As it is the 58th year of the Winter Antiques Show, I thought it might be interesting to try and understand just what it is that people want from shows, particularly shows in the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Ave. It is the premiere venue for art and antique shows in New York City and it is also the home of several other prestigious fairs during the year. But at the moment, people, dealers and organizers alike, are wondering just what the buying public wants.

Antique shows are seemingly up against a reality that precludes young people from liking antiques, that what they like is design. If I were to ask my son or daughter whether or not they would like to live with antiques, I know that they would immediately understand that antiques are all about design. The minor inconveniences that are associated with antiques, be they water marks, veneer mishaps or whatever, are worth the beauty that comes with a good to great piece of furniture. But they are the choir and I am the preacher so perhaps this sample is a tad unfair.

The larger world, those people that might fear being old fashioned by owning antiques, often derisively called brown furniture, is another story. I specialize in mirrors and can say that they generally elicit awe from people, particularly when they are dry stripped and show a lovely old surface. They are as close to a work of art that a piece of furniture can be. Are they possibly too sophisticated? I can’t answer that question either, but if you want to brag about them, you are going to have to learn a little about them as well. Perhaps that is off putting?

The question is what people want to see in a show? Do they perhaps want a mix so they can make a choice between a Chippendale chair or something from the 1950’s? Such questions are endless and pointless, silly even. I think what any fair wants to provide are beautiful things. In my mind, a dealer that focuses on the aesthetic and authentic is what anyone should want to see in a show, the period of what is being sold notwithstanding. This is the crux of the situation. For people with the fear of being old fashioned, I have no answers save for the fact that they are missing out by not looking at everything.

 


How many mistakes does it take to to understand that a solution is, more often than not, a process of trial and error. The word failure is freighted with negativity, but it should not be. In fact, it is the first step in the discovery of  a way to make things work. Watching babies begin to crawl and then walk mirrors this and it continues throughout the physical developmental process. Why then is the failure to achieve something quickly seen as negative? It is, in fact, the essence of humanity.

You can see this in furniture design. It is very clear in the transition of one style to the next (at least in the 18th century) where craftsmen and designers were forced to change their modus operandi. As creatures of habit, we like to do things consistently but when demand alters, our methods must change. Transitional furniture echoes this uneasy moment. The designs seldom have more than one iteration as they are neither the new or the old. But they are a clear indication of trial and error.

The American political system demands immediate success. Clearly, that isn’t possible on any level of government. What is possible is enthusiasm. Obama certainly rode a wave of that but has not delivered unless you are a fan of his health care. George W. Bush was handed a mandate after 9/11 but squandered it. Both of these moments were, however, only the first steps to trial and error. The signers of the Constitution knew about trial and error. We don’t seem to. Unfortunately, it only seems to make for a much longer trial.


It is instructive for the antiques trade to see how auction houses market themselves. Their techniques are great for a host of reasons, but the foremost is that they are consistent in branding their expertise. This is not to say they crow about how great they are, but that they allow the assumption of their expertise to be reaffirmed when high prices are realized. It is akin to Tom Sawyer taking credit for his white washed fence. Yes he can, but no, he didn’t.

This branding is necessariily independent of the merchandise itself, since the goods to be sold are essentially filler. This is the weakest link for the auction houses if only because mediocre items can produce mediocre sales. Of course, good marketing can make even mediocre sales seem great. But it is the great items which sell spectacularly that prime the publicity pump and that is where the brand truly gets its luster.

There is irony here, however. Selling something for a big price means very little when the shouting is all over. But what happens when a heavily touted piece fails to sell or sells for very little? Curiously, no one ever seems to want to know much about the items that failed, it is the high points that are talked about and there is no culpability, save for the economy’s fits and starts. It is a great position to be in.

The question is how can dealers learn from the auction houses? Can they actually join in on the upside of the equation as most of the goods that are sold most likely went through dealer hands at one point or another. Furthermore, it is also likely that dealers are as responsible for the high prices in sale rooms as either as successful or under bidders. I remember seeing Richard Feigen, the old master dealer, on TV after his unsuccessful quest for Kenneth Clark’s JMW Turner. He turned the situation in to great publicity for his business.

For dealers, however, it remains that the auction houses have branded themselves as experts when it is only partially true. Yes, they have some great people working for them, but the dealer world is almost solely about expertise and not about PR. Dealers want to sell the best of the best because it is their product which sustains them, nothing else. That they buy at auction would seem a coup for the auction houses, but in truth, if they didn’t, would the auction houses be nearly so successful?


“I know what I like when i see it.” Truer words were never spoken. It is our gut level response to things that pushes to like or the absence of like or worse. This phrase occurred to me when I was reading a review in the NY Times about the Oscars on Lars von Trier’s new film, “Melancolia”. The reviewer, an expert on film, spotted many references to other films in the first eight minutes, references that I would never have spotted unless I watched a great many more films. Does his informed opinion mean more than my uninformed opinion? (I haven’t yet seen the film.)

It is a dilemma that like and the absence of like can seem so arbitrary. After all, wouldn’t people want to know as much about something to deepen both their knowledge and enjoyment of a book, a play, an antique, a work of art, etc.? Gut reactions, however, have enormous sway with us and can negate the power of knowledge in a trice, particularly if they are proffered by someone whose knowledge is suspect but whose charisma is striking. The gut reaction is cavalier when seen in this light.

But what exactly is it that a deeper knowledge gives us to help us appreciate what we are looking at, listening to or otherwise experiencing? Does it matter that a composer’s wife may have died before he completed his symphony? Does it matter if George Washington actually slept in one particular bed? The list of such questions is endless and, at a certain point, one is desirous of cutting through the superfluity and return to the essence of the moment, to wit the gut reaction. Do you like what is being presented to you simply on its merits? It is a simple question with far too many answers.