I was taught in school that Marco polo was the very soul of the intrepid explorer in setting out for Cathay (the Orient) overland in the late 13th century. He spent twenty-four years on his travels and “opened up” the Orient to commerce. There is no doubt that he was intrepid, but what I have learned in a recent biography of Genghis Khan (“Genghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World”, Jack Weatherford, 2004) is that the Mongols had way stations every thirty miles or so for those making the journey with, as Polo wrote, silk sheets on the beds.

The Mongols were way ahead of Polo. After conquering a huge swath of the globe, they set about creating a commercial empire that dwarfed all others and set the stage for globalization a la the 14th century. The engine for this globalization, the source of the product traded to the west, was China. Does that sound familiar?

It was the Bubonic Plague, better known as the Black Death, that killed over twenty percent of the world population in twenty years that completely disabled the Mongol Empire. The four corners of the empire were run by members of the ruling family, descendants of Genghis Khan known as the Golden Horde, and were set up in Russia, China, Persia and Mongolia. The empire needed men to maintain order. When there weren’t enough men, the empire could not sustain itself and the commercial engine fell apart. A lesson for our times?

What I like so much about the contemporary art scene, aside from the fact that it is a robust market, is that it is unruly and independent from the auction world. The contemporary market is a happening place and the auction houses are not, at least not in the way that contemporary art is. That may have changed as Christie’s has bought a contemporary gallery, Haunch of Venison. The founders of Haunch of Venison, Harry Blain and Graham Southern talk about increasing the level of support to their artists “substantially”.

It sounds good, but can this marriage work? I would say that there are two flaws to the dynamic. The first is that Christie’s is a business dealing in art and art related material. Do they want to support contemporary artists? The second is that the contemporary art scene is extremely hip and I have to say that I would be surprised if Christie’s is welcomed into the contemporary art world.

The contemporary art market, of all the art markets, is the least manageable for auction houses. Not only is the dealer’s eye important, but the symbiosis of dealer/artist, dealer/client is as well. For the auction houses, from their board room, to foster and develop artists is an almost unthinkable idea. And yet, if you go back to the English furniture business twenty years ago, the same was being said about auctions taking away the private clients. They did then and it remains to be seen if they can do it in this volatile field. If Christie’s can make it work, it will almost be like printing money. And money is what it is all about. Or is it?

Lifestyle magazines are a wonderful tool that give us glimpses of how others live. Other than gossip, photos of homes are the next best thing to seeing how the other half lives. As an antique dealer, I am always interested in what is being promoted by these magazines as their influence is substantial. One thing I can say for certain is that 18th century English and European furniture is not getting the attention it received as little as ten years ago.

The reasons for this are many. The cost of really great furniture is now quite high. There are fewer dealers and the auction experience, while immediate and rewarding to some, is daunting to others. Buying great furniture requires time to learn and understand just what it is you are buying. That is a hard sell in today’s world where things seem to happen instantaneously. Lesser factors in the decline of the market is the plethora of pseudo-antiques being made today including designer knock-offs of antiques as well as second rate furniture that looks the part but which was designed to lure the price buyer who wants a “deal”. And lastly there is maintenance. Everything requires maintenance, it is just that antiques require good maintenance, not a handy man with a tube of glue.

Great antiques have what I would call a distinctive aura that transcends their actual function. Think of this in relation to the knowledge a person has at 18 versus the knowledge they have at 30, 40, 50 etc. Experience is what I am referring to and even though furniture is inanimate, it speaks volumes about itself if it has lived hundreds of years. Of course, there is a value to the new, no one can deny that fact, but the value of the old is rarer and, in essence, more redolent of the human experience. Great antiques tell us about lifestyles that we couldn’t dream of seeing in magazines.

Gervase Jackson-Stops was the primary force in bringing the 1985 exhibition, “The Treasure Houses of Britain” to the National Gallery in Washington. It was a showcase, albeit the very tip of the iceberg, of what the great English country house contains. The exhibition was remarkable, a glimpse in the vault of of treasures that are best appreciated in person while touring the houses. Jackson-Stops was a remarkable advocate for Britain’s heritage and did his utmost to broadcast it to the United States. I think he saw in the United States a patron for the revival of the tradition of the country house. It is a cause that has cooled somewhat since the 1980’s.

The reasons for the cooling are many. Modern architecture has moved on to computer savvy designs that allow architects to realize their doodles. Gehry’s design for the Abu Dhabi Louvre looks like a crumpled shirt on the floor and, I have to admit, there is a charm to it. But what is missing is the architectural imperative met by many of the great architects of the past which was to design furniture to go with the exterior. If Gehry designed furniture to go with his exteriors, it might lead to permanent injury. His style precludes interiors. Just ask the MIT students working without closets.

I am not a hide bound traditionalist. I was, however, looking at Jackson-Stops book, “The English Country House:A Grand Tour” this morning and realized that he really understood the greatness of these houses. I couldn’t help but compare in my mind some of his photos of staircases with photos I saw this afternoon in a contemporary lifestyle magazine. These lifestyle magazines are incredibly important to my business, so I don’t criticize them lightly. They set a kind of standard. I only wish that standard could reach what Jackson-Stops reached in his book. Unfortunately, I think the romance with technology clouds the magnificence that Jackson-Stops celebrated. More’s the pity.

It has been pointed out to me that minimalism, the style, was a reaction to the excess of decoration in the 19th century. It is the oxymoron embedded in the name “minimalism” that makes me cringe. All styles are, in essence, conceits put forward by designers. Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel chair, for example, is still a chair, albeit one stripped to an extremely functional level. Minimalism, if it were truly practiced as a style, would banish the chair from the room altogether.

The idea of minimalism, the philosophy of it, is, however, quite attractive. Ridding oneself of clutter, particularly if you are in the antiques business, is a distinct allure. This kind of minimalism could reflect a personality, but that would be an individual’s statement, hardly a “style” in the broadest sense of the word.

The word neo-classical epitomizes the problem that generic labels embody. Classicism, as a style, has never died. It has been neo’d over and over again through generations and countries of the western world. It really means very little to label something neo-classical as it tells you very little about what you are looking at. It means so little that you would think that John Soane, the famous English neo-classical architect, wasn’t a minimalist. But he was.

I was reading the May, 2006 issue of “The World of Interiors” this afternoon and happened to read Alistair McAlpine’s, “Journal of a Collector”, which is the end page of the magazine. He wrote about two “significant” collections being offered for sale.

I was less interested in the collections than I was in his last paragraph which I wish to quote in its entirety.
“There is one principle that unites the dealer and the collector when you see something that is outstanding you must buy it. Now, it may happen that the piece you must have arrives at a time when you do not have the cash. This is where courage comes into play. It is courage that separates a great dealer or collector from the one who merely buys and sells of looks for a pretty object to furnish a house.”

Mr. McAlpine has put his finger on the raison d’etre of the dealer. While he doesn’t say it in the article, I would guess that there is the mildest jabs at the auction business that treats all art as a commodity to be profited from. Where is the passion, where is the fulfillment in such a business? A dealer can’t think of inventory control when confronted by something he must have. It may be a form of madness, but it might just be a form of wisdom. I thank him for his words.

In re-reading what I wrote yesterday about minimalism, I realized that I segued from talking about the idea of minimalism as design to understanding complex design. The relationship is clear in my mind, but it may not be so clear to anyone else. I will try to explain.

I would like minimalists to think about what it is they are minimizing and to think about the nature of decoration. To have nothing in lieu of bad decoration is a good solution, but it is not the only solution. I take huge pleasure in looking at and understanding decoration and I would readily pass that skill on to anyone willing to learn.

I recognize that Andrew Marvell’s words, “the world is too much with us late and soon” conveys in a modern context the surfeit of information that we subject ourselves to every day. This flood of information feels claustrophobic and I can well understand the desire for peace and tranquility that a clear and clean space can offer. It is therapeutic and necessary. But it is not design.

I owe a word of apology to those people who have responded to my blog and to whom I have not responded. Thank you for your words. I seldom check for responses which I suppose might be a form of egotism. Nevertheless, your comments are thoughtful and articulate and I greatly appreciate both the criticisms and the praise.

The antiques trade, being a business of relatively small entrepreneurs, is ripe for commentary. The New York Times article on Feb. 8 is a good case in point. The public perception of us is so easily manipulated that I feel we need to counteract in some fashion. Hence, I go on record with my blog. And to Lewis Baer, well done!

The concept of less is more stops for me with women’s clothing. Minimlaism, as an aesthetic, is not one. Rather, it is a state of mind. I can’t, nor wouldn’t dare to qualify what that state of mind might be, but to think that it stands for design is a mistake. It allows the mind not to focus on decoration and to roam which is comfortable, but it does not replace design. It is merely the absence of something.

Finding things with which one is comfortable is far more important than we realize. Colors, spaces, designs, furniture and, most of all, people impact our day, particularly if they are not comfortable. But if that discomfort stems from a lack of knowledge, it needs confronting.

I remember not liking rococo design back in the 1970’s. That was foolish as rococo design is really quite simple, at least no more complex than the lines of leaves used to create a palm thatched hut. I just chose to reject and condemn the complexity because of my lack of understanding. In other words, that understanding and accepting of complexity which underlies our very existence and is in everything helps to free us from non-essential judgments, almost in the same way that minimalism does.

There is good and bad design, however. How to differentiate one from the other? It is certainly simple in some regards. Think of the discomfort created by an odd number of columns holding a building pediment. It doesn’t work unless the designer makes certain concessions. Nature also leads us here in accepting the most bizarre as natural. The duck billed platypus is a good case in point. It may not be beautiful, but if it is understood, it takes on a rare beauty.

A year ago, I stayed at the Heart of Palm Hotel in Palm Beach during the Palm Beach Fair. It wasn’t inexpensive, but it was close to the convention center where the Fair was taking place and I could walk to a number of restaurants for dinner.

I stayed there again this year. The hotel has changed ownership or should I say is under new management. Breakfasts, which had been part of the room charge and were excellent, were no longer part of the room and were mediocre. Parking is also a separate charge which used to be part of the room.

Is this some corporate genius that decides that the hotel is undercharging and should find ways of charging more? I hate to think of what brain power was utilized to determine how to squeeze more out of the occupancy rate at the hotel. In my opinion, the hotel is worse and is charging more. What a pity.

The masochist in me appreciates the four solid weeks of fair attendance that I have done both this year and last and three years ago as well. Beginning with the Winter Show which I was setting up four weeks ago today and ending with my return from Palm Beach this morning, I have either been setting up or standing at attendance for the entire time. A lot has happened in the interim.

I would like to say that the fairs were unqualified successes, but they were only okay. One thing about today’s market is that people tend not to buy on the spur of the moment. I think that the buying public, even people that have been buying for many years, have no idea how expensive things should be and whether or not they are worth the money. I don’t blame them unless they are using auction house data to check on prices. The value of auction house data runs the gamut from being useful to misleading and is, for many amateurs, an unsettling penumbra on the buying of antiques from dealers. More’s the pity, but that is the way things are these days.

Of course, while I was gone, the New York Times published a silly article about how antiques are out of fashion although you may be able to buy them on the cheap from auction houses and even then, designers make things that are just as good. Generalizing as the New York Times does in this instance is rather like tarring everything and everyone indiscriminately. As a dealer at the higher levels of English antique furniture, I have to say that great 18th century English furniture, like its French, German, American and Italian counterparts, are the gold standard in furniture design. It is dismaying to the antiques trade that such articles are written. Would that they could think more about the subject before they publish such rubbish.