not so good, no one admits to having shortcomings when it comes to taste.

As an antique dealer, I try to buy furniture that is old and relatively unscathed. Antiques are generally looked after because they were expensive when they were made creating a sense of care that is broken only by ignorance or neglect. What is so admirable about antiques is how well they were made, their proportions, their color and their style. They produce a harmony that well thought out things have.

It might be argued that because everyone has to make choices that they therefore have taste and because it is their taste and they like it that it is good. This is a solipsism that holds about as much water as a sieve. Taste is not democratic and like the gifted tennis player that works at his game, a person with taste is someone who works to understand the harmony of color, form, style, craft and proportion. Sound familiar? 

5/29/2009

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal last weekend about the art the Obamas are hanging in the White House. This was a topic for discussion on the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC today. People were caring about the color or sexual orientation of the artists? Huh? Please, just hang good art.

There is no color, no material, no form, no plant, no song, etc. which is out of bounds to the creative mind. Taste is not defined by the materials one uses, but by the harmony they do or do not bring forth. What role, if any, does function play in taste?

It is hard to talk about taste without sounding aloof at the least and downright snide at the worst. My intent is to get people thinking about taste and to remind them (and me) that you should always keep an open mind about everything. Taste is contextual and you can learn from that.  

There are times when I think TV and the newspapers revel in drivel. Last week, the NY Times sent a reporter to the International Contemporary Furniture Fair with a curator of contemporary design from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum. The curator has excellent quotes but few of the things or even the principles of what she talked about appeared in the photos accompanying the article. Huh? Did she like the show? The article was filler, also known as a nullity. Too bad, I rather liked the fair. (In full disclosure, my niece had a booth there.)

Able to watch TV while in my hotel room in San Francisco, I was treated to the parsing of Dick Cheney's speech, endlessly. Why are we re-heating a VP who we would all like to see the last of? Eisenhower should not have worried about the military industrial complex as much as our lust for so-called entertainment. What other entity would juxtapose a sitting president with an ex-vice-president that believes in torture? Another nullity in my opinion and a big blot on the news media for not recognizing that the man is trying to paper over his record.

And yet the Sunday NY Times Magazine had a wonderful article by Matthew B. Crawford whose chosen metier is motorcycle repair despite a PhD in political philosophy. One thing Mr. Crawford clearly understands after many desk jobs where his goal was to please a manager whether his work was good or bad is that a human being really enjoys tangible results from getting a job done. To fix something and make it work has significance and requires great knowledge. I can empathize with what he says because I worked in antique furniture restoration for years and I know that the knowledge required in that field is significant. To turn something around that may have been heading for the trash heap can make your day, your week, your month and possibly even your year. Mr. Crawford knows and so do I.

5/26/2009

Having just been weighed at my doctor's office for a physical, I knew my weight to within a pound or two. I don't, as a rule, retain such knowledge but in this case, it was inevitable. So, I was surprised to see a scale in the bathroom of the hotel I stayed at in San Francisco. I avoid bad news like the plague which means that scales and such are just inviting a mild depression about the last french fry that conquered my conscious desire to not eat it.

After two days at the hotel, I thought that maybe I had been losing a little weight and that I should attempt the scale. After all, if I did not wear my glasses, I might not be able to distinguish the numbers and I could quickly jump off the scale if it appeared that the overage was well above the average suggested by my doctor's machine. Blow me down, I was eight pounds under that machine's calculation. Not only could I eat one dessert, but I could have several.

And then I realized something. The mini bar was the thing. Without a doubt, the mini bar and the scale were in collusion. Deceive a customer that their weight was down and a trip to the mini bar, financially ruinous as it can be, would not be disastrous in the regions where a Snickers is most likely to stick. But common sense prevailed for once as I connected the dots on this insidious plot by the hotel to garner more change at the expense of a vacationer's lapse. After all, everybody needs to go on a diet after a vacation, don't they?

I knew when I read "Consider the Lobster" that I had found a great American writer in David Foster Wallace. (I don't know why it took me so long to find him, but that is another matter.) I am currently reading his book "Infinite Jest" which is roughly a thousand pages long with an additional one hundred pages of footnotes. As promised, the book, which required three hundred pages of dense reading before I finally clicked into his style and the plot, is an infinite jest. It was so funny that I found myself laughing out loud at parts of it which I haven't done with a book for a very long time. He doesn't spare you, however, as he mixes in some grisly stuff that brings you down quite hard. And then he takes you right back up again. It is extraordinary writing. I recommend it highly, but only if you can concentrate on it for more than half an hour at a go.

The English antique furniture market caught an upward momentum in pricing in the 1980's that has only just faltered with the economic melt down. The re-valuation is in process and that some of the high prices of just two years ago now seem one notch short of insane.

The speculative money that enters off beat markets such as antiques has gone to ground. The auctions of the 80's which were almost social affairs have dwindled to being ten to fifteen people in the salesroom. The self styled experts have disappeared leaving the field to the antiques trade which almost cannot afford the new low prices because many of their customers have gone to ground as well. Has the value of English antique furniture diminished?

I would say that English antique furniture has gone down in price, but not in value. English antique furniture is a decorating gold standard that works in both town and country. It is comfortable, handsome and extremely versatile. Every decorator who wants to create a sophisticated space that combines such requirements will think of English antique furniture first and foremost. It has not lost its appeal and it may be even more appealing at lower prices.

None of this answers the question of just how much English antique furniture is worth at this moment. The re-valuation may already be over, or it may have just begun or be somewhere in between. However, I know as a dealer that if I see something unique somewhere and it appeals to me and I want it, I will go to great lengths to take that piece back to my shop. The truth of the situation is, for me at least, that the item is worth more than the money.

5/15/2009

A client called me the other day to make an observation about the price of something in auction that he had been offered by a dealer. He did not buy it and the dealer has put the item into auction. The estimate is less than one tenth their asking price. The client is furious. This is awkward. One dealer commented that there was nothing to be gained by putting your name on things you sell in auction. I think he is right. 

The question remains, however, what sort of a profit should the dealer make? Double, quadruple, ten or one hundred times, are any of these numbers fair? Frankly, none of them could be fair and all of them could be. It depends upon the item. If it is unique, a dealer can ask whatever he wants and if he is a good salesman and services the client well, most clients will be happy because they want the object more than they want their money.

There are a great many ethical concerns about money that have no answer in this society. Should very wealthy people earn more on savings than the average joe? They do. Should there be apartments worth one hundred million dollars? There are. Why should cost of living increases in leases be compounded? They quickly outstrip the cost of living increase. Should a ball player make twenty million dollars and is that the reason why a ticket to a ball game is so high? The questions are endless and unfortunately, there really aren't any right or wrong answers to them. To take a quote from Kurt Vonnegut, "And so it goes."


One of the difficulties in discussing taste derives in part from the necessity of making judgments. Who gets to say whether one person's love for pink and green is in bad taste and should be outlawed as their paints of choice on their suburban bungalow? It is THE question because the reality of what taste represents is so ambiguous. I know it is THE question because the town that I had my first shop in mandated that all the buildings in the commercial zone be earth colored. Huh?

Taste, good taste that is, does exist. I have nothing against pink and green, but I might not want to see it as the two primary colors on my next door neighbor's house. The harmony of things that are well thought out and placed is undeniable and I would say that the dissonance of things thrown together with insufficient thought is equally undeniable. Are dissonance and harmony the same for everyone. In music they are, but is the same true for the visual?

The fact is that good taste, as non-definable as it may be, reveals itself to people that are looking for it and, more importantly, thinking about it. The understanding of good and bad taste precludes nothing, not even pink and green as they may be fine on a Miami bungalow and appaling on one in Bangor, Maine.

The cumulative thought and the visual library that both our conscious and unconscious minds creates are, at least for those people with aesthetic ability (a concept that I would say is similar to athletic ability) that which allows for judgment. I will listen to such an aesthete all day long. Their judgment has value for me and they are for me true arbiters of taste. Unfortunately, there aren't that many of them.

5/13/2009

Three people used the word taste one morning last week so I thought I would try to define it. It isn't that easy. It is an ambiguous term that doesn't mean much and yet when certain people talk about taste, I listen. Herewith are just a few of the things I have thought about regarding taste.

1.Understanding what is good taste comes from a cumulative absorption of knowledge.

2.Some people are quicker to understand taste than others.

3.Taste is not democratic, not everyone gets it.

4.There is no mathematical model for taste.

5.Taste is not in the eye of the beholder.

6.Being stylish and having taste are not necessarily related.

7.Bad taste may be stylish, but it will never be good taste.

8.Agreeing on what is bad taste is easier than agreeing on what is good taste.

9.Committees don't have and never will have taste.

10.Venerated things might not be tasteful. 

I could go on with this list. I am reminded of the first line of "A Tale of Two Cities" when I think about taste. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Substitute taste for the word times and the oxymoron works just as well/badly. I guess there really is no accounting for taste.
 

It is hard to imagine not making judgments. They are a part of our hard wiring, a remnant of man's struggle to survive in nature when the wrong judgment could mean death.

Newspaper reporters are supposedly delivering nothing but facts, but we know that newspapers are biased. Magazines are biased in favor of their advertisers even though they claim that there is a wall between editorial and advertising.

In the English antique furniture business, it is often the decorator that will make a choice for a client. This is an awesome responsibility. How can one assume that the decorator has no irrelevant biases about buying from certain dealers? And what about the people that like to buy their English furniture in England? It is seldom the product that is being focused on in such cases.

The problem with bias is how unsupportable it usually is. If there were good reasons for not liking something, that would be fine, but more often than not we dislike something because our thinking has been influenced. This is very clear in how "viral" marketing is done. We will do something because we see others doing it.

Judgment is supposed to come from experience. But if we get sick on broccoli the first time we eat it  when we already had a stomach bug, is that judgment fair? Judgment, and hence bias, at least for us in the twenty-first century, are not reflexes that are necessarily protecting us from doing the wrong thing. We do that without thinking.

In a nod to David Foster Wallace's title for a group of essays called, "Consider the Lobster", I decided not to title this piece an ode, despite what may be the storied history of the barcalounger. Mr. Wallace's keen and incisive understanding of the world in general has led me to want to better understand the barcalounger, albeit aesthetically not historically, and in as few words as possible.

But first, David Foster Wallace's untimely death (an oxymoron, I know since he was a suicide, but his death would have been untimely if he had lived to 104) was a blow to American arts and letters. His thoughts are like cluster bombs that explode from paragraph to footnote to footnote on footnote (to a size that requires either great eyesight or great spectacles). My appreciation for his relentless nailing down of idea is boundless. I wish I had such an intellect, but greatly appreciate not having the depression which ultimately led to his suicide. I am an instant fan.  

The inherent contradiction that lies in all furniture is that of function and aesthetics, that is if you are going to actually use the furniture and not stare at it like a piece of sculpture. Like emotion and intellect, function and aesthetics have a hard time lying together on the same couch. The barcalounger, easily among the most comfortable of, I can't say chair because it isn't, recliners, has no aesthetic quality. I mean, when you get down to it, why not a hospital bed?

The tradition from which the barcalounger comes is 19th century patented furniture. This furniture was rife as furniture makers endeavored to create fortunes by making a piece that every household in America would need. A few were successful, but aethetics were never a strong point in this race. Indeed, you might say they were altogether sacrificed.

The lineage of the barcalounger is obscure to me and I am not certain that I wish to discover it, as worthy a story as it may be. Let it be said, however, that this recliner, as stated earlier, is not a chair. It is a heavy object, it is a place in which the remote can disappear and it is often the most coveted parking space in a room in a great many households. But for me, I'd rather have the hospital bed, albeit in the bedroom. The rest of the house is for sitting.