Hans Fallada was a German writer who somehow survived WWII in Germany, only a small part of his life experience much of which is far more novelistic than most novels. “Every Man Dies Alone”, his last novel was based on a true story and was written just after the war and is set in war time Berlin where paranoia and human brutality is the norm. Nothing can be relied on, least of all humanity, and I find myself flashing back to Kafka and realizing just how prescient he was.

The cabinetmaking trade in late 18th century London was roiled by the burgeoning middle class which needed furniture. New markets created a struggle among the guilds, the trade unions and cabinet shop owners, part of which upset the traditional apprentice system. Entrepreneurs sensed this opportunity and small shops set up to take advantage of the market. These shops were called the “dishonorable trade” by the established West End makers. Some of these shops used shoddy materials and short cuts in production. If any antique furniture should be considered fraudulent, it is the product of these shops, much of which is not worth restoring even to this day.

Pernicious is the best word for the society Fallada writes about. When I use the word society, however, I think of an interdependent group. Fallada’s cast, apart from a few idealists, is hardly interdependent. It is not a society, it is a fraud, a place where lies, greed and bullies win the day, a system that the Nazi party only encourages. You could almost say that these traits reflect capitalism run amok–think BP or Chinese cat food. Or, perhaps, some members of the London cabinetmaking trade at the end of the 18th century?


Reading Franz Kafka’s, “The Castle”, is a little bit like letting HAL run your spacecraft. He just keeps taking you out and out and out and ultimately, he wants to be alone. Fortunately, you can put the book down. Clearly, Kafka understood totalitarianism and how it self perpetuates through misguided belief in the “system”.

Totalitarianism appears to be a human condition. At any given time, there are at least two or three such regimes in the world. When you think on it, a totalitarian leader believes only in himself and ultimately the system is built on greed. It is unclear to me whether today’s technology abets the totalitarian or vice-versa. Maybe a little bit of both.

Totalitarianism succeeds because truth does not announce itself. It has to be looked for and then understood. Kafka makes it very clear that truth is not self-evident and that is one of the things that is so scary about his writing. He makes untruth so very plausible. Other writers have done it since, but Kafka does it eerily. His writing gives me the chills.


I am losing my wonderful assistant, Kristen, to motherhood soon. This will be the third to motherhood and while they have all been great, Kristen has been that plus some. She has an easygoing manner, a great smile and she works hard. I will miss her and so will more than a few of my clients.

I know I have referred to Queen Anne’s (1702-1714) nineteen pregnancies before. One was an hysterical pregnancy, many were miscarriages and one infant made the age of one. Talk about taking a hit for God and country. Protestantism doesn’t have martyrs, but Anne deserves a mention.

My own mother said that the summer of 1949 was very hot. She claimed that she sat on the beach feeling like a whale, but with three other children, 10, 7 and 2, and no help I doubt that was the case. It was all in a day’s work, I guess. I can’t thank her enough.


I loved visiting Portugal. Warm hearted people with a beautiful coast line, Roman ruins, cathedrals, walled cities and one of the oldest universities in Europe at Coimbra. I picked up “Night Train to Lisbon” by Pascal Mercier, partly because of these memories and because the first paragraph seemed interesting. And it is, and it is also a short course in philosophy as well as being an allegorical tale with lots of levels of meaning.

I don’t think of Oxford and Cambridge when I visit England whereas I do think of Coimbra when I think of Portugal. I have visited Oxford many times, but the visit I remember best was when my friend Guy Durham was in digs one summer where I visited him for an afternoon and evening. Guy was an Anglophile of the first order and he wanted to experience Oxford, albeit as a mature student, the way an undergraduate might. We went to Evensong and a well known pub as well as taking numerous short cuts around the town. He knew his Oxford, that is for sure.

I was told by my mother that the Lisbon Botanical Garden was one of the great European botanical gardens because the Lisbon climate could sustain both tropical and temperate plants. The garden, when I saw it in 1999, was in some state of neglect, but the bones were there and hopefully it has been brought back to its former splendor. Mercier’s book uncovers the darkness of the Salazar years through the writings of an aristocratic physician which were published posthumously by his sister. The interlocutor is a professor of classical languages from Switzerland. The bones Mercier uncovers are like the bones of the Botanical Garden–all there and waiting to be re-discovered.

 


I was listening to Brian Lehrer on WNYC this morning and he had a guest on talking about the ten ugliest buildings in NYC. To begin with, one has to take the concept of ugly with a grain of salt. When you come right down to it, there is no such thing as ugly. Ugly is a subjective sense of revulsion, it is not a condition. Furthermore, when you apply the word ugly to a building, you are inevitably basing your judgment on the environment a building is in. No matter how you put it, the environment cannot be taken out of the building.

Not all antique furniture from the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries is beautiful although it is generally well made with good materials. Design, on the other hand, allows the connoisseur to insert his opinion. Some late 18th and early 19th century furniture, the Yorkshire makers, Wright and Elwick’s pieces come to mind, qualifies as unusual and very different from London made furniture–it is not to everyones taste. Connoisseurs can and do get wrapped up in assessing such pieces and I believe they are worth listening to. But sooner or later, one has to decide for oneself as to what does or does not work. That, of course, is the rub.

I was interested to hear Lehrer’s guest refer to the Whitney Museum as the ninth ugliest building in NYC. I walk by it every day and I can’t say that I believe it fits in the neighborhood. It is a modernist icon, I know, but it is, in my view a lump. Ugly–that is not my call. Does it engage the neighborhood and vice-versa? I don’t think that it does. That the Upper East Side of New York allowed such a building to be created is what is so bizarre. Now that it is here, it gets to be itself, however. That is what New York City is really about.


The Grosvenor House Art and Antiques Fair ended last year and the mantel of that fair has been picked up by the Masterpiece Fair which ran this year from June 23-30. Masterpiece was a success from almost every point of view. It garnered support from the trade and the buying customers. What more can you ask for?

Why do I feel hesitant in my praise? It was a beautiful fair, but it lacked soul and felt like it was about money. It was as if antique dealing had gone corporate while no one was looking. Is this the reality of the antiques business?

I think the model has been set by the auction houses who have endeavored to make their product, whatever it might be, more posh. They massage the clients and the clients spend with them. Their product becomes more about the pitch than the product. Has this always been the case?

I am not criticizing any of this. Masterpiece was masterminded by the English trade and they have made a posh event–it is quite extraordinary. The English trade works hard at being elegant and creating an aura of something the American dealers don’t seem to be able to muster. I would rejoin that the business is about antiques. From my perspective, that is what really counts.

It sounds from what I wrote yesterday that I don’t like the direction that the antiques business is taking as exemplified by Masterpiece and the auction houses. That is not true. Prices are getting dearer and both Masterpiece and the auction houses have recognized that you have to make the selling of high priced items an event. They have succeeded and they deserve credit for their success.

My fear is that the upward trajectory of prices necessarily turns off clientele, even people well enough off to afford great furniture. Not everyone wants a champagne preview and not every rich person interested in antiques wants to show off his wealth by being the highest bidder on an already expensive piece of furniture. Pastimes are for pleasure and a lot of the fooforaw around “events” is not to every person’s preference.

Without doubt, the organizers of Masterpiece deserve kudos for their efforts. They have successfully resurrected/created a new event that will draw collectors from around the world and that is no mean feat. Their success is offset, unfortunately, by LIFAF or what used to be the Olympia Fair, which appears to be headed downwards. Olympia is/was an important event in the antique furniture world and will, I hope, continue. As iffy as LIFAF seems, Masterpiece appears an assured and vibrant event. Long may it prosper.