It used to be that the buses in London, after the rush was over, would have plenty of older women going to do their shopping. They would sit across from each other at the back of the bus, facing one another and yet not knowing their interlocutors and talk about the weather. It is something that doesn’t happen anymore as the seat arrangement on the driver only buses is different and the lack of a conductor has somehow diminished the chit chat. I guess this is progress but I miss them.

A friend I met on the street this morning said he thought there was status in having a heated home. He even thought that status extended, at least in the minds of those people owning homes in hot places, to vacation homes where the weather was warmer. I think he has a point, particularly when you think about the power that wearing less clothes has (for younger men and women) which is not socio-economic based to the diminished power of a winterized yacht which is socio-economic based. In other words, why have the yacht if it is in mothballs when you should be showing it off?

I am skewing his reference slightly and on purpose as I know he meant the warmth one has indoors. The absence of warmth is a serious problem for those that do not have it. In medieval times, the people who had it still did not have it that much as rooms were draughty and the science of insulation was, as yet, unborn. Wearing lots of layers was understood, but hygiene was not, so being warm also meant being dirty. Medieval times must have been the golden age of the flea, louse and bedbug. I hear they are all making strong comebacks.

Frankly, I like the winter. I know that the best way to keep warm is to keep moving which I try to do. It isn’t so easy in a small apartment. I get cold when I sit in one spot for a long time so bed has a particular attraction in winter. But it is far worse being too warm and I don’t really like air conditioning. It used to be that we would have two heat waves of roughly ten days to two weeks. That, like my ladies on the bus, seems to have changed. I don’t mind that either–the sooner winter comes the better–but then my status is not imperiled by the cold weather, nor is my hygiene. Thank goodness for hot water!


Holiday wishes are sort of corny. Yes, you want people to enjoy themselves, take some time off and relax, but it is also a time to reflect, not so much on one’s religion, but on the renewal that is necessary for all of us at some point in the year. Might as well be now as any other time as the daylight starts its annual resurgence in the northern hemisphere. But it is also a time to reconnect with people, perhaps through a gift, a card, a short note or even a phone call. I get to do it through my blog.

I would like to thank a number of people. Most recently, I went to “The Tales of Hoffman” at the Metropolitan Opera at the invitation of John Werwaiss. It was spectacular. There is Robert Morrissey of Clark Graves Antiques in St. Louis, MO who embodies the intellectual curiosity of great dealers. He recently re-dsicovered the work of Stan Masters, an American painter of skill and vision. At the other side of the state is Todd Miller of Charlecote Antiques who has given heart and soul to the Antique Dealers League. A better, kinder, gentler and more generous person would be hard to find. Gaylord Dilliingham who closed his shop this last April whose eye is magnificent and who ran a shop for close on to forty years is another open hearted and generous dealer. Michael Hughes of London embodies generosity in his dealings and in his approach to life. He also likes Halloween in San Francisco. Johnny Coulborn of Sutton Coldfield near Birmingham and Richard Coles of London are two more dealers I enjoy for their great taste, warm hearts and special feel for antiques which reminds me that the dealers I have mentioned are in the business for the love of the antiques, not for the love of business. Their good customers know the truth of that.

There are many others on my list but their omission from this list does not signal an omission in my regard. There are some extraordinary people in my business and they are worth getting to know. May they all prosper in the New Year and may many more people get turned on to the love of this field of antiques. It has a lot to offer.


Lawmakers who say they have to vote their conscience intrigue me. What part does their conscience play in their life? Do they usually do things contrary to their conscience? Are they moral people to begin with or are they merely cogs in a political machine? And what about the people they represent? In reading about Robert George in the NY Times Sunday Magazine, I recognized someone who is willing to be my (and America’s)  conscience. No thank you.

Politics in England towards the end of the 18th century are a lesson in how playing politics can backfire on you. James Fox, the prominent and talented Whig politician of a decidedly humanistic bent (he was anti-slavery and pro America) spent his political life supporting the heir apparent, a man with little moral turpitude. Getting in bed with the Prince stymied Fox’s career and did not cover him with glory as the Prince thought of little but himself. You could say the two men were polar opposites. Fox put his conscience on hold to his detriment.

The dilemma that all of us face is our own moral compass. Hamlet certainly expressed this clearly and Iago made it clear that he had none. Evil, evidently, does not equivocate whereas goodness has degrees or perhaps levels. What may be good now might not be so later and vice versa. This is too equivocal for some who can site the Ten Commandments as their moral compass. But what makes a war a good one? This is a question of conscience perhaps, but whose, yours mine or someone else’s?


That history holds lessons for us is undeniable. The real question is whether we want to listen to them. Clearly, the low moments of history have been foreshadowed, perhaps in a slightly altered fashion, time and again. If there truly is romance in history, it is that it repeats itself and we have the chance, as in the movie Ground Hog Day, to renew our approach to calamitous circumstances leading to calamitous consequences.

Years ago, I decided to rip saw a dogwood log. It was about ten inches in diameter and three feet long. It was work even though I was young and the saw was sharp. It made me realize the immense amount of labor that went into sawing a log into planks, let alone dressing it for use. There is a reason why single board mahogany dining table tops over thirty inches in width are so highly valued. They were valued then for their labor and they are valued now for their scarcity.

I flew into the new Montreal airport in 1973 or 74 to visit a friend. The airport was supposed to be the latest in technologically advanced airports. What I remember is the acres of what I called Rio Rosewood plywood used on almost every wall. What has happened to all that beautiful plywood now that the airport is closed? Rio Rosewood was extremely rare in England at that time and the airport’s interior made me realize why. There is a lesson, perhaps more than one, in all that exuberant extravagance.


I found myself preoccupied with Nostradamus walking to work. It might have been the photograph of the vanishing lake in Bolivia on the front of the NY Times which is an essential water source to many Bolivians. The glaciers that feed the lake are virtually gone. Global warming, I figured, may not have been part of Nostradmus’ calculations concerning the end of the world, but they could have been. Our natural resources, water in particular, are vanishing. A more scary scenario need hardly be envisioned.

The boy scout motto, “Be Prepared” does have a ring to it. The naysayers of global warming should take note of it. After all, we are prepared for all sorts of eventualities that we hope will never come about, most of them wrapped up in any American Defense Department budget of the last 70 years. Most of us entreat some form of god to have mercy on us and that is certainly a defensive posture. So why not global warming as well?

In the end, almost all of us are waiting for some sort of savior, not necessarily a spiritual one, but that too. We look to our doctors, lawyers, bankers or the New York State lottery to pull us out of some kind of mess or other. Such wishful thinking may be a constituent of hope, but real hope is within ourselves. To have any success on this planet, you must know yourself which is why I segued from Nostradamus to the Delphic Oracle. You can’t be prepared without it.


When Mick Jagger sang the line, “it’s the singer, not the song,” he may have had a point, but when it comes to art, it isn’t the owner of the art that matters. It is about the art, nothing more or less. There have been collectors noted for their taste, ability and general acquisitiveness, but those aspects reveal only a facet of their lives. Art, on the other hand, is art, it doesn’t change with who owns it.

But collectors, as a rule, are interesting people. They are, and this is true whether they collect milk bottles, Rembrandts or stamps or anything else for that matter, a society unto themselves. Their passion has put them into a society that has a pecking order and their behavior is, to some extent, predictable. There are big money collectors, their are shrewd collectors, there are purists, boasters, the list is endless. I would say that a majority of collectors don’t see their obsession. They know its there, but they don’t see it. Collecting, as much as they breathe and pump blood, is a part of them. God bless them.

Dealers have always lived outside of the collecting world. Since dealers do not hold onto things, unless it is as investment, their presence is almost like a chaperone at a teenage date. And yet collectors know that dealers find things and, if they are competent, they know how and where something should be restored. Dealers are a necessary evil who stand between object and obsession. The auction houses have tried to minimize the dealer’s importance and they have had some success. But the smartest collectors know that the dealers know what they want and need to know and that they, even obsessed, can’t know everything. God bless them for that as well!


Determining what is art according to what has been collected over the years, as the Frick is doing in its Center for the History of American Collecting, is extremely tricky. Almost everyone is a collector of some sort or another. Why should one person’s collection of shoes, for example, be considered “art” while another’s collection of bottle caps not be so considered? Is there a line that eventually gets drawn about what is collected that qualifies as art and who draws the line?

Frankly, what is considered art boils down to taste. Furniture offers a very real test of what is good taste, partly by its survival and partly by how well it was made. This is not to say that solid pieces of furniture are all in good taste, but it does mean that they have one quality by which “good” furniture is measured. But “good” does not guarantee taste. There has to be an aesthetic hook or otherwise, like all those well made Victorian wardrobes, they will be cut up and used to make something else.

Which is the point about what is good taste. The decision about what is good taste will be made by ensuing generations. The shark in formaldehyde will eventually disintegrate (as it has already once) and a new shark will be needed. How long will that maintenance continue? All things in this world require maintenance and those works of art that need a lot of it will suffer the fate of the shark if there isn’t someone to foot that bill. Time, it seems, not only weeds out survivors and shapes our view of what is art, but it does so in a willy-nilly fashion. Frankly, if I had my money in a lot of conceptual art, I would dump it now. I would be worried about those ensuing generations.


An article from The New York Observer about the study of art collecting caught my eye today. Inge Reist is a director of the two year old Center for History of Collecting in America at the Frick Museum and, if I understand the article correctly, Ms. Reist believes that collectors essentially determine what is art. It is an interesting hypothesis, but I am not certain that I entirely agree with it.

Furniture collecting has been a story of neglect and it continues to be a story of neglect. The job for most dealers is to recognize what has been discarded, neglected and broken and to bring those items “back to life”. Furniture is not the same as art, but I know plenty of art dealers who do what I do. There are precious few collectors who do it simply because they have neither the knowledge or the confidence.

This is not to say Ms. Reist is wrong. There are collectors who recognize genius. But there is a conflict here. Having seen the Kandinsky exhibition at the Guggenheim, I felt that Kandinsky’s work ranged from near genius to mediocre. Solomon Guggenheim, under the direction of the painter Hilla von Rebay, bought Kandinsky extensively. Did Guggenheim make Kandinsky or would he have been appreciated anyway? The question is an interesting one. I would love to have a conversation with Ms. Reist on the subject.

 

The Frick’s study on the collector and his influence on art started me to think about artists. Artists are interested in two things, the first to please themselves and the second, if they are professional, making a living. In other words, an artist is driven by two, sometimes opposing, currents, one is personal satisfaction and the second is business.

Great 18th century furniture was made by men who did not compromise on quality. There was a commercial imperative that drove them to make everything the best that it could be. There were no compromises. Compared to the furniture industry today, barring a few properly trained bespoke makers, the 18th century is nonpareil.

Unlike furniture, if you can convince someone of the value of your art, you are, in essence, an artist even if the critics tear into you every time they look at your work. But in the decorative arts, function trumps the word, “art”, requiring items that are sturdy and useful. Imagine trying to sell a chair with two legs? This is not to say there is no “art” in furniture because there certainly is.

The amorphous meaning of the word, “art” is ultimately the sticking point in granting the right to call any collector’s collection, “art”. The unique sensation achieved by the viewer of any piece of art, be it discarded dental floss or the Mona Lisa, makes it “art”. Taste is not relevant to the discussion of what is and isn’t “art”.

On my part, I feel the great leveler of stuff (“art” that not all of us agree with) is time. That which gets neglected and ultimately destroyed will cease to have a hold on anyone. It is no longer “art” at that point. The Frick’s endeavor to classify art by what is collected seems premature particularly with the plethora of contemporary art on the market. Time has not had the chance to destroy things, but it will. The “art” may or may not remain. We would like to believe that it will.


An article in the NY Times yesterday about a pre-Mesopotamian, European culture showed some artifacts from that culture. One small gold object looked like a study for a Brancusi sculpture. Last year, while I was in Berlin, I saw some Egyptian statues at the Pergamon Museum that looked like Giacometti sculptures. On Sunday, while viewing a Leonardo exhibit at the Discovery Center in Times Square, I saw a working drawing that could have been a Kandinsky drawing.

I bought a mirror several years ago that has a distinctly baroque shape. However, the style of the carvings–the mouldings, the carving on the flat and the crest–are all distinctly neo-classical. So, here is a frame that could date 1730 that can only be thirty-five to forty years later. How did this frame come into being? I don’t know, but it is original and I like it for being so unusual. In a way, it is original, but it isn’t.

I can appreciate, on an intellectual level, what conceptual artists achieve in their work. They can claim originality, which is a difficult thing to do, because their art is the thought in their mind. Throw a shark in a tank and it can mean anything. Do endless silk screens of celebrities or even every day objects and you are a genius for stating the obvious. Originality of this sort is an eldorado for the artist. But from what I keep seeing, there are no new ideas.


From time to time, once I acknowledge how little I know about English furniture, I wish I knew about other things as well such as, for example, icons. In reading Chris Wickham’s, “The Inheritance of Rome”, I came to understand the debt owed by western art to the Orthodox church. It is a circuitous path and one that I am not totally certain of but it is clear that a woman named Eirene, a woman who, among other things, blinded her son to become Empress of Constantinople in 797 A.D., had a stong hand in bending the theology of the Catholic church in Constantinople to venerating icons.

Eirene was the daughter-in-law to Constantine V, wife to Leo IV and after his death regent for her son, Constantine VI, before becoming Empress. In 785 A.D. while still regent, she called for a council to study the inclusion of the veneration of images into the church. After a second council was called in Nicaea in 787 A.D., her ideas were adopted. The Orthodox church was largely established as we know it this day after that second council. And the painting and veneration of icons became central to the theology of the Orthodox church.

Iconoclasm, the movement that tried to stop Eirene and the Second Council of Nicaea, did have some hold in Germany and there was also a ban on holy images in both Islam and Judaism. It is remarkable to think that this woman’s actions, her insistence, led to the great western tradition of church art. It isn’t really clear why she was such a fan of the painted image, whether it was a reaction to her Iconoclast father-in-law or whether she wanted to make her mark because she loved painting. No one could have foreseen Leonardo’s, Last Supper, or Michelangelo’s, Creation.