A noted New York antique dealer has decided to offer authentication guarantees to his customers of the last 15 years. The reason for this unusual offer is due to a scandal that has beset his brother in London about whom an article appeared in the Sunday Times in London a number of weeks ago. In it, the dealer in London is alleged to have had antiques made to order by a restorer in Kent. The story refuses to die and since the brother in New York was once a partner of his brother and shares his name, he has taken the unusual step of offering authentication guarantees.
The antiques trade is unregulated. The British Antique Dealers Association (BADA) in England is reactive, not proactive, about its members. Complaints are settled in a relatively genteel fashion. In America, the Art and Antique Dealers Association of America and the National Antique and Art Dealers Association are also reactive. Some years ago, when a member of NAADAA was accused of misrepresentation by a customer, NAADAA only expelled the offending dealer from its ranks, a simple and noneffective antidote to the situation. The brother in England is allegedly being investigated by BADA, but the brother in America has no ties to any organization.
If all the bad press is true about the English brother, it is sublimely ridiculous that he could have remained in business for so long. If it is true, he is a distinct problem for the antiques industry. I have stressed that the antiques business is about trust, but realistically, if you can get a notable and wealthy client to promote you, the battle of gaining trust is virtually won by default. What is scary is that the brush of praise is fine and focused on the alleged “great” dealers and that the brush of scandal, rumor and negativity is broad and tarnishes all dealers indiscriminately. I can only hope that the antiques trade is not tarnished by this episode. I would not, however, hold my breath on this account.
The question that begs asking concerning the current nightmare besetting the antiques industry but which is really about one of two brothers, one based in London and the other in New York (they were partners at one time) is just why the London based dealer’s reputation was so wonderful. Was it his goods, his prices or his personal magnetism? Why does his reputation stand out as being great given all the other very good dealers that are out there? In short, it doesn’t. He just created a myth that people bought into.
Inevitably, because of past association and a shared surname, the New York based brother is facing difficulties which he is answering by a press release offering, “Authentication Guarantees”. I thought that was what a bill of sale was, but then PR is very important and this may serve to quell or even quash rumors associating him with the pecadilloes alleged to have been committed by his brother.
The New York based brother has devoted clients–I have met several of them over the years. However, I know that he has benefitted tremendously from agents, be they “experts” or decorators who have brought clients to him. These are the people that he is most in danger of losing by any whiff of scandal and they are extraordinarily important. The “authentication guarantee” might be enough to save these clients and it might not. Time, on this story, will tell.
The interesting thing about being a part of a profession as loosely knit as the English antique furniture trade are the unwritten laws that exist in regards to the loyalty one owes to the trade. Within the economic pyramid of the trade, it is the dealers who are at the top and who are, allegedly, deserving of the greatest fealty, with those at the bottom deserving less just because of who they are. Restorers, for example, are supposed to fall on their swords for the dealers. Why? Because the trade keeps them in business.
There are flaws in this model. Greedy people will always be greedy people. Selfish people will always be selfish people. The same, of course, can be said of liars and thieves. Should one dealer, therefore, who is called into look at something another dealer has sold, tell the truth, or not? This is the crux of a problem that besets the trade. There are dealers who expect others to stand by them for the sole reason that they are both in the trade. Why should they? This is all quite simplified because there are dealers out there who are no more capable of looking at a piece of high end English furniture than flying to the moon and one of those people can wreak havoc by being overly opinionated. When, however, it is dealers who know what they are looking at, should they not say anything?
I was called by two English restorers recently who told me a story about the brothers who were formerly partners and one of whom was profiled in the Sunday Times three or four weeks ago as, essentially, a fraud. Apparently, the restorers did a job on a table that the two brothers did not like. Or, at least, that is what the brothers said as they took away the table and threatened to sue. Within several months, that table was in Country Life magazine being advertised in the state that it had been restored to. The brothers never paid the bill to the restorers and the restorers are thinking of doing something about it now. The chickens do come home to roost eventually. How many other stories are out there about these two?
Criticism that stems from people within your own business is very serious. But the antiques trade has largely shrugged off any responsibility to the buying public by not acting to curb rogue and upstart dealers. Instead, there are associations that you are invited to join. It is a genteel and antiquated way of saying something, what exactly, is not quite clear. I wish I knew what the answer was.
With the publication in the NY Times this morning of the article “As Good as Old?”, by Christopher Owen and Christopher Mason, it is clear that something is afoot in the world of antiques that is not kosher. I don’t wish to sound cavalier about the revelations in the article, because they are very damaging, not just to John and Carlton Hobbs, but to the entire antiques trade. It is a sad day for the trade, but it does not characterize the trade in general at all.
I have written about how I am dismayed by the way antiques associations respond to situations such as this. The reactive nature of the associations does nothing to stem abuses by dealers, but, in a way, it is almost impossible to stop someone who is bent on perverting the system of trust that marks the trade. I have to admit to not having cordial relations with either of the brothers, their choice not mine, as they thought I was undermining them in some fashion. Perhaps I should have been.
The article notes that the Hobb clients are a list of top flite decorators. Their reactions range from shock, no comment to blase. They are all understandable as it is hard to grasp just how much has been destroyed by these events, but I for one would be calling my clients today to let them know the gist of events. I might also let them know that in the future, a trip to London to buy antiques would be better served by a trip to New York. It is cheaper, there are a lot of antiques to buy and New York is still a fun town, even on a holiday weekend.
This has to be the last in my articles relating to the revelations first made in the (British) Sunday Times and again, last week, in the New York Times. Essentially, a dealer has been accused of selling fake furniture by the man who made the fakes. The tremors caused by those articles continue to be felt as more and more of the clients of the featured firm are having items that they purchased examined for authenticity. There are, apparently, right things, but there are also a lot of wrong things.
None of this surprises me. The Hobbs brothers, John and Carlton, made their names in the 1980’s by going to small sales and finding, and often bidding huge amounts, for items that were rare and wonderful, but in essence were no better than existing things already on the market or coming on to the market in major sale rooms. It was a bald faced attempt at branding the Hobbs name and it worked. As a writer for Art and Auction at the time, I received a call from them suggesting that I publish their name on every occasion that they did this. It was an attempt to establish their bona fides with the people in the world that counted, the rest of the antiques trade. It worked.
Their establishment as connoisseur dealers in the eyes of the rest of the world became a function of getting into the top shows, which they did and courting the top decorators and collectors. In a way, their rise to the top was a marketing miracle, particularly as the rest of the antiques trade was laboring away, buying against one other and generally doing business as usual which is to say, bit by bit. This is how business is done–gradually. Unfortunately, this was not how it has been done at least for one of these brothers. It is a very sad tale.