An Antique Dealer's Blog: Looking at English Furniture

7/13/2009

The Getty Museum in Los Angeles acquired a kouros, the statue of a Greek youth, in the 1980's that many have called a forgery. The provenance of the piece is certainly fake and some scientific tests seem to point to it being of relatively modern manufacture. Other tests seem to indicate that it is old. Aesthetes are divided on the subject. The statue is on exhibit with the tag that it is either circa 530 B.C. or a modern forgery.

What happens to a piece that has been tainted by scandal?  Sadly, even if there is nothing wrong with it or, as happens in English furniture when a piece is enhanced in restoration, the piece is tainted. Rumor and innuendo can damage a piece much more than factual evidence as the story is usually too good to be kept under wraps. The Getty kouros will forever be at the Getty and I suspect that there will never be a scientific test that will mollify the critics or prove the piece a forgery.

The question that begs to be asked is, why do we care if something is not original? There are lots of right reasons for caring, most of them to do with the body of work that is represented by an artist (or cabinetmaker) and any catalogue raisonne of that person's accomplishments. The wrong reasons have to do with investment. Strictly speaking, investment in art matters a great deal to the art world, but when investment becomes the raison d'etre of a buyer, there will be people wanting to take advantage of that buyer.

I have been asked many times how one should set about buying art or antiques. I think the first step is to find someone that you trust and that the second test is to listen to them very closely. No scientific tests, no aesthetic consensus and no verbose descriptions will ever satisfy the over riding question of a collector which should be, tell me why I should buy this item from you? There really isn't any other question that needs asking.

7/11/2009

As the art and antiques business gets more pricey, the rationalization of value gets more attenuated. Look in any auction catalogue to see how a more expensive piece is catalogued. There is a description, a provenance if any and then there is more and a lot more if the piece has a huge estimate. That more will include the lives of previous owners to the odd scientific tests.

Further description is important, there is no doubt. Someone may want to buy something owned by an historical figure and related examples are extremely important to know as they give a sense of an artist or craftsman's work in relation to the piece offered. Certain scientific reports can be helpful as you don't want a Michelangelo painted on contemporary canvas. A friend recently read a report to me, however, by a dendrochronologist, someone who dates old wood. When he said "...believed to be" twice to me, I said that was enough. Too many caveats for it to mean anything to me.

Not all knowledge is quantifiable. The knowledge of an artist's style is something learned by looking at a great deal of the artist's work. No matter how good at it you get, you can still be wrong. This is also true with furniture. Wood tests and analyses don't necessarily answer any questions, they just certify some facts that still have to be synthesized into a reasonable conclusion. That conclusion may, alas, be incorrect.

I would suggest to anyone wanting to buy the best of the best in any field that they find one person to trust and then, once you trust that person, learn to listen to that person. It is more important than additional descriptions, it is more important than all the scientific analyses you can imagine. It is, in fact, the crux to buying good artworks.  

7/10/2009

The interesting thing about people who are politically partisan is that, in this day and age, they tend not to acknowledge any other point of view than their own. My conservative friends think I am a liberal Democrat and my liberal Democrat friends think I am a conservative Republican. That is because I disagree with both of them often. I also disagree with waste and corruption and I strongly disagree with the synthesis of church and state.

I have liked a great many Republicans and Democrats over the years. Without naming names, the last two mayors of New York have been terrific, in my opinion. I haven't liked the presidents over the last sixteen years, but one tends to learn to live with that situation. I have hated the politics surrounding those two presidents.

Politics lacks the essential skill of negotiation at this point in time. We seem to have lost that skill. Perhaps it was the injection of family values into political debates or perhaps religious zealotry that has drowned out the essential strength of two sides reaching a compromise.

The former Treasury Secretary (briefly) under George W. Bush, Paul O'Neill, wrote a great article about waste in the health care system. That is what should be fixed first and foremost. We seem to want to protect and enlarge a system that is broken, not because it works, but because it already exists despite being riddled with corruption and waste. Why is that?

The people in politics remain open to ridicule. There are currently three Republicans that are imploding on a national level, but they don't own the title for bad behavior--it is shared with the Democrats. So, for my partisan friends, I suggest they take a more jaundiced view about politics and politicians and not be quite so dogmatic about everything save for one issue--getting this country to work properly.  

7/6/2009

It was William Sidney Smith who thwarted Napoleon at the siege of Acre in 1799. Smith seemed to understand Napoleon's next move before Napoleon was able to make it. Acre was the fulcrum that might have tipped the entire east to Napoleon, but instead he returned to Egypt. Destiny, for Napoleon, was delayed.

It was not such a bad thing that Napoleon returned to Egypt. His eastern dreams put on indefinite hold, he chose to return to France, taking with him many of Vivant Denon's drawings of the ruins of the Upper Nile. These drawings were the fodder for designers for years to come and echoed strongly among elite aesthetes such as Thomas Hope, Percier and Fontaine and William Beckford.

Napoleon's desire was to enlighten Egypt which is why he took 167 "savants" with him. These were artists, mathematicians, cartographers, naturalists, etc. who were to establish an academy of learning in Cairo. The ignominious surrender by the French of Egypt does not tarnish the incredible work done by these savants including the discovery of the Rosetta Stone on July 19, 1799. It was immediately known to be important as the key to understanding hieroglyphics. It could be said that the invasion was a failure but the cataloguing of Egypt was a huge success. It is just another aspect of the best and worst of Napoleon Bonaparte. 

7/5/2009

The world of politics has to be the strangest world of all. The New York State Senate will probably do their best to submarine the Governor after their enforced sessions in Albany this weekend to get some work done. As a resident of New York, I think the Governor is trying to get us our money's worth from these gentlemen.

"Napoleon in Egypt" is a book by Paul Strathern about Napoleon's foray into Egypt that was to turn him into a true "man of destiny". A man of destiny is both a doer and a strategic thinker, soemone who isn't daunted or deterred by events as the next choice is always the right choice. Nelson's legendary opponents, Nelson and Wellington and the Tsar, all benefited from this decisiveness. A strength can just as easily be a weakness depending on circumstance. Just ask Achilles.

There were plenty of men of destiny in the twentieth century--none were senators from New York, however. Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Churchill all qualify. FDR might also fit the bill but democracy doesn't seem to create such men as readily as totalitarian systems. That may be one of the better things about democracy after all.  

I think I posted this some time ago, but as it is nearly the season, I am posting it again in great anticipation of the first ripe tomato.

 

Those who like to say to-mah-toe

Enjoy the tone, the deep vibrato.

Those who say it is to-may-toe,

Know their god, know who to pray to.

To them, to-mah is pseudo-classy,

To-may, to me, is just too brassy.

There is proof, alas, that one is right.

It comes sublimely, after one sweet bite,

The syllable that escapes the lips,

As it slips and slides and slides and slips,

It is contentment, what one says aaah! to,

That makes the long "a" obligato.  

The news is so interesting these days that I wonder whether it is just the moment or that we, the world at large, are more focused on every little thing that occurs. I can't help but be interested in all of them, particularly after having just finished Thomas Cahill's, "Sailing the Wine Dark Sea" or "Why the Greeks Matter". There is no question in my mind that the ancient Greeks matter now as much as ever.

One reason why the Greeks matter is because they gave us the concept of hubris which roughly translates as pride. The antiques business is one of many that has suffered from hubris. As dealers, we believed that antiques were not only good investments but integral to the lives of rich people everywhere. For people that know and care about antiques, they are integral because they are so much more than just furniture, but the rest of the world could care less. Hence, a noteworthy news item to antique dealers that the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair is no more, comes as a shock. The apparent reason is that the hotel no longer wants to host the event.

The Greeks were said to be interested in the essence of things. In other words, they always wanted to know the story behind the story. It is said that the Romans of that era could care less about the essence of things, they just wanted a semblance of what the Greeks had so they just copied everything that was Greek. Fortunatley, a lot of what the Romans copied was copied well, but it wasn't really until the Renaissancethat the Italians could be said to be truly creative in both their thinking and their arts.

It is said that no news is good news, but if you think about the play, "Oedipus Rex" by Sophocles, Oedipus was incapable of escaping his fate no matter what the news was. Fate, per se, does not worry me, but my twenty-first century sense of free will makes me want to believe that one can ameliorate some aspects, global warming for example, of the future. I guess that is what someone who lives on a fault line or an Iranian Ayatollah also believes. Antique dealers have it easy.  

The "cultural values" wicket that the conservative wing of the Republican Party has held to seems to be losing its stumps as one conservative politician after another proves to be not only fallible, but human. I am happy they are human and I only hope that those hurt by their actions can understand that it is hard to be a cultural icon. In fact, as seen in the life and death of Michael Jackson, it is virtually impossible.

Samuel Bentham (1757-1831) was a pragmatic visionary who, among many other talents, figured out a production line for making pulleys. A British ship required over one thousand per vessel and Bentham created a means for making them more quickly. This was, in essence, mass production, and it was one of many sparks to the Industrial Revolution. It was also the downfall of many bespoke industries, not least of which was cabinetmaking.

The Luddites were an early 19th century group who believed that machines and mass production were taking away jobs. The fallacy echoed an earlier destruction of a timber mill in East London three centuries earlier. Fallacies such as these, not unlike the cultural values being a cornerstone of the conservative right, are ripe for the fall. It is not unlike the belief by many of the world's "true" religions who would as soon as kill to make their point as to see another man's point of view.

 

6/25/2009

Samuel Pepys, the noted diarist who bared all in his coded diaries, also worked for the British Naval Board under Charles II and James II. Pepys was there because of patronage, but he took his job very seriously. He realized that patronage was virtually out of control to the extent that the navy was ill prepared in many ways, even down to having ships that could float, let alone go into battle. Pepys systematically reformed his department and built the foundation for what would be the great British Navy. In a way, Pepys' work was about his personal responsibility to himself, the Navy and the Nation as a whole.

The ideological debate that the right is dying to have with Obama is centered on Obama's government involvement in virtually everything--finaince, health care, energy, etc. Clearly, our taxes will be going up and that is a great worry to any privately employed person. Scare tactics about rising taxes have worked for the right in the past, but because the economy was so screwed up on the watch of the Bush administration and its laissez-faire policies, it almost seems that the government could not do much worse.

I believe that if the right ever wanted a leg to stand on, they should focus, like Samuel Pepys, on the corruption, waste and fraud that exists within government. It doesn't have to be an ideological fight that wins the day. In fact, it seems that most people are tired of the ideological cant that radio personalities seem to obsess on. How much better it would be to have a reformer that seems to care about what we have that is being wasted rather than on how our lives are being ruined by socialism. Nothing would please me more to see the ideologues put in the back seat while people that care about making America work do the driving.  

6/16/2009

The pleasure of being right is one that few of us want to cede, even when we are wrong. I can speak from personal experience on that score. I know that I am not alone, however, which gives me vague comfort at best and distinct unease as a rule. I think of how Rush Limbaugh has built an empire on his certitude which, in my opinion, qualifies as second rate demagoguery at best. De gustibus non est disputandum.

Eighteenth century England changed radically in its one hundred years. The power of the king, always shaky after Charles the First's beheading, was vastly diminished by 1800. Not only was their a petulant spendthrift in the role of the Prince Regent at that point in time, but his father, George III was periodically insane due to what is thought to be porphyria. Hence, the elected parliament, as corrupt as it was, became all the more important given the state of the febrile monarchy. But perhaps the greatest change in the eighteenth century was the birth of the middle class, a class that would not be denied their say or their share. The British shopkeeper had arrived.

Events are not governed by people even when they think that they are right. Political philosophies are incapable of taking into account such radicals as technology as George Allen ruefully discovered in his bid for elective office in Virginia. Indeed and in a similar vein, the Ayatollahs may survive the challenge to their grasp on power this time, but there will come a day when it will end. That day may be tomorrow or fifty years from now, but their time is running out.

The question that I keep returning to is that of certitude. Personally, I find it so much more interesting to be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things and that certitude seems to, as a rule, preclude such open-ness. It isn't always conservatives who live in certitude, I might add, but they sure do seem to want to buy up all the acreage and corner the market.  

 

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?