A number of people brought to my attention the article written by Nancy Keates in Friday’s Wall Street Journal. It was impressive that Ms. Keates could put a number on how little antique furniture is compared to last year, i.e. thirty cents to the dollar.

Facts and figures really are punchy. The quotations accompanying the article point to a severe decline in the antique furniture market. Having written about the English furniture market for over 30 years, I can say that one of the quotes by Simon Redburn from Sotheby’s is no different from the quotes I have heard from dealers and auctioneers from the very first article I wrote in Art and Auction in 1979. Good things sell, second rate things don’t.

The furniture market belies market analysis for one simple reason. Quality, the essential ingredient behind value, is undefinable. Two pieces made by the same cabintmaker might be worth vastly different sums for a number of reasons. No other market is like furniture in this way. Does Ms. Keates understand this? I don’t think so.

Within the English furniture market, there are a number of different markets which heat up and die down. Economics can cause a market to go off the boil as it will reduce the number of bidders, but collectors die or complete their collections as well. It isn’t just a function of price. If you look at the sale Christie’s had in June in London where the record for English furniture in auction was broken three times in one night, you might conclude that one part  of the market was bullish. Mid-Georgian furniture with a provenance seems very hot to me. Wish I had more of it.

Generalizations about the furniture market suffer for other reasons as well. The economic recession has reduced the number of players in the market. Many of these people could be called speculators and speculators will ride good economic times and pull out in bad simply because they don’t understand the markets as well as they might. What a surprise this is! Housing also seems to be falling as well. Don’t kid yourself, there are a great many people watching and waiting and wondering when to get back in. The WSJ article is just a starting point for them.

I often liken the complexity of the furniture market to trying to assess the value of a diamond at thirty yards. Is that actually a diamond one sees glittering on the ground over there or is it a discarded plastic bottle? The people who know it is a diamond are the people I don’t want to listen to.

One of the things that has made America unique in the world is the ability to quantify things that are unquantifiable.The hamburger is a good case in point. The Wall Street Journal turned their attention to quantifying antique furniture sales last Friday in an article by Nancy Keates.

The numbers she throws out are impressive, but what do they mean? She cites the fact that only 141 Queen Anne pieces sold on Ebay compared to 2,376 mid century modern pieces and 2,132 Eames inspired designs. Which part of the market do any of these pieces represent? She quotes both Leigh Keno and Simon Redburn, luminaries in the business to bolster the article from the high end perspective, but when coupled with the Ebay statistics, the reader is more confused than edified.

Articles such as the one by Ms. Keates make me wonder just how newsworthy a great many articles are. What does she know about the furniture she cites in her article save to say that it underperformed at auction. Did it have good color, was it restored, were there other pieces in the sale that were similar? The variables are many in such situations. What I would suggest to Ms. Keates, had I been asked, is that quantification of the antique furniture market is not one that the Wall Street Journal should attempt. The attempt, in the eyes of the professionals at least, comes off as silly verging on pejorative.


A friend who has had trouble with a building contractor was fulminating about how any future builder working for him would have a contract written out by the best lawyer he knew. I asked him whether trust was a factor in hiring this new contractor and he said that it didn’t matter because the contractor would be bound by the contract. Seems contradictory to me. You have to trust the man to do the job before you can entertain giving him a contract, don’t you?

I understand his feelings. My trust has been abused a number of times over the years and those circumstances still burn me. However, I have realized that if the right intent is there, there can be trust. You don’t want to hire a round peg for a square hole, of course, but if you can hire someone that is capable of filling the square hole properly and who is willing to perform at a hundred percent, a contract becomes a mere formality. Necessary, perhaps, but still a formality.

I have written before about just how important trust is to me. I feel it is the lynch pin of our society, because if you can’t trust, no amount of legalese is going to make you trust. Indeed it is the lynch pin of civilization and it is what is lacking in the world today. Personally, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt–it allows them to abuse me if they wish. But once abused, I can assure you that they will have to earn my trust after that. And it won’t be easy.


The ability to determine bad taste really should not be too difficult. The recent cover of the New Yorker, for example, was in bad taste. It showed Obama and his wife in the oval office dressed as Muslim and militant. Aside from the fact that irony is alien to most Americans, what’s the joke here?

In English furniture, there is one euphemism that I find totally offensive. Oddly, I don’t mind antique dealers using it, because they understand what it means. It is “boring brown” to describe the entire genre of English furniture. Someone who doesn’t really know what it means should not use the term. It is in bad taste. One of the decorators interviewed in the article on John Hobbs in the New York Times used the term to describe why he bought with Hobbs, to bypass the boring brown. Hopefully, his clients are boring down on him for spending their money so indiscriminately.

Bad taste is understood sensually, visually and intellectually. Bad judgment is often bad taste but bad taste is not always bad judgment. The above decorator had bad judgment and bad taste. The editors at the New Yorker had bad judgment because their point, that Obama is none of those things pictured in the cartoon on the cover, will be missed by the multitude. Why not make jokes about rednecks and hillbillies instead?


Jose Saramago’s book, “Seeing”, takes a simple premise, the desire by the majority of the populace in a capitol city to leave the ballot blank, and demonstrates the inevitable megalomania of a few of the ruling elite.It is a chilling book that demonstrates the fragility of democracy in the face of the arrogance of power.

In my lifetime, beginning with Truman, I believe that there have been possibly three presidents who have dealt fairly with the power of their office. I have to admit that it would be terribly difficult to have such power. But what I find so amazing is that you will find the same megalomania in towns and villages around America.

It is true in the antiques world as well. One dealer that was hoisted on his own petard, never liked to be contradicted, particularly by the pickers that would bring things to him for sale. He was, in his mind, infallible and that is the picture of arrogance. He fell, as most do, in the long run.


If furniture is all about function, and it is, then painting, oil painting specifically, is all about color. Of course, line is tremendously important in painting just as style is important in furniture, but it is color that is the artist’s goal once he sets brush to canvas.

In reading the NY Times review of the Turner retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, I have to say that I was more than a little startled by a few of the adjectives used by the reviewer, Roberta Smith which included “mechanical” and “overblown”. They would hardly be the words I would use to describe the artist who set painting free of the tyranny of line. His work is about color and how to get it onto the canvas and still represent what it is that he sees (or saw) in his mind’s eye. That achievement is singular in painting history.

The show is a triumph in my opinion and will help give even better context to the multitude of Turner’s works on view at the Tate Museum in London. Turner was a professional artist who lived to paint and that is quite evident in this show. His abstraction became a logical extension of color and in that, he set painting free for better or for worse. It is a tremendous show.


I have just finished reading “The Master and Margarita”, a novel by Mikhail Bulgakov which was written during the last twelve years of his life between 1928-40. It is a transcendant work, rich in allegory, satire and symbol. Would that I knew more of Bulgakov as well as the time period and Russian literature and I would perhaps have enjoyed the novel that much more. Regardless, it is an extraordinary read.

I am on my second Roberto Bolano called, “By Night in Chile”. Bolano is also a satirist and his work is rich with complex characters whose meaning unravels page by page. And you want to read the next page to find out who these people are and what they mean. Bolano, unfortunately, died at the age of fifty, five years ago. His talent is crystal clear.

What my reading has to do with antiques is not so clear, save for cultural understanding, which is what I do as an antique dealer. I have worked to understand the 17th-19th centuries in Europe, visiting houses and museums, and learning about restoration, reading endless histories so that I can feel satisfied that I know what I am doing. It is a handle that I have to have to feel comfortable about being an antique dealer. With the novels that I read, it is a handle that I long to have on the rest of the world.