One should not speak ill of the dead, but when I read Clive Devenish’s paean to his father in the front of the catalogue for the Tom Devenish Sale at Sotheby’s last week, I was, quite simply appalled. Tom Devenish, as portrayed by his older son, was a genius, a man of inestimable talent. I guess I might say the same thing if I had been left a nice estate, but the truth is very far from what he wrote.

Years ago, I spied a very good tripod table at Christie’s East, Christie’s lesser outlet on 67th St. that had fairly regular sales, often with very good items. This tripod table had a raised gadroon border and was spectacular. I was a friend to Tom, and I thought he was to me, so when he called and asked if there was anything in the sale, I told him about the table. He promised me that he would not bid for it. I was on the phone to make the bid but when it came up, he was in the room and bought it for $7,000. When I confronted him on it, he lied to me and said that he did not know I was on the phone.

How many times Tom did this to other people I am unable to say, although I know of several similar stories. I was certainly naive and the tale is an oft told tale among London dealers who would cut their rivals throats. But to pretend friendship in order to use someone is not only low, it is contemptible. I had helped Tom a great deal in a great many ways. I was thunderstruck by his greed. I would happily have bought a half share. He did not share with anyone in any way, ever.

I would like to say that his taste was good and that he had particular knowledge, but what he had was tenacity and an ability to suss out what others wanted. I will never forget the Moller sale at Sotheby’s when he knew he was bidding against Mallett for a mahogany bookcase, which Tom bought and which they eventually bought from him. I would like to say it was his courage that made him bid so much, but he knew that if Mallett wanted the piece, they would have to come through him and that meant a profit. Clever of him to figure this out and smart of him to persist, but none of this makes him a dealer with taste or knowldege.

He was a reprehensible figure with no redeeming graces, brutal and self serving. I am sorry I ever spent any time with him. He was not so much a disgrace to the English furniture business, but a disgrace to all those who, mistakenly, cared for or about him.


When we really know the character of the person(s) involved in scandal, it is seldom surprising and in fact isn’t really scandal. What we are doing is taking voyeuristic delight in another person’s karma. Richard Nixon, for example, told us he was not a crook. (Beware the solipsistic oxymoronic dialectic confession–it is just too confusing.) And we knew that Bill Clinton enjoyed female company. Was the Monica Lewinsky story a scandal therefore? No, it was Bill Clinton down to his last Socratic defense trying to define the word, “is”.

In the antiques business, we are not immune to people with odd karmas and some of them become quite successful dealers. Some of these dealers have flamed out, some have battled lawsuits, some have succumbed and some have survived. Every dealer sees the opportunity of being unethical, but it is the unethical people who happen to be dealers that take advantage of the situation. These situations aren’t scandals, they are karma. Most of them would have been far more successful as politicians where real scandal exists. Such as the building of a fence to keep out illegal immigrants. What poppycock! That and the powers given to Homeland Security are a true scandal.


I am close to finishing Ian Baker’s, “The Heart of the World”, which is the story of his repeated excursions to the beyul, or sacred valley, in Tibet known as Pemako. It is an extraordinary story with Baker’s understanding of himself growing with each journey. The hardships are extensive and enduring them is the leit-motif to the exploration of this rugged terrain.

It is Baker’s Buddhist training that keeps him aligned. The need to understand why is the primary goal and the search for various Buddhist steps of enlightenment the raison d’etre of all the journeys. The compelling narrative that includes the many hardships, from Chinese bureaucracy, inadequate maps, stinging nettles, leeches, swamps and much more, as well as Buddhist characters of transcendant happiness lead us to appreciate this sanguine discipline that on the surface can seem both selfish and selfless.

The Buddhist discipline seems so much clearer for having been forged in such rugged terrain that is both bountiful and treacherous. I am not a spiritualist in any sense of the word, but I can clearly understand Baker’s yearning for understanding and his restlessness to completely understand this beyul so full of contradictions.

Ultimately, Baker yields to a grant from National Geographic to picture the heretofore unseen waterfalls of the Tsangpo River. A six mile stretch of the river has never been seen because the gorge that it runs through is 2000 feet deep and the walls down to the river are sheer. Baker’s understanding, and it keeps coming to him through every travail, could just be the aging process, but whatever it is, the man reveals a deep sense of commitment to a world that is not his own and the book is all the more powerful for this revelation.

 

Ian Baker’s, “The Heart of the World”, ends with an equanimity that must certainly relate to his many journeys to the beyul of Pemako in Tibet. If this is how one attains enlightenment, I ain’t goin. His journeys are mind boggling.

The heart of being an antique dealer is being exposed to the otherness that antiques represent. The aesthetic qualities, the craftsmanship and materials is more than social history, more than beauty–it is a testament to why things survive. It is something to think about.

A friend who is restoring a house worries about the interminable bills he is confronted with. Who wouldn’t be? Such questions belie any case for individual enlightenment. Or do they?

 


I don’t wish to be pessimistic, but I do like frogs and I admire bats. I love bees and salmon are quite something to watch. I wonder if some governmental agency is being given a pat on the back for keeping an eye on the situation, that is the unknown plagues that each of these species is undergoing. It is hard not to be cynical of this current group in power that has deemed that a fence on the Mexican border is more important than environmental concerns or the property owners whose land is being usurped. I am not just talking about our president but all the rest of Congress that feels so strongly about this issue. What are we doing? Stone walls do not a prison (read border here) make nor iron bars a cage. My mother used to say that to me when I was young. It was true then and it is true now.