It must be fate and not being in the crossword puzzle tournament that had me finding a second new word in a week, odyle, in Wilkie Collins’ novel, “Moonstone”. The other word, anlage, was in “Grapes of Wrath”. I can’t say I would know how, or if, I would use either word. I will leave it to you to look them up.

Great design and great craftsmanship are a function of a really great vocabulary, not of words, of course, but of things that have been built before that function well. Even the designer that simplifies should know what he is leaving out. That is hard earned knowledge and was particularly so before travel was so easy and photographs so plentiful.

Of course, there are almost endless sources of design. Different cultures interpreted things quite differently and it is clear that there is really no right or wrong in any functioning design. But taste does exist and when you enter certain spaces and sit in certain environments that are exquisitely put together, they move you. The fellows that did all those Gothic cathedrals knew that much.


The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament begins tonight in Brooklyn. I wish I could attend as I owe my brief film career to a cameo or two in “Wordplay”, the movie about the tournament. I should, however, tend my shop which I will do while trying to complete the Saturday puzzle. Today’s was not that easy, I might add, but I did eventually get it. It wasn’t in minutes, however, more like two hours.

When I read, I often look for words that might show up in a crossword puzzle. In Steinbeck’s, “Grapes of Wrath”, the word anlage showed up twice. I always feel prepared when I come across a new word which, of course, is ridiculous. It isn’t odd words that make a puzzle difficult, it is odd clues.

One of the antique trade publications I subscribe to has a section devoted to photos that readers send in of items, usually tools of some sort, that were once used but are no longer and whose use is no longer understood. The world is full of puzzles and it is fun to try and solve a few.


The huge success of the Berge/St. Laurent sale in Paris belies the economic turmoil. My compliments to the two men for qualifying as possibly the greatest collectors of the latter half of the 20th century. They chose brilliant items of immense power and the response to their sale has been extraordinary.

Collecting is a learning process. It requires time, dedication, relationships with dealers and people in the know, great restraint and the ability to say, “yes”, when the price tag seems absurd. I happily sell great things because I am not a collector. A collector is putting together something that is theirs for which they will be known. It is the object, the right object, that is the game. There is a subtlety in that knowledge that very few will understand. It is magnificent quest of immense subtlety.


John Steinbeck wrote of the dispossed tenant farmers in Oklahoma in the 1930’s in, “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939), “The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It is a monster. Men made it but they can’t control it.”

In describing the value of antique furniture, one of the things that I say is that the craftsman was as intimate with his tools and materials as he was with his wife or children, probably more so. He knew that no amount of glue would make a bad joint hold. Nothing was done on faith and everything was done on practical experience.

The moment we allow ourselves to be removed from a process, we either lose control of it, or worse, lose sight of what that process means. Steinbeck saw it in 1939 and his words, prophetic for today’s malaise, are a poignant reminder of how being at a distance from what is happening on the ground is a dangerous thing.


If I were a member of the U.S. Congress, I would make an effort to know what is going on in my constituency. To that end, I would enlist the support of mayors, aldermen, city councillors of all parties asking for succinct answers on the problems being faced in their areas. I would avoid the promotional stuff of town meetings and look for the people that are working on the ground that are trying to help. Then I would take this to Congress and see what other Congressmen had to say. It is a learning process, not an ideological quest, because we already know where the ideological quest leads and it certainly isn’t to a better future.

The understanding of English antique furniture has been my life’s work. I have learned about woods, glues, finishes, woodworm, expansion and contraction of wood, been to museums and country houses countless times and finally, I have bought and sold it for twenty-five years. I would call myself a seasoned dealer, but I know there is more to learn. There is always more to learn.

There are lessons in literature. Great literature, however, does not tell you how to be. The lessons are (have to be) more subtle. For example, I was bored to tears by Lily Bart, Edith Wharton’s heroine in “The House of Mirth” when all of a sudden, in the last one hundred pages as Lily is quickly spiralling down the social ladder and her mental and physical health are declining, she has an epiphany about the meaning of life. It is not only believable, but extremely moving. Similarly, Kostya Levin in Tolstoy’s, “Anna Karenina”, learns that his raison d’etre is not dramatic but mundane and he accepts it wholeheartedly. Again, it is moving. Would that our congressmen take to understanding just what it is they were elected for and how they should implement that knowledge. It would make me feel a great deal better about where we might be heading.


In reading Alexandr Solzhinitsyn’s, “Gulag Archipelago”, there is a chapter in which the author tries to divine the amorality of the murderers and torturers of Stalin’s regime. His answer is that the individual, in adopting the ideology of the moment overrides their own morality, and is thereby capable of doing grievous acts. It is an elegant answer to a question that plagues society as petty tyrants wreak mayhem and destruction on innocent people.

My brother, the banker, once rather snarkily questioned the morality of antique dealers, a curious comment in light of the dilemma banks have maneuvered us into these days. Yes, I have known amoral dealers. Their rationale has been no better than that of petty tyrants or, for that matter, the bankers who justify their bonuses from the illusory profits they made in the “good” years. No one should claim the moral high ground.

Solzhinitsyn’s assertion on ideology being a refuge for an amoral act has resonance in the U.S. Congress these days. How can all but three Republican senators deny the stimulus bill and every Democrat pass it? I don’t say this because the bill is right or wrong, but from the point of view that the ideological divide doesn’t compute in these days of crisis. No one, that is no one, knows what is right or wrong in the current situation. Why don’t some of those politicians start looking for answers? I am beginning to think that Solzhinitsyn has a point.


People have always asked me if English antique furniture is a good investment. The question has been consistent from the first days I became a dealer. My response has always been that it is not an investment. (Truth be told, I might have equivocated now and then in relating antiques to say cars or houses.) You buy antique furniture because you like it and want to live with it. There is a romance and a history and a color and great craftsmanship and great lines…….., I could go on. Suffice it to say, that I do not believe it to be an investment, but it is lot of other things.

I have tried to put myself into the position of someone in Somewhere, USA that might wish to buy antique furniture, but who also doesn’t want to lose money buying the wrong thing. My recommendations are museums, websites, books, but in the end, it is the dealer who usually has the knowledge and if he doesn’t have it, he knows where to find it.

But then there are charlatans out there. Yes, and there will always be charlatans out there. Bernie Madoff fooled a great many people for a long time, after all. Furthermore, the money that was with Madoff was gone the moment you signed a check over to him. If your antique furniture dealer is a charlatan, you can go after him with a lawyer and make his life miserable for awhile which, by the way was happening a lot when I first came into the business as there were dealers (several in Pound Ridge where I first opened up) who openly sold new things as antiques.

This is small consolation as all of us want to believe in people, particularly the charming ones who know how to disarm you in seconds flat. The concept of a “fake” antique is particularly upsetting for some reason and to be sold in that way is almost like have a picture circulating of you with your pants around your ankles. There is acute embarrassment in being hoodwinked. Think of those poor Madoff investors (some very good friends of mine) who have to be sanguine and allow the courts to untangle his mess. I would say to those people who were put off from buying antique furniture in order to invest their money in the real market that even some great investments don’t prove to be investments. I still won’t sell my antiques as investments, no matter what anyone says.


The sea god Proteus was able to change his shape and thereby adapt to situation. I have to believe that Charles Darwin must have hoped that the adaptablity he saw in species was the essential adaptation of all life forms. Abraham Lincoln, born the same day and year as Darwin, was a quintessential protean politician, adapting as the need saw fit, the need being maintaining the Union. He was so protean that people continue to argue about what Lincoln really believed in. The answer should be self evident in the 13th amendment, but then words sometimes don’t speak as loudly as declamations.

The truth is that we all have to believe in ourselves. George W. Bush was so effective at conveying his confidence that it got him eight years in the White House. Antique dealers know full well how important it is to believe in their taste and in what they are selling. Hesitation means a lost sale. The real trick, of course, is the message that is being sold. In Lincoln’s case, it was saving the Union, but he also saw fit to declare the Emancipation Proclamation and have the 13th amendment passed. In my case, I can only hope that people understand that my motive is pure.

Legacies are a different matter altogether. As Lincoln’s legacy is clouded by a few naysayers but similarly evangelized by others, it behooves us to accept what he did and not try to interpret his motives. For newly developed species, the development of a longer nib or a different color is plain to see–there is no quibbling about that legacy. For people who buy antiques, they have something tangible to own and enjoy and appreciate that speaks of history and a different way of life. How satisfying!


The profile of me that Paul O’Donell wrote for the January, “Magazine Antiques” is very flattering and I greatly appreciate the publicity. He is an excellent writer and he weaves a very good story. His portrayal is a little inaccurate and I feel he makes me out as if I am the only person in the antiques trade that tells the truth. The trade, in a word, is all about truth, and those persons who have proved to be untruthful about their inventory certainly don’t exhibit in vetted shows. As for those people whose lives in general are about using and abusing others, the trade does not judge people for those characteristics.

Mr. O’Donnell finished the article with a quote that I used in a blog from John Steinbeck’s, “East of Eden” which was, “The truth has more permanence.” This is a magnificent line, but it has very little to do with honesty in my opinion and I don’t wish for the two to be confused, partly because of my profile and partly because there are a great many truthful people out there. Honesty is a heartfelt declaration of what seems to be the truth at the moment. On NPR this morning, there was a story of a man wrongly imprisoned for rape. His accuser admits her mistake, but claims that it was an honest one. The truth is something altogether different–it is what actually is or has happened, not what one is being honest about.

“The truth will out” is a quote from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”. It is probably the inspiration for Steinbeck’s line, as a matter of fact. I don’t know if the truth does always come out, but it has a certain irrepressibility, rather like a cork that knows only how to float. It is confusing to think we can be misled honestly–it has happened in the antiques field more times than any dealer would care to admit–but the reality is that if you care, you can usually find the truth somewhere. Honestly.


Sound bites are the essence of the new age. We can find them just about anywhere. How much of any story do they ever tell, however, and just how useful are they, or are they potentially harmful? The question, as important as it can be, is inevitably flawed as we need to encapsulate in order to grasp greater understanding.

So where does this leave anyone who does want to know something, but not more? Ideally, this is a person who wishes to be informed but who does not feel that he has enough grasp of a situation to be “expert”. Human nature tends to override our desire to be mute, however, and the world is full of people willing to opine.

This blog is a good example of opining, but I try to keep my judgments to a minimum although that is difficult, I have to admit. I think I would like it known that almost all of us with an opinion are not experts. We are just teeing off, hoping that the drive is straight and true. Forgive me for my hooks and slices.