Reading about artificial intelligence, or A.I., this morning opened a whole new layer of understanding as regards the nature of trust. We truly do trust our machines, for their ability to perform in the same fashion time and time again. But will there come a day when there is an App for the creation of a deadly bacteria which can be planted into someone’s drink without their knowledge? Imagine how deadly the world could become. You wouldn’t need guns in that world, you would need better A.I.

There are plenty of things that A.I. cannot understand. Most of them are qualitative in nature, such as trust or, as regards English furniture, determining how good a surface on a piece is. Superb surfaces are not well understood by new collectors and learning about them is not easy, particularly as museums seem to care more about design, something that ironically a computer can more easily understand. And if there is a pleasure in English furniture it is equally in the qualitative aspects as the quantitative.

Returning to the nature of trust, however, it is extraordinary that we do so blindly believe in our machines. I reference, once again, HAL of “2001, A Space Odyssey” whose betrayal as a machine enforces, albeit forty years ago in a movie, the thrust of the article about A.I that I read this morning. When the machines are smarter and surer than us, why wouldn’t they take over? And is that the truth about evolution, that we are to be replaced by our machines? Clearly, we haven’t really thought through the problem because we haven’t, until recently, considered it to be serious. It just might be.


Perhaps the most persistent question adults ask about any and everything they do is whether something is genuine? It is the question that no amount of self assuredness can adequately answer. From scams to straightforward disingenuousness, it is hard to banish doubt from our thoughts, not because we see bogeymen around the corner, but because everyone has been wrong from one point of view or another. Inevitably, the answer is about trust. For example, recent research has found that eyewitness accounts are not ironclad. So what evidence is truly trustworthy?

This dilemma is no less valid in the antiques world. There are people with reams of experience who make mistakes. There are people with little to no experience who feel competent at making judgments. Experienced dealers, particularly those who have bought and sold very high end pieces, know that mistakes are impossible to avoid and they also know that two minds are better than one and that three are better than two. When a lone person is making the call on a piece, it is time to talk to not one but two, maybe even three other “experts”. It is just smarter to understand if a judgment, up or down, really does hold water.

An article in the “New Yorker” about Apollo Rollins, a noted pick pocket who has explored the reasons why pick pockets are successful, leaves you stunned by how well he understands human nature. His recognition of personal space and how we allow ourselves to be conned in some situations and not in others is quite amazing. He has studied behavior and found the interstices of trust, at least in a physical sense, and he knows how to mine them. What it tells you is that we fool ourselves. So who in fact should we trust, if we can’t really trust ourselves?


Understanding rhythms has been an unstated goal of humanity since creation. Nature and its quirks needed to be understood in some fashion for there to be any continuity and, thereby, growth. It is equally important to us today. It is clear that we are confronting a kind of arrhythmia in our world which manifests itself in all sorts of negative fashions from poverty and obesity to extraordinary weather phenomena.

The most obvious examples of people who have found a rhythm in their lives is with athletes, musicians, actors and artisans to name just a few. Their repetitive labors hone their skills to a level that comes with practice, practice, practice. It is still awe inspiring to me to look at some of the great cabinetmakers of the 18th century because their complete understanding of material and craft achieved a level of rhythm that few could achieve today.

It is perhaps man’s love of machines that has interfered with understanding rhythms. I think of Stanley Kubrick’s, “2001, A Space Odyssey”, and the apocryphal message of the machine making itself pre-eminent. After all, if you can use a planer to flatten a board, why would you waste time using a hand plane? The rhythm initiated with the planer, however, supplants the rhythm, call it understanding, of material. Labor saving, in essence, begets a gap in knowledge which inevitably becomes apparent.

The Luddites were not enlightened and no amount of romanticism can mask the ignorance of their position. Machinery, be they computers or power tools are not a problem in today’s world, but their usage can insulate us from divining deeper rhythms that are meaningful. Just as “lite” products fool us into believing we can eat and drink more, we open ourselves to living removed from the truths of what happens when there is a cause without an effect. The effect always gets there in the end.


Robert Macfarlane’s new book, “Paths of Enlightenment, The Old Ways”, is a book about following the old routes and paths of Britain to learn the development of Britain as a place and to seek a certain understanding of what those routes can yield to us even today. Macfarlane’s understanding of British travel literature is immense as too is his understanding of the natural environment from the stones, the soil, the plants and the wildlife, virtually everything he sees. The prose is dense, and at times obscure, but what would you expect? His journey is physical and metaphysical and putting that into words is a singular feat.

The understanding of the past is not such a simple exercise. In antique furniture, our temptation, at least for the end buyers of the product, is to make judgments, the foremost probably being about line. In truth, this is a simplistic reading of 18th century furniture. It came from somewhere, it was serving a purpose, it referenced contemporary life in a great many ways. I talked about the Roentgen furniture at the Met as being disproportionate and not pleasing to my eye. That is a 21st century judgment whose validity is solely contemporary. The furniture was made to be showy and, possibly, even gauche. The clientele wanted that showiness.

Judgments are always an end unto themselves, self serving and framed by a moment. The hot button topics in America at the moment, gun control and the debt, are resisting analysis because the rush to judgment precludes thoughtful examination. That and partisanship, which is a form of judgment, does not allow for understanding. If there is anything that can enlighten us, it is our ability to reference not just the present, but the past. Macfarlane’s book echoes the thoughtful examination of why things are the way they are. It is a book with few answers but with a plethora of understanding.


The David Roentgen exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum ends on Jan. 27. It is extremely worthwhile. I went for the second time last Sunday and was astounded by the quality of the craftsmanship. Every aspect, from the mechanics within the furniture, the ormolu, the choice of timbers and the marquetry were just non-pareil. Roentgen has been labeled by some as the greatest cabinetmaker of all time because of this. He had to be as his clients were the French, Russian and German royal families, not to mention Francois Arouet, better known as Voltaire.

I have a problem with Roentgen, however. He may well be the greatest cabinetmaker of all time, but some of his furniture, largely due to the mechanical nature of it, is bulky and disproportionate. I would call it palace furniture which is both a detriment and a compliment. It is clear that his clientele cared about all the secret compartments, gadgets and gewgaws that Roentgen could throw into a piece and why not? But this over the top mentality reminds me vaguely of the fins on a Cadillac. Classic and fun, but not what you would wish to be driving daily.


The best thing about Christmas are the presents that are books, even if I do have to buy some of them for myself. Keith Richards’, “Life” has been recommended to me by numerous and varied people so I bought myself a copy and read it over the holidays. The man is a real mensch. Further, he loves what he does and he spreads the joy he gets from it anywhere and everywhere he can.

But, of course, being a rock and roll star was living dangerously back in the 1960’s and 70’s. By that I mean the groups that promoted attitude, and the Rolling Stones were no slouches in that department, were seen as amoral at best by what was referred to in those days as “The Establishment”. Just long hair was enough to incite violence. I was almost run off the road in Utah in 1970 for that misdemeanor.

The truth is that life is about discovering a passion that can be vocation/avocation. Few do. Richards was lucky. I have also been lucky. The world of English furniture, from the objects to the vast majority of the trade including dealers, restorers, movers, etc., is a group of people that all seem to take immense pleasure in what they do. It makes for a great business. Happy New Year!