A lot has been written about the demise of the popularity of English antique furniture. From my perspective, which spans about forty years in the business, I see a number of things happening, but they are less about the popularity of English furniture and more about the way people spend thier money. English furniture can be extraordinarily interesting and deadly dull. The shades between these extremes, like it or not, are the English antique furniture market. Quality, which touches on proportion, materials, craftsmanship and condition coupled with rarity and provenance, are the parameters that determine value within that sphere.

The driving force behind the popularity of English antiques in the 1980’s and 90’s were the auction houses. To start, there was lots of it to sell and they could have sales all the time. The English “look” became the rage helped not a little by exhibitions such as “The Country Houses of Britain” at the National Gallery in 1985. The enormous boost given to the English decorative arts by all these events created a monster. English furniture became less about what made it good and more about the fact that it was English. This was a certain recipe for disaster.

English furniture is about its greatness and about how interesting and beautiful it can be. Collectors and dealers have not forgotten this. There is, however, a diminished supply and the large auction houses amalgamate English furniture into catalogues touting “500 Years of European Decorative Arts”. English antique furniture dealers benefit from this, but today’s buyer is sophisticated and does not wish to yield profits to the dealers on things they could have purchased at auction. The cross currents of these various events make for a market that appears both weak and strong. One thing is for certain, however, and it is that any epitaph written for English antique furniture is based on imagination, not reality.

The pleasure of art is, in part, in its ambiguity. Ambiguity allows us to insert our own narrative into a painting. For example, when I look at a Rembrandt self-portrait, I feel I am looking at the artist. Rembrandt, for me, somehow inserts character in his portraits. This is personal, of course, and may not be valid for others looking at his work. That is precisely the point. Art, in the form of painting and sculpture, encourages broad interpretation.

We know that the brain processes words differently from images. To leave something ill defined in writing is somehow unsettling. Visual non-definition is not as the viewer will fill in the blanks. If they are unable to, they simply move on. But with writing, ambiguity is more difficult to inject as it impacts narrative, something that readers need to stay connected to in a book. Joyce and Kafka are two eminent writers who struggled with this, successfuly of course, but that success was hard won.

Ambiguity in furniture clashes with function. A chair with too few legs is no longer a chair. However, I see ambiguity when isolating pieces that are parts of design schemes. Take, for example, the Austrian secessionist furniture, there are some good period rooms in the Neue Museum in NYC, and isolate one piece of furniture. It has far less impact, it almost becomes ambiguous by missing the supporting cast of furniture. There is an air of mystery to it, but there is also a loneliness and lack of meaning in one piece on its own.

Ambiguity at its best, be it in painting, writing or furniture offers a sense of mystery that is enhanced by lack of definition. At its worst, it feels like a con game that no matter how hard you try, does not come into focus. Notwithstanding this, exterior forces such as the market for example, will exalt fine art through its ambiguity. Sometimes, particularly when I read the results of a comtemporary art sale, I want to know just what I am missing.

The cause of the First World War seems infinitely byzantine, ninety seven years after the fact. The senselessness of the slaughter does not seem in the slightest way justified. You would think that humanity had greater compassion than to determine ways of killing itself, sending men into no man’s land to be gunned or gased. It defies comprehension, in fact.

The Viet Nam War seems equally senseless. Political theory was that the Southeast Asian countries were dominoes that would fall into the grips of Communism if just one country fell. Of course, the Korean conflict emboldened that thinking. Indeed, the Second World War and Korea seemed just in their defense of freedom and bolstered the belief in war as a means to an end.

Essentially, war is always easier to wage than peace. For a rich country, war seems less consequential since its cost in dollars and cents is quantifiable. But what country is rich enough to send young men out to die for a political cause that may change in a decade or two? War may be an option, but it is never an answer. There has to be a better way.

Antiques are essentiallty about history. You cannot separate history from the decorative arts. Even the most original designers owe a debt to the era they are in, whether they are aware of it or not. The history of the decorative arts is a continuum and virtually every dealer I know sees that continuum differently. It is the reason why the antiques business is fueled by dealers buying from dealers. People see what they want to see in a piece of furniture, porcelain, silver, etc.

There are a number of lots that I have not bought over the years. One was a chair in a New York City auction designed by William Kent that I happened to miss. It is an enormously interesting chair historically and is from one of England’s greatest families, the Burlingtons. The chair has a pedimented top, wooden seat and scalar legs and is designed to be in a hallway. I am glad that the person who bought it still owns it and has resisted the pleas for repatriation. I might not have, but I have to say that owning it for a short while would have been a great pleasure.

The quality that bespeaks history in the decorative arts is one that truly speaks to me. I love great timber with beautiful color or really good design or distinctive craftsmanship, but history trumps them all when it is proven without a shadow of doubt. England in the 18th century was a unique place with history being written large in many, many ways and when it is in a piece of furniture, as it is in the Burlington chair, it is like having a piece of the continuum in your hallway. Not many people can say that.

London is a much more lively place than it was when I lived there forty years ago. My son celebrated his thirtieth birthday on one of the Thames River boats and the huge crowds that were around Westminster where the dock is located surprised me. Apart from the London Eye, there is not much in the area so the crowds were unexpected as far as I was concerned.

When I lived in London from 1971-76, there was a stretch in the heart of the town of close to three miles without a traffic light. Now, there are about fifteen in the same route. In other words, the quantity of people and cars is exponentially so much greater that steps were necessary to maintain order and safety, i.e. traffic lights and walkways, etc. This was bound to happen.

I don’t miss the London of the 1970’s although the small town feel of the place is gone for me. The chain stores, be they coffee or clothing or furniture shops, have altered the landscape away from the inefficiency of the local shops. Indeed, chains uplift some neighborhoods and are often a sign of urban renewal. No city can possibly object to that.

The same has happened to New York City, particularly on Madison Avenue as well as 57th St. Where once people strolled on Saturdays to look at shops, now there are clothing stores that are more an advertisement of a brand than selling shops. This, too, was inevitable. What is so interesting to me is that one day these shops will also disappear and that there will be people missing them as well.