An Antique Dealer's Blog: Looking at English Furniture
Ephesus near Izmir on the southwest Turkish coast, is just one of the many far flung capitals of the early Roman Empire, but it is one of the few that is still largely in tact. The monumental library façade, which is proudly reconstructed, is the most recognizable of the ruins from photographs of the site, but it is a small part of the overall site.
Reconstruction is necessary for a site that not only includes the Roman capital, but an earlier Greek town which was saved from the Persians in 338 BC by Alexander the Great, as well as settlements that went back even earlier. Notwithstanding the elaborate stampede of history that the name of the town evokes, reconstruction with piecemeal restoration is the order of the day.
The Governor's house at the site is one of those restorations. It is being restored by an Austrian group who are painstakingly re-establishing the house to its glory days replete with mosaics, marble walls and frescoes. The restoration is complete with roof and glass floor walkways so that you can see without touching as you ascend up the site to the top of the hill into which the house was built.
History is interesting. It is interesting to know what went before and it is interesting for it to be visual. A musket from Gettysburg has inestimable power in our imaginations. Two thousand year old ruins are equally if not more powerful. Even English antique furniture has such power. This is history writ large and the story is just waiting to be told.
It is not as if I have waited all my life to find the greatest collection in a museum that I will ever see. You can find both wonderful and meaningful items in small town museums. Grand collections are almost overpowering, making it difficult to fully appreciate every last object or painting. Unless you are lucky enough to live in that town and can re-visit the museum on a regular basis.
One town worthy of moving to is Vienna. Not to mention the plethora of museums that one can visit, really good museums such as the Mak and the Academia, there is the Kunstkammer collection in the Kunsthistoriches Museum. It is an Imperial collection with objects both bought and commissioned by a succession of Hapsburg emperors. It will quite simply blow your mind.
There is too much to list, but suffice it to say that the clear rock crystal vase in the very first room off the museum entry is non pareil. But so is just about every other object in the collection. And there are hundreds of them, ranging from carved stone, wood or ivory to mechanical devices that shoot guns and arrows to rare gold work, tapestries and much, much more.
Of course, there are other towns with lots and lots of great museums. But the pleasure I take in the Kunstkammer is that it is largely objects that are on display. Man's ingenuity at fashioning extraordinary things never ceases to amaze me. And although I love great painting, I have to say that I am a great lover of objects. For those that share my passion, Vienna has a great deal to offer.
Years ago I read a book called “Sugar Blues” which laid out the evils of too much sugar. Last night, I watched a film called “Forks Over Knives” which investigates the roll of meat and dairy in our lives and what it does to our bodies. I am fascinated by such exposes for several reasons. The foremost is that our government subsidizes all three of these industries. The second reason is the total lack of awareness that the vast majority of our populace seems to have about the things they put in their mouths. Lastly, I am blown away by how clever the various industries are at inserting themselves so totally into American lives.
The 18th century does not recommend itself to me as being the ideal time to have lived. Yes, the decorative arts were at their apogee in a number of fields, but many of the processes used to make them were dangerous and many of the workers treated poorly. If you were an aristocrat, your concerns were less focused on the dangers of foods and more on plenitude. Being fat was a sign of success. And as for government subsidies, the food industry was not an industry in those days. And think of how nice it might be to have a total absence of advertising in your life. That might be among the most positive aspects of 18th century life.
The first great PR campaign in my opinion started in the 17th century. As unlikely as this may sound, I am referring to Louis XIV. Threatened by riots when he was very young, he had two precepts that must certainly have guided him in the majority of his decisions. The first was that he was God’s chosen representative to lead France and the second was that France be a nation, not a group of loosely confederated city states. Hence, he centralized power, built Versailles and engaged in wars that substantiated both his, and France’s omniscience. It was a coup that set the stage for decades of war to come in Europe. It is, perhaps, as dubious a legacy as pushing, sugar, meat and dairy.
There a great many people in my business moaning about how contemporary, modern or even IKEA furniture has taken over as the preference for young people decorating their homes today. Is that really true? Yes, fads and fashions change and the boom of the 80’s and 90’s for English furniture has passed, but does that mean that people don’t like antiques anymore? It is a question that is very hard to answer because it is hard to relate personal experience to a trend.
There are dealers that are doing well and others that are not. I see my business as one of convincing people that they can buy good things from me at the right price. To do this, I need a reasonably sized inventory and the pieces must be of a high quality. How do people know if mine is a good price? I tell them to comparative shop and buy the item elsewhere if they can find it for less. This is not the sales pitch of the 80’s and 90”s. This is business 101. What is most difficult for me is finding things at the right price that I can sell. Demand is off and supply is non-existent.
In English antique furniture selling 101, it is the price point of what you sell that most matters. Whether or not we want to believe it, antiques have become a competitive market. It hasn’t always been that way. At one point, demand was so great that one could ask a price based on availability. Such markets elide the focus on quality which is the byword of good to great 18th century English furniture and crucify the least savvy buyers. That isn’t happening in today’s market. For the dealer, you need to align the stars of price and quality. In truth, it is as it should be.
Mark Bittman wrote a piece for the New York Times on-line edition about exaggeration. He was referencing the arguments and accusations that are swirling around the food business, from the overuses of sugar, salt and fat, the marketing of such products, the genetically engineered products that can resist Round Up and so on. The arguments get heated and conflate with exaggeration when these subjects arise and objective, factual discourse dissolves. Half truths abound and they are easily rebuffed by the people who wish to either hide the truth or be the avenging angels.
I used to be so enthusiastic about the furniture I sold that I would refer to a piece as “the best I had ever seen on the market”. This was factually accurate to my experience, but in truth, markets shift and move, pieces come and go. Great English furniture will go off the market for years, making it seem like it is gone forever. But it does return and until that time, the use of the superlative is conditional at best. Indeed, the superlative is seldom relevant when talking about any kind of art. It either speaks to you or it doesn’t.
Experience is the essence of understanding. An antique dealer who has seen very little can talk in superlatives all day long, but exaggeration, in this case, belies experience. Indeed, it leads you to believe that exaggeration when used in selling is, by definition, inaccurate. When you have looked at thousands and thousands of chairs, for example, you realize that the greatest chair is one that is unique and that all chairs are unique. In fact, you become humbled through understanding and the penchant for talking about something as “the best” becomes absurd. As it should.
The big rain finally came today. April showers may be late, but they do always seem to make it sooner or later. I am not certain if it would have been better for the Spring Show, NYC, to have rain instead of beautiful weather. I think that if you have a good product, people will, just like April showers, come.
I would like to think that modern technology encouraged good products. But technology is the source of its own undoing. I think I have owned six mobile phones since 1997. Maybe five, but I am not sure. Why not make a phone that just takes a new chip and gets upgraded? The answer is that people love newness.
Newness is alluring. But so are things that are well maintained. In fact, if you look at the buildings of New York City, you will see new ones that capture the eye, but it is the old ones that capture the imagination. They may not even be stylish, an old warehouse can do the trick, but they speak of life. The distinction is noteworthy since we all hope to grow old.
The tulips have had a very good spring. No high winds or intense downpours have stripped the petals from the flower. Furthermore, there have been very few frosts, so it isn’t just the tulips that have prospered. It has been a very unusual spring from a meteorological perspective and we have benefitted by unusually long flower retention. It certainly brightens up the spring.
Condition is of huge importance to antique dealers. Not just personally, of course, but of the items we buy. We would all love to be able to buy that untouched rarity that Chippendale put into place two hundred and sixty years ago, but that just isn’t possible. Restoration is inevitable. When it is good restoration, a piece will continue to thrive. Poor restoration only hastens its demise.
The Spring Show, NYC opens tonight. It is a great show with, at least from my perspective, the friendliest exhibitors you will find anywhere. The ASPCA is the charity for opening night and their help and participation reflects their commitment to their mission. They are great partners. Should you read this and be in NYC, I will happily leave you a ticket at the door. It closes May 5, Sunday.
The NY Times columnists, Gail Collins and David Brooks, have a chat on Wednesdays in the online paper. The most recent started off about Margaret Thatcher and how non-introspective she was. David Brooks, obviously a fan, thought that it might be a necessary thing for a president since he wasn’t able to remember anyone since Carter who was introspective and he, of course, was a terrible president.
When you make things, you have to be decisive. Blue prints are to be followed to exactitude because if they aren’t the final product will be a dud. (Is this why the Edsel was a flop?) There is no room for creativity as every new addition needs to be drawn into the plans so that concomitant work will also fit. Only artists get away with extemporaneous abstractions.
David Brooks appreciation of Margaret Thatcher might also extend to Shariah Law—no introspection there. Or perhaps to Kim Jong-un. Or perhaps to Hugo Chavez or Fidel Castro. I don’t think introspection hinders a politician in the slightest. It is the press that doesn’t want their politicians to be introspective. Everyone wants firm resolve from their leaders. Thinking has never been less fashionable.
There was no wind the other morning at 6 AM when I went to the reservoir for my morning lap. Sunrise was imminent, but gray clouds just hung there. The water was smooth and reminded me of the silver gray hues of Vauxhall glass. The scene was, for my aging eyes, crystal clear, soothing and beyond beautiful. Moments such as these lend themselves to the spiritual if you are so inclined. If you are not, you do your best to remember them because they are beautiful.
Top quality Vauxhall mirror plate has a wonderful tonal quality that reflects both age and how it was made. Mirror plate is glass with silver leaf adhered to it. The method of getting the silver to adhere in the 17th century was with hot mercury, a highly poisonous process. (This was also how gold leaf was applied to brass or bronze.) Coupled with the intense pollution of stoking glass furnaces and the hot mercury, Vauxhall could not have been an ideal place for a home in the late 17th century.
There is a limited amount of antique Vauxhall plate in the world and I am quite certain it diminishes each year. There is a sublime quality to owning a looking glass that has a great original plate. (Not all plates age in the same fashion and some just lose their silver altogether.) The softness of the glass with the silver has an aesthetic quality that is sublime. And that is what I search for more than anything. And when I am really lucky I can find it anywhere, even at the Central Park Reservoir.
Dominant power in any situation is always temporary. Societies, religion, business all seem incapable of holding a center. Inevitably, there is change be it for better or worse if only because societal inertia is so implausible. This is equally true in our own lives. Change, however it manifests itself, whether in subtle or dramatic fashion, is a source of renewal and, ultimately, creativity.
In the 18th century, craftsmen were the interpreters of drawn designs, many of which had no specifics to guide them. Craftsmen of that era were concerned with method and procedure so that their creativity often looks like a natural evolution of what went before. When you think about the migration of styles through the 18th century, you just have to marvel at the subtle evolution of design. The role of craftsmen is often unheralded, but it was both essential and fascinating. Look, for example, how drawer construction developed or how moldings evolved. There was constant alteration.
The most interesting aspect of change is how we either adapt or attempt not to adapt to it. As inevitable as change may be, it is comforting to think that some things never change. Clearly, not all change is good nor for the better, but that doesn’t mean that you can stop it. You might wish to influence it somehow, but even then, change isn’t a function of social engineering. If it was, we might still be in the Garden of Eden. Then again, maybe not.
It is almost impossible to understand the complete ramifications of “being free”. Every human is subjected to a kind of brain washing when they are raised, be it by parents, care givers, schools, etc. It is inevitable and, in a normal upbringing, helps the child to adjust to society. Of course, the traits inherent in the child will surface eventually, but the child is no more free of them than of his upbringing. In a way, we are all destined to be a certain way.
Furniture design in the 18th century appears, in retrospect, to be a fluid continuum. One has to understand, however, that almost every piece of English furniture at this time was made to order. There is no doubt that the maker and pattern books influenced the client, but ultimately, it was the craftsman creating the piece who translated it into reality. It was his quirks and methods that made the piece. And yet, he could not be help but be influenced as well. The continuum is not fluid, but it is there.
Creating design work from scratch is, one thinks, a creative endeavor. However, what is out there is like a beating drum that you cannot get away from. It is no wonder that artists keep trying to find a way to be original. It is not unlike trying to be free. With human beings, however, I would say that critical thought is the only way to be free. As for all those designers creating buildings, cars, furniture, etc., your best shot is to create something that is either beautiful or which works extremely well.
From time to time, I drive through a village in Albany County called Preston Hollow. The town used to have a number of antiques shops, but in winter, nothing is open so I am not certain how many remain. The road through Preston Hollow, Route 145, goes by a number of houses built around 1850 in what was called the Greek style. The houses all have large fascia boards with a straightforward patterned fenestration and a roof pitch that is extremely recognizable.
Antique dealers have always liked to locate their shops in towns like Preston Hollow. The buildings not only have age, but many of them also seem mildly dilapidated, a factor that has a psychological affect on bargain seekers. The reverse is true for shops in the city where the high end client wants the shop they are walking into to reflect some grandeur. That is understandable as you hardly want to write a six figure check out to someone in a house that needs a paint job.
The sad thing about Preston Hollow is, however, not that it is losing its place as an antique center. It is that the Greek style houses are melting away. A house that I have watched for years has been abandoned and is now covered in vines and is being scavenged for materials. Three more years and it will be completely gone. I have seen this happen all along Rte. 145 as well as Rte. 20, the primary east/west road from Albany to Buffalo that long predates the New York State Thruway.
Time levels everything, of course, and I am not enough of a sentimentalist to believe that everything needs saving. Preston Hollow still has some wonderful houses. What I find to be very sad, however, is neglect. And neglect seems to partner with inertia during recessions to encourage even greater dilapidation which leads to even greater neglect. The cycle just increases when the money dries up like it has. It is a sad way to lose our heritage.
Have you ever walked down the street and found a dollar bill or maybe even a five or a ten? Neither have I. I know I have lost them, but I have never found any. The reason is that I like to look at people. All kinds of people attract my attention. Tall, short, fat, skinny, all colors, all ages are fun to look at. We are all worth a movie, in my opinion, and that is part of the fun of life. Grumps and overly serious minded people are, perhaps, the exception to the rule.
But when I am not looking at people, I look at buildings. I don’t reference them from any other point of view than their aesthetics. Of course some buildings are very memorable for their aesthetics, but some are not, most notably the majority of apartment buildings. I wondered to myself the other day, for example, why anyone would ever use a white glazed brick in an urban setting. It is a little like wearing all white to a mud wrestling event. It isn’t going to last so why be so foolish?
Looking at things is an extension of my job, which is looking at furniture. I look at all furniture. No era has a lock on the perfect design for something. The egg chair, for example, is the perfect chair for an adolescent suffering from, well, adolescence. And Gehry’s cardboard chair is ideal for people who move a lot, because it is so easy to carry. Mackintosh’s furniture sits well in his tea house, but not too many other spots and Wiener Werkstatte furniture is wonderful in cafes because it is light and sturdy and stylish.
The 18th century furniture makers, however, have a lock on craftsmanship. The French and English workshops had rigid apprenticeship systems and that slavish adherence to method produced incredible results. The woodcarving, the inlay, joinery, the choice of materials were all the best of the best. And because I love craft, I never cease to want to look at 18th century furniture. Take a really close look some time. No ten dollar bills, just million dollar craftsmanship.
The hula hoop was a fad when I was around eight or nine. So was the Pluto Platter which was the early version of the Frisbee. Fads, crazes and manias are extraordinarily interesting in their instant appeal across a wide spectrum of people. The Pet Rock was another one, but I have to say that I did not fall for it. I was thinking about fads because the same thing happened to English furniture in the 1980’s and 90’s.
I would not quite call it hysteria that gripped the market, but English furniture was certainly hot at the end of the last millennium. I would never say that the attention to English furniture wasn’t warranted. I believe in it as much now as I ever did. But like everything that gets “hot” there is an inevitable cooling off period. That is a law of physics that I do not have at my finger tips, but it could also be called just plain common sense.
Having said that it has cooled off, it appears that parts of the business have stayed red hot. Certain items sell for huge sums. I would call this the important furniture, English furniture that is just plain rare and superb. Of course, you might rejoin to me, great is always great and begets big prices. That isn’t always the case. Auctions, for example, stir the blood of bidders, knowledgeable and otherwise. Does the morning after ever bear regrets?
As a market, I am delighted that English furniture has largely cooled off. I have a number of great things in my inventory, but I also have some very good things as well. These items, I may have bought one a month for the last six months, are a lot less expensive than they would have been even ten years ago and I am selling them for a lot less as well. There is a big upside to the aftermath of a fad. That is, if you haven’t bought a lot of rocks.
I tried to start reading some of David Byrne’s book, “How Music Works”, opening the page indiscriminately at a section that was discussing Marshall McLuhan’s acoustic and visual distinctions of the world. It isn’t for me. However, I will give it a couple of more attempts because I think Byrne a musical genius and I am certain that he can tell me many things I might want to know.
If there is a difference between today and the 18th century, I think it partly resides in the way we experience things. Music, for example, can be experienced anywhere these days. In the 18th century, you had to go and watch the music and there was necessarily an involvement that was more than simple listening. The orchestra, the crowds, the violin that was out of tune, a bravura performance, the person with a cough—the experience was far more than the music by itself. This was true of every performance—you could not distance yourself from it.
I am certain Byrne has thought about this. In a broader context, if one’s interaction with music was greater in the 18th century, was that not also the case with everything? The question is whether our lives are removed, sort of encased as it were, because our existence can almost be hermetic, or for lack of a better word, digital? Does it matter that we are so removed from this more “life-like” experience? For my part, I know that furniture design and manufacture was never better than in the 18th century, but what does that mean?
I read an article about a snow boarder who does split boarding in the most inhospitable and death defying locations around the world. His goal is to confront himself physically and mentally to the fullest extent possible. To me, it seems like a crazy way to live, but for him it is life with a capital “L” and it certainly is not digitalized. Ultimately, I believe life is about going to the fullest extent. For a musician, I can see it being live performances. For me, I love not only knowing about 18th century furniture but buying, selling, touching and being amazed by it. It never ceases to open my eyes.