Radio Days

I was listening to a radio program discussing the painter Jean Michel Basquiat’s pasintings and one of the interviewees talked about how Basquiat’s paintings had stood the test of time. I am intrigued by the phrase, “stood the test of time”.

The decorative arts are measured differently than fine art. A chair that doesn’t work as a chair has a fundamental problem–it not only doesn’t stand the test of time, it does not get sold in the first place. Eighteenth century furniture had to function and be aesthetically pleasing. There was little margin for error. An uncomfortable or unsightly chair was not worth making.

I like Basquiat’s work. I always have. What I don’t like is the inevitable hype that accompanies any retrospective of an artist, alive or dead. Perhaps that is why I like the decorative arts so much. Hype can’t hide the lack of comfort or poor proportions or just plain bad craftsmanship.


Auction houses offer the essential service of telephone bidding for clients who cannot personally attend an auction. It is a service, like most of their services, whish has a caveat meaning that if they don’t get in touch with you, it is too bad.

Like taxi drivers whose bad driving makes all taxis culpable, one poorly run auction house tars the rest. Some auction houses are very well organized and others are not. I might add that I have known small auction houses that service their clients very well and large well established ones that just cna’t do anything right.

I am on this subject because an auction house missed a bid of mine. How would you feel if it was your item that didn’t have all the bidders on it that were possible? Snafus happen, but in the last year I have had three bids lost out of approximately twenty I have left in place. If I was a consignor, I would be concerned.

There are a lot of experts out there–advisers, academics,collectors, museum personnel, restorers, decorators, auction experts. When you put your money behind an object is when you are an expert.


If you read Samuel Pepys’ diaries, you will see how much pleasure he took in material things. Of course, although well connected, he was essentially a self made man and took great pride in his worldly advancement. Possessions counted for a lot, social position was certainly part of it as was good taste. Pepys was proud of the fact that he advised his cabinetmaker on the making of bookshelves, for example.

Auction houses came into being because the illiquid assets represented by worldly goods needed disposing. Bankruptcies and death were two good reasons for such places, but even people in tight financial straits used them. William Hamilton, husband of the famous Emma, Nelson’s mistress, collected art while ambassador to the Court of Two Sicilies and had to use auctions to raise cash.

The story is not that much different today. Death still requires the dispersal of goods as does debt. However, the auction houses have taken on the role of experts to bolster their marketing. That there are knowledgeable people at auction houses is a fact but it is their job to move the goods that are in front of them, not to say that what they are selling might be the second best item they have ever seen. No, everything in every sale must go and the language of expertise and sales are manipulated to that end. So, who do they serve, the buyer or the seller?

The two sales, one at Christie’s last Frdiay and one at Sotheby’s on Saturday, were generally quite successful. How is it that they can be so successful when the market as a whole, particularly in London, is not? Good question. Is it the marketing or is it perhaps the hype that surrounds a sale? For example, Christie’s had a section in thier sale of the “The Contents of a New York Townhouse”. This townhouse was designed by Mott B. Schmidt in 1926 and was built for John and Evelyn Trevor. The Trevors lived there until they sold the house in the late 80’s or early 90’s. Evelyn Trevor was a decorator and was responsible for buying most of the furniture and fitments in the house. The house was sold once before the current occupant bought it in the 1990’s and he hired a dealer to help him furnish the house. Why was this collection of furniture so popular? A nice blurb by Anthony Coleridge about satinwood perhaps when most of the furniture was actually harewood? Who knows, but a single inlaid pembroke table made $168,000 (Lot 250) and a single made $66,000 (Lot 246). I have a pair of satinwood pembrokes on my website listed at $145,000. What about the three pairs of hall chairs that made between $60,000 and $50,400 (Lots 220-222). I have a pair, probably by Ince and Mayhew for $48,500. Sour grapes? Not at all. I am pleased that the market is so vibrant as there has to be some unhappy underbidders. If only they could find me. Regardless, when it comes to marketing, the auction houses win hands down.

Many dealers blame the auction houses for their voracious appetites in gobbling up goods and clients and they are often stunned that an auction will sell things for more than similar items in shops. (See yesterday’s entry.) I am neither amazed nor do I blame them for their success. I think auction houses do such a good job at marketing that they deserve their success. However, I do believe that the inherent contradiction of who the auction house serves, the buyer or the seller, is at the crux of any criticism that can be levelled at them. My regret is that very few dealers or their associations understand this point. Because dealers are competitive with one another, they will not join in a concerted effort to promote their expertise and their service and that gives the auction houses a decided advantage in marketing. I have to say that if I had a huge cache of virtually unseen high end English furniture to sell, I might consider the auction houses as a very good outlet. Indeed a number of very smart dealers have used this to their advantage by contracting with the auction houses to sell their goods. One London dealer did it twice, once with Christie’s and once with Sotheby’s. Give the man credit, he knew that he could rely on them to do a great job, better than he or any of the fairs he haas participated in, at selling his goods.

I was talking to someone who was in the securities market for over thirty years and discussing what I felt was the inherent conflict of the auction market, i.e. who exactly does the auction house serve, the buyer or the seller? My interlocutor said, both, without any hesitation. He said they did it in the financial markets all the time. Maybe it can work in the financial markets, but furniture is something else in my opinion. The furniture market is an illiquid market and the point of an auction is to turn furniture into cash for the consignor. You have to be working for the consignor in this construct. What if, however, the auction expert touts an item as the best when that is not the case? What if a piece is mistakenly catalogued and it goes unnoticed? The auctions have a caveat in their catalogue to protect themselves in these cases. How can they possibly be serving the buyer?

A Chinese 12 panel coromandel screen (Lot 136) sold in the Christie’s sale last Friday. It was at a dealer’s shop for over eight years and he never had one enquiry about it. He was selling it for less than $40,000, It was bid to $75,000 and cost the new buyer $90,000 after paying the twenty percent commission to Christie’s. A rosewood canterbury (Lot 164) in the same sale sold for $12,000, $14,400 after the commission. It had been reduced in height. I sold a rosewood canterbury with a maker’s label for $12,000 just two months ago. I had it at the Winter Antiques Show and qualitatively, it was far superior to the one in the auction.

You might get the impression that I am agaisnt all auctions by what I have been writing. Not at all. Auctions are important to my business. They disseminate goods, publicize the busainess in general and can demonstrate what the market is willing to pay for items. My complaint is to do with the inherent conflict of offering expertise to buyers when it is their job, first and foremost, to sell. I certainly buy at auction, sometimes for less than I would have paid an owner and if you consider that the ultimate charge to the buyer is thirty percent, ten percent to the owner and twenty percent to the buyer, the owner is paying a great deal for the privilege of selling at auction. I would hasten to add that I like most of the auction world people although I think they have a simplified view of what dealing is about.

Pierre Trudeau, the former prime minister of Canada, said that being next to the United States was a bit like sleeping with an elephant. The antqiues trade has the same problem with auction houses.

I just had cause to look at a Christie’s catalogue of English furniture from 1983 that was packed with great English furniture. There were several things that struck me. The first was the quantity of good things for sale. The sale, minor in that there were only 150 lots, would be considered major for the quality being offered. The second interesting thing was that most of the photographs were in black and white. The color photographs were of the items, I presume, that Christies thought to be more valuable. The funny thing is that they were not necessarily the best things in the sale. Further, there were no estimates and lastly, the descriptions were very basic, tersely written with no academic pretensions. The transition to today’s full color catalogues, lengthy descriptions and bold estimates is about marketing–it is a statement designed to promote the expertise of the auction house.

The question I would ask is, who is the auction house serving–the buyer or the seller?

The concept of antiques as investments took off in the 1980’s. The number of people that saw opportunity  in buying and selling English furniture permanently altered the market and propelled prices skyward. A sleepy, often genteel trade became a market.

There is a flaw in selling decorative arts, particularly furniture, as investments. The flaw is that not all people see things in the same way. Put aside the charlatans whose intent was to defraud and you still had people looking at furniture from different points of view. Any ten dealers will disagree on what constitutes good color, proportion, quality, timber choice and, of course the style that is their favorite.

Everything has a value of course. Antique dealers see value and try to maximize it in their trading. That is not investment, it is a business. For buyers, antiques should be a stylistic preference. Personally, I like good design of any era and any country and I will buy it if the intrinsic nature of the item truly appeals to me. I am on a budget but most people are. For me, that is all the investment I need.

Rococo Style

Understanding the rococo style is not easy. Reading Fiske Kimball on rococo is even denser. If you are in New York and have the opportunity to get to Christie’s before April 14, I strongly recommend a visit to see the rococo brackets (Lot 200) that Christie’s attributes to Matthias Locke based on a 1752 drawing by him. Locke’s ability to understand and execut e rococo design is magnificent.

I would suggest to anyone trying to appreciate the rococo style that they focus on structure and how the visual weight of a rococo object is sustained. When it works well, the object has a certain weightlessness, or more accurately, the object has enough drama so that it doesn’t need supporting. For anyone that really wants to be wowed by rococo, a visit to Claydon House is a must as there are roomfuls of it.

I recoiled from the rococo style when I first came upon it in the 1970’s. I thought it frou-frou, kitsch, frivolous and marginal. I didn’t get it at all. Well it can be frivolous, and frou-frou and even kitsch, but if it is done well, it is never marginal. Not unlike any style that is debased by bad copies, rococo really suffers when it is poorly executed. Every style needs to be done well and when it is, it really sings. But rococo is fabulously beautiful when everything is right. By everything, I mean the craftsmanship and design have to be intensely symbiotic. Look at the Thomas Johnson candlestands in the Philadelphia Museum of Art with stalactites, stalagmites, dolphins and scrolls. As Martina Gruenewald my intern says, “they look like they were born, not made”.

Choosing a Shipping Company

I am often asked who the best shipper is of antique furniture. The best shipper is always compromised by his weakest link which can be anyone on a bad day. But no bad days is what you are paying for from a good shipper. I have several suggestions, however. If you are shipping from New York to London, for example, it really helps to have someone that you can contact locally, i.e. a company with offices in both places. The frustration of having to call someone on English time about a complaint or enquiry in New York can be beyond aggravation. The second suggestion is that if you purchase something in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, it pays you to contact a local shipper to do the freighting and not to use a New York or London based shipper. It will save you money and if you are explicit, in writing, with the local about packing, method of shipping and insurance, you will probably get as good a job as you will by arranging it with a larger shipper. I once had a sofa table shipped from Oregon for $200 because I liked what the shipper said to me about how he packed. The table arrived unscathed in triple weight cardboard with the table double boxed. I had a shipper in Detroit send me a mirror that was broken in the packing because he was so inept. The box he put everything into was unscathed. I lay the blame with myself because I should have issued written instructions about how to pack the mirror.

It is a charmed person that can elude shipping problems. They happen. If you want someone to blame, hire a knowledgeable agent. One of the best is Mark Aiston. If you want a good shipping company, hire Art Logistics which are in both London and New York. Both Mark and Art Logistics have been very good to me.

Yew and Others Like Yew

The Coniferales are the order in which yew (Taxus) is found. In non-botanical terms, yew is considered a softwood meaning that it is a timber without pores. Standard misconceptions about softwood are that it is soft, yew for one is particularly hard and dense, and that they are evergreen. Larch or Laryx is not an evergreen and yet it is a softwood. Hardwoods can also be evergreen and they can also be soft. Balsa wood is a good example of a soft hardwood.

So why the prejudice against softwoods as a primary timber in the 18th century? Part of the reason has to be that pine and all the conifers do not take stain well and yet they are excellent for paint or gesso and hence you will find mirrors carved in pine and painted furniture made of pine. The grain of softwoods also could be considered too bland. Further, however, it must be understood that the economy of imported timbers dictated what timbers were used by the high end furniture trade. There are several articles in the Furniture History Society journal of 1994 by Adam Bowatt and John M. Cross which are illuminating on this subject.

Yew is a beautiful and native timber and was not subject to import levies in the 18th century. However, because native woods were closely guarded by their owners, it is unlikely that it was readily available commercially. It might also not have had as much éclat being a native timber. In addition, yew was a traditional grave yard tree which might have cast a pall on the material at least for the end user. Finally, it is not an easy timber to work as the grain is anything but straight. That yew was used in the country is understandable, but it is exceedingly rare to find it used in high style furniture. The yew banded satinwood card tables which started me off on this diatribe, at least from the point of view of their timber, are very rare indeed.

Just Yew

I made a big deal about yew wood yesterday because I so seldom see it used in high style English furniture. Occasionally yew inlay can be found on good, but not really high style furniture and even  that is the exception and not the rule. It is seldom as prominent as the banding on the pair of card tables I wrote about on April 4. For the most part, yew is found in country furniture such as Windsor chairs or Welsh dressers and, for the most part, it is sensational looking. Despite this and because it is a softwood and because the primary role of softwoods in high style furniture is either in the carcase or to be painted or gilded, there was likely to have been a prejudice against the use of yew. (A Brooklynite phrase if ever there was one.) This presumed prejudice is nonsensical as another softwood, thuya wood from North Africa, was highly prized for inlay. In my opinion, yew and thuya are very similar in appearance, both are beautiful and age very well. Antoher softwood that was extensively used was Bermuda cedar, but only in Bermuda. And yet high style Bermuda furniture is gorgeous.

The beauty of yew lies in the small knots that look to be the result of small burrs (or burls if you are English). In fact, they are the result of the berries produced by the tree that drop into the rough bark and germinate into the body of the tree. Most of these mini-trees die off leaving little knots which cause the grain to whorl around the knot making for more interesting timber. In addition to this beauty, the grain has great tensile strength and was prized for bow making. I’m sorry that Gustave Thonet did not make his bentwood furniture from yew. I think it would have been much improved aesthetically.