Halldor Laxness (1902-1998) was an Icelandic novelist who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955 for “Independent People”. When I lost my copy of the novel in the tube in London, I figured my reading gods had said, “enough”. After all, the old testament followed the vicissitudes of the Jews and if I needed a reminder of just how tough life could be, I could focus on the Book of Job. Not sufficiently satisfied at a novel half read, I bought another copy and finished it recently. A tough read, but a startling conclusion.

On to “Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle”, by Vladimir Nabokov whose life roughly paralleled the time line of Laxness having been born in 1899 and dying at a young 78 in 1977. Try leaving Iceland for the somewhereabouts of Nabokov’s incestuous duo, Van and Ada. After the first chapters where the geneology is confusingly made clear, you might find a verbal (and other) conjugality that eludes the firmest of grasps, particularly as it alternates between Russian, French and English. I have a favorite sentence which is all I have as yet from the novel. “Je raffole de tout ce qui rampe.” (I am crazy about everything that crawls.) I can’t see Vladimir and Halldor exchanging pleasanteries at the bar, somehow.

But reading isn’t all. The crisis of the economy deepens and the atrocities in Mumbai undermine our sense of complacency in many ways. For my part, I realize that my life’s work is to not only sell but to live with fine things to remind myself what is so wonderful about man. There should be no compromise and I hope my past, present and (hopefully) future clients feel the same way. We have but one life to live and it should be lived in the belief that we are more than what almost any current newspaper says we are.

When I was a student at the London College of Furniture 35 years ago, I was taught a simple maxim about restoration which was to do as little as possible and maintain the integrity of the antique. This philosophy is now known as conservation and it has benefited the antiques trade enormously. The restorers I met when I returned to America had no concept of this and were stripping, sanding, spraying antiques turning them into hybrids of half old, half new pieces. It was a shock to me, because the restoration I had learned was so much simpler in scope.

In reaction to these draconian methods of “restoring” antique furniture, a new coterie of young dealers blossomed whose philosophy was to leave every piece they found in “as found” condition. The philosophy took and was re-emphasized on shows such as “The Antiques Roadshow”. It became a mantra that didn’t allow for cleaning even in cases where it was obvious where subsequent to original finishes, layers of shellac had been daubed on and since crazed, crackled and alligatored.

There is too much of a good thing. The “as found” condition is, in my opinion, a simplistic way of looking at a piece of furniture. A great cabinetmaker understood craftsmanship, form and timber selection. To allow a piece with a later daubed on finish to be called a part of the history of a piece of furniture is like allowing a broken tooth to remain broken. Timber selection might as soon as be ignored to allow piece to remain so tarnished.

My teachers understood that furniture was functional. If a rail needed splicing or a glue block added some place, it was done. We could scrawl a date on our repair, we could save old rails and glue them to new ones if they had to be replaced and most of all, if we could save a finish, we would through simple cleaning and polishing. After all, it was important for a piece to look good as well as be functional.

Is the American trade doing the right thing or are the English correct in their methods? As an English furniture dealer and former restorer, I know there are boundaries that need respecting. I also feel that the American approach is too draconian, rather like the ex-drunk that fears being around drinkers. It is a safe philosophy but hardly comprehensive of the intention of the furniture. Times change as do fashions and it is possible that neither trade will be right in 20 years. The future will call those shots, not any of us.

We rely on rating agencies to determine value for us in all sorts of way. Moody’s and Standards and Poors rate companies on the stock exchange to give us an idea of true value. The accuracy of assessments is certainly important, but that seems to be getting called into question of late with the precipitous decline in the market. Perhaps the rating agencies in the world of antiques should also be called into question?

The rating agencies in the world of antiques are the most recent auction results. Whether dealers like it or not, the public can use these results to assess values. There are two things that I would bring up in this regard, however. The first is that every antique is unique. No two chairs are alike, even if they were made within a day of each other 250 years ago. Averaging out value of ten similar chairs is a way around this, but it is skewed by the second factor which is that demand is never constant. Demand can be disproportionately high or low making it, by definition, inconstant. Both of these factors skew “true” value.

Obviously, dealers have to determine their own “true” value when they put price tags on their items. Their rationale is based on experience and knowledge of trading in the market. Inevitably, a dealer will have a different sense of value than the auction houses who use one shot to sell an item and who, on any given day, can see a huge fluctuation in demand. The truth, of course is that there is no “true” value. There is the dealer who sells the item and his word. It either has value or it doesn’t.

A Republican friend called and asked if I was gloating over Obama’s victory. I said, “no, that isn’t what I care about”. I have to admit that I like John McCain, but his campaign made some terrible missteps beginning with his choice for VP and continued with some of the Roveian tactics that he used on Obama.

Obama is going to be watched with close scrutiny by his opponents and his errors will be shouted from the rooftops. That should be the case with every president and is something we have given the current occupant a pass on. Presidents are, after all, the final say-so. I feel that their concentration should always be on the fundamentals, basically health, education and infrastructure.

Frankly, politics in the end bores me rigid. When, for example, ten men can see a goal that they want but need to argue over the path to that goal and indeed find themselves at times going the opposite direction to allegedly achieve that goal, I will happily leave them to argue it among themselves. But when Rome is burning, you would think that putting the fire out is of urgent importance. The smoke is getting thicker.

I was listening to NPR this morning and Newt Gingrich was being interviewed about what the Republicans were needing to do to get back on track. I like Newt Gingrich. I think he is very, very smart and I think he should have run for president in 2000. He is a thoughtful and creative politician who thinks about the future.

I was surprised therefore to hear him blame the economic deterioration of Michigan on the Democrats. Do I think the politicians in Michigan culpable for their unwavering support of the auto makers? Absolutely. Would the Republicans have done anything differently? I don’t think so. I think that the auto makers were the dog and the politicians the tail. How far back we can take this might entail politicians like the Republican George Romney. And did those automakers by any chance also back Republicans?

The idea is that blame can be spread to every corner of this nation. Out of control lobbyists are one aspect of the problem and too susceptible politicians are another. Corruption is a state of mind as much as anything and someone voting, perfectly legally, for something they know is the wrong thing, is as corrupt as the person accepting a bribe.

What does this have to do with English antique furniture? I have bought some wonderful things in Michigan over the years. I also think that Newt should relax just a shade and I have just the chair to sell him in which he could do that. Think about it Newt!

The Detroit automakers are asking for a handout from the Federal government and this has a number of people outraged. (Thomas Friedman wrote an excellent editorial about their obtuseness in the face of the realities of our times.) I happen to agree with the outrage. The questions I have are about the nature of the decisions which were so wrong for so long that put the carmakers in their tenuous financial position in the first place.

Americans are ofter perceived as having an enthusiastic gung-ho type of spirit which people from around the world admire. At the same time, Americans are often pictured, abroad at least, as ill mannered. Neither of these pictures are completely accurate as after all, we are all individuals and we all play our own roles in life. If we don’t know whether we are ill-mannered, then we might be and I have to say that I have been gung-ho about very few things.

The automakers seem to have applied both these stereotypes to their decision making. GM has been making SUVs to beat the band and now they are going nowhere. Hybrid cars by Ford have been scrapped because they were deemed not market worthy. And yet Toyota has been selling Prius cars like hotcakes! Our automakers seem to think that if they put enough of their energy in selling an outmoded car that they are doing good business. And now they want $25,000,000,000!Count those zeroes! I think I would be gung-ho about getting that amount of money to reward my stupidity. Where do I sign up?

A woman called me the other day and wanted to sell me some candlesticks that “were just like the ones behind the pope when he was saying mass”. I declined the offer claiming protestant roots and the desire to adhere to my mother’s anti-Catholic sensibilities. (Her experiences at Convent were traumatic.) Other than that, it has been a while since I have been offered anything for sale. Times may be bad, but they can’t be that bad.

Last Saturday I was in Charlottesville, Virginia and saw Jefferson’s Rotunda flanked by pavilions and was hugely impressed. I can only imagine the hopes that were attached to that vision, the dream of an educated democratic society and what it might be capable of were almost tangible. I found it all quite moving.

The serpentine walls that surrounded the pavilion houses giving them back gardens also evoked a memory for me. I don’t remember seeing any in England on my travels to country houses, but there was a serpentine wall at our neighbor’s house in St. Croix. Our neighbor, Bill Emmons, went to UVA for law school and obviously stole the idea. It evoked great memories in me. This is what design is supposed to do.

t would be churlish to deny that the Obama win was a victory over racism. It most certainly was and will, I hope, empower minorities around America and the world to believe in themselves and the strength of democracy and equality. That being said, however, I voted for a man with high ideals and strong convictions and a lucid intelligence, nothing more and nothing less.

It was just over a year ago when my sister sent me an email to say that Obama was an interesting candidate. I started to look at him seriously and by November of last year, I was a supporter. As I am also a fan of the NY Giants football team, my hopes were akin to those I have for them winning the Super Bowl every season–next to nil. As it happens, however, they did win the Super Bowl. I should have suspected it was to be a year of upsets.

Do I know that he will be a good president? No, I don’t. But I like his resolution, his tenacity and I like the fact that he favors dialogue to reach a consensus. That our nation is divided on a great many issues is clear, but we still have to live and work together as a team. The Giants figured it out and made the improbable happen. May our nation do the same.

A week ago today, I bicycled to Potsdam with my son Henry. We were in Caputh for the wedding of a son of a dealer friend of mine. Caputh is about ten kilometers southwest of Potsdam and we figured it would be a great way to pass the morning before the 2:30 wedding. We set off on the road on the eastern side of the Templiner See which is one of a series of lakes through which the River Havel travels. I knew we would not have much time to see the sights of Sanssouci, Frederick the Great’s palaces and pleasure pavilions, but I wanted to see as much as I could. As it was, the park where Sanssouci is located is huge and it was lucky that we were on bicycles.

Our return route was on the western side of the Templiner See and was without the aid of a map. Most of the biking was through woodlands on well packed trails although I think the number of cyclists on the paths is limited. It was a beautiful ride and we were fooled by the Templiner See’s shoreline thinking that we had overshot our mark for the short ferry ride into Caputh. We eventually made the three minute ferry and were back in our hotel for a very quick lunch in order to get to the church. We were the last to make it in the doors.

The wedding had about 110 guests and the first thing we did after the photographs post the ceremony was to get onto a large ferry for a ride on the Templiner See. It was the perfect way to finish the bike ride because we were able to see just where we had gone from an entirely different vantage point. I would have liked to have had more time in Potsdam, but I have to say the thing that I must remember is the bike ride with my son.