An Antique Dealer's Blog: Looking at English Furniture

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.  

4/27/2009

At the end of Charlotte Bronte's novel, "Jane Eyre", Jane is talking about the ward, a young French girl under the charge of Mr. Rochester named Adele who has benefitted by "...a sound English education [that] corrected in great measure her French defects;" The chauvinism in that sentence is amusing given the French/English tussle that has gone on since the Norman Conquest. Score one for the Brits by Ms. Bronte.

It is new things, however that interest me. Newness is something not all of us are easy with for a host of reasons. Familiarity allows us to relax, new things, essential as they are, can vex us. When I think of how furniture design was roiled in England by the French (Et tu, Ms. Bronte?) with the introduction of rococo (readily adapted by the English but with less gusto) not to mention a home grown Gothick style as well as a touch of chinoiserie, the British of the 1740's and 50's, at least the young turks of that era, must have been looked upon as heretical in their tastes.

The judgment of the furniture design of that era has never really ended, however. As comfortable as it may make some people to have a nice rococo mirror, there are still ugly rococo mirrors from the 1750's out there. There are also some pretty spectacular ones as well. Shift to 2009 and try to imagine just how much of the contemporary art which was, up until recently, so very hot and try to think where it will be in 250 years.

New things and new ideas are like bread to humanity. But all things are judged from the moment they exist to the moment they cease to exist. Ideas that are overly intellectual without emotional impact (or vice-versa) will sooner or later lose their foothold on our imaginations. And some things that die prematurely will be reborn so there is hope for just about everything. English furniture, I might add, has a very nice track record thusfar and will continue to do so because when it works, it is among the most comfortable and beautiful furniture of all time.

 

My brother and I used to stay up late for any movies with Cary Grant, Fred Astaire and the great duo, William Powell and Myrna Loy who starred in the Thin Man movies. All of these people embodied elegance and style and yet it was always with a certain amount of tongue in cheek, as if their elegance was so second nature that they were just deigning to be in the movie for a lark. It was almost like watching a movie within a movie to see how effortlessly the plot would unravel while the actors slipped through their roles.

Beau Brummel (1778-1840) was the first dandy. He dared to wash and shave every day besides dressing elegantly. He was a favorite of the Prince Regent whose stylish excesses were largely architectural including Carlton House (since razed) on the Mall not far from Buckingham House (now Palace). Once the prince was the official Regent and cast off his former alliances, he chose to snub Brummell by staring through him without speaking to him. Brummell chose a riposte that earned him permanent dudgeon by observing to his friend Alvanley, "Alvaney, who's your fat friend?" (I found this on Wikipedia and it isn't footnoted to a source.)

The NPR program, "Soundcheck" with John Schaefer had guests Rhys Chatham and Robert Longo to talk about their avant-garde band yesterday. Only one clip of their music was played so my judgment of their music is based less on what I heard them play and more on what I heard them say which was to say Philip Glass and the Velvet Underground were among their inspirations. I like the Velvet Underground, but I find Philip Glass too random for my structured sense of music. Mea culpa, but I will dare to say that none of these performers are particularly elegant to listen to, a weakness that I am certain avant-gardists everywhere bemoan in people like myself. 

"The Brother Gardeners" by Andrea Wulf is a delightful new bookon the history of gardening in England. She begins the narrative in 1733 with the correspondence between John Bartram, a farmer  near Philadelphia, and Peter Collinson, a London merchant obsessed with plants. Collinson and Bartram began the explosion that was the importation of American plants to London which would permanently affect the palate and, in so doing, the design of the English garden.

Like English gardens, English furniture in 1733 was stylistically derivative. Continental furniture was the template and English furniture evolved therefrom. But the English baroque style was about to flower and before long, English furniture designers and makers would be seen as competing with the best furniture makers on the continent in such innovative styles as Gothick, rococo, chinoiserie and neo-classical. The assertion of the English style marked a nation growing in confidence in more ways than one.

The transformation of England into a mature self confident and self reliant society is visible on a number of fronts within England at this time. That garden and furniture design would seemingly evolve almost simultaneously into such English strengths is not such an odd story when you think of what is at the root of England's Age of Enlightenment and that is scientific observation. The Royal Society, established in 1660, made its cause the determination of natural laws. In so doing, experimentation revealed truths that were constants. Knowing things, instead of thinking you know things, makes a difference. It was no where more evident than in 18th century England.
 

4/20/2009

The SOFA Show (Sculpture Objects & Functional Art) at the 69th St. Armory on Park Avenue proved to be more than interesting. There were some exceptional exhibitions. It made me wonder just how an artist becomes famous. Is it by getting a piece in a museum or is it by having a book done on you? Perhaps it is just living large and having other people talking large about you. The stars of today such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst certainly know how it is done, but could they do it again if they had to? In other words, do they even know how they got so big?

In the 18th century, artists were either amateur or paid on commission. They were famous if they made a good likeness. One of the more famous 18th century artists was a mediocre painter, William Kent. Kent's patron, Lord Burlington, got him appointed to be court painter at the expense of James Thornhill, William Hogarth's father-in-law. Hogarth was outraged and whenever he got the chance ridiculed the importation of foreign ideas for architecture and decoration, something Lord Burlington, the preeminent Palladian in England was dedicated to. Kent, of course, was the intended butt of the joke, but Kent went on to become one of the greatest of English gardeners and decorators. His Etruscan room at Kensington Palace is a triumph as is the trompe l'oeil painting in the stairwell.

Art, like beauty, is allegedly in the eye of the beholder. If that is true and millions of people swoon over something that is mediocre at best, does it make that object art? No, that is nothing but taste, good, bad or indifferent. Art isn't elected art. Popularity or high prices for things has nothing to do with art either. Art is............, well, I might suggest a visit to a SOFA show, or perhaps any old art show, a museum, an antique shop, a gallery. I think you get the idea--keep on looking.

The Kips Bay Show House opened this week in New York. I found it revealing that the reporter for the NY Times talked more about the house, its former owner and its current owner, than the decorating. I would liken the work of the designers to a six year old's birthday party, chaotic with a tantrum or two for attention with a couple of really lovely kids who know how to behave. I am certain that almost all the designers are capable of doing great work, but there was little of it on display.

Art in 18th century England was something that was purchased abroad. The Grand Tour was one of the vehicles by which a gentleman became such and en route, he purchased art. One of the better dealers on this tour was the Ambassador to the Court of Two Sicilies, William Hamilton, who was married to the irrepressible Emma, destined to become the mistress to Horatio Nelson, England's greatest maritime hero. Nelson's imprint is indelible on England, but Hamilton's is as well as anyone who has seen the multitude of Greek vases he sold to English tourists, let alone the extraordinary Portland vase that he sold in auction in London, can attest. 

The NY Times today has a review of the SOFA (Sculpture Objects & Functional Art) Show at the Armory. The reporter, Roberta Smith, focuses on the word, "craft", of which she is an admirer. So am I, because art can derive from craft but art cannot derive without craft. Indeed, the exploration of craft is not dissimilar to the observation of the natural world. Would that interior decorators be so moved to the exploration of craft or even the observation of the natural world rather than expressing a sociological convention of the moment. It would be a breath of fresh air.  

Thoreau's, "Walden", is an American literary tour de force with environmental writing that is green even by today's standards. He comes across as an enfant terrible, idiot savant and contrarian all wrapped in one package. I wasn't phased a bit when a friend told he cheated and did not stay the whole time at Walden. In fact, it made perfect sense that he was imperfect in his cause. It is his observations of nature, however, that make Thoreau so interesting, not his philosophical or sociological diatribes, his great erudition notwithstanding. He sees harmony in the illogical battle of red and black ants and debunks the superstition of the alleged limitless bottom of Walden Pond--these moments are his raison d'etre, his key to the understanding of the cosmos.

The Lunar Society (1765-1813) was a group of men who met in order to improve their own and ultimately man's better understanding of the natural world. They were one of the many keys that helped accelerate the Industrial Revolution. Some of their members such as James Watt whose perfection of the steam engine allowing its adaptation to industry and Matthew Boulton who helped build those engines (along with incredibly fine gilded candelabra purchased by the King) had a direct hand in the process. These men were observers of the natural world and, in a way, direct forebears to Henry David Thoreau.

The ability to see patterns in nature and to identify detail are intrinsic to the development of civilization allowing for the domestication of plants and animals. But as it is clear that the self described "lunaticks" used their knowledge to better man's lot, it is equally clear that Thoreau saw man losing sight of the lessons of the natural world to man's detriment. Both Thoreau and the lunaticks saw that the focus on nature would help dispel superstition and supercilious conventions to the benefit of man. It is the essential starting point for making dreams into reality. Creativity doesn't have a better starting point.
 

The presumption that regulation strangles creativity can be true. Everyone knows that committees are the perfect way to create snafus. The word, snafu, in fact was coined in the army, a regulatory nightmare in the eyes of many. But the military also recognizes the need for hierarchy, boundaries, and, of course, regulations. In the broader context of our society, it is clear that unfettering capitalism from regulations can lead to growth but at what price? The absence of regulations result in businesses that are too big to fail.

In the first quarter of the 18th century, there was a financial scandal called the South Sea Bubble which was hinged to the rights of trading in South America. The venture was agreed upon by Britain and Spain and was never successful even though the British government guaranteed returns on the money invested in the venture. Basically, it was an ill thought out venture that turned into a sort of Ponzi scheme. There was a huge fallout with many government ministers resigning and the econmy going into a nose dive. It became a matter of who knew what when as members of the government saved themselves and their friends first by divesting themselves of their shares at the height of the market.

There are people that may argue that our current economic malaise wasn't allowed to develop and that if it had, it would have created a better financial system. That is sort of like saying the best way to lose weight is not to eat. Of course it is, but there is a sensible way and a foolish way. The greed factor that enabled huge and illusory profits demonstrates a bent moral compass. The bible, not a place that I usually look to for guidance, inveighs against greed making it clear that man, ignoble as he is, needs guidance in all things. Creativity, I believe, can still find a place despite those strictures.