The year of 2013 has felt like a long one. Whenever the government could get in the way of economic progress, it did. Hence the alleged recovering economy has not really helped the antiques business. Is there anyone to blame? Of course, the politicians of both stripes deserve a bow, but there are other factors worth considering. The greatest is the scarcity of items that you would wish to sell. The dwindling number of sales with English antique furniture might soon qualify it as endangered.

Back in the 1980’s when English furniture was the gout du jour, I had a discussion with someone about the quantity of furniture that was on the market. What I explained was that a fair quantity of the very good items, say 40% or so, was out of the market for a very short time. The rest of the goods that were being sold were supporting characters that would also be off the market for a certain length of time. But it was the top lots that really made a sale. Their return to the market was essential for everyone in the selling business.

Those items for a very obvious reason remain off the market. The market, clobbered by the financial crisis of 2008, has left a good many of the “assets” of that era severely diminished in value. As a result, many owners of high end goods are just sitting on them waiting out the market. And because the items that made up the supporting cast are unexciting and not particularly desirable in a down market, their recurrence on the market is not desired. In effect, the market is depressing itself.

I have been told that style is what is holding the antiques market back. People are allegedly more interested in both modern and contemporary furniture. That is partly true, but modern and contemporary furniture that qualifies as good, but not great, is still inexpensive and that is a huge factor to young buyers. The supporting cast of English furniture needs to be a lot less expensive in order to compete.  It is happening, but very slowly.

At the other end of the spectrum is contemporary art, a field that I find completely baffling. I could care less how people spend their money, but I have to wonder just how easy it is to write a large check for something whose value is, at best, a question. It is almost as if the tech investment frenzy that is currently happening is feeding the contemporary art world. Common sense and rationality have been checked at the door. The thought process is quite obviously over rated in this world.

The lack of understanding that I have is not at all unusual. My father would have looked at my profession askance. He saw value in money and he saw it in people, the rest, as far as he was concerned, was window dressing. He may be right after all, but it is curious how we choose to understand our world and that is overtly expressed in how we spend our money. Think about it this the next time you make a large purchase. It tells you something about yourself that you may not even recognize. Aloha 2014!

I don’t believe that there is an antique dealer alive who doesn’t applaud the role of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) in constricting the flow of materials such as ivory, tortoise shell, rhino horn, rosewood, etc. They are a necessary agency whose role is significant in this era of dwindling resources. I have to admit that my personal feeling about selling ivory or tortoise shell, in particular, has undergone a dramatic change. The pleasure I used to associate with the wonderful texture, color and aging of those materials is tempered by the plight of the tortoise and the elephant. I must own up to being a hypocrite, however, as I also have a Vizgapatam games table that has ivory, tortoise and horn. That notwithstanding, I am a staunch believer in CITES.

I am not familiar with exactly how CITES, the organization, functions. What I know is that I need CITES permits for a number of different materials whenever I ship out of the USA. I also know that the process needs repeating if I wish to bring those items back into the USA. This doesn’t really make sense. If it is the same object that you are exporting, why wouldn’t the return journey for that item be a matter of procedure? Why is an entirely new application necessary? The suspicious answer is that bureaucracies thrive on paperwork and that redundant paperwork is the essence of validating one’s existence. That prospect discourages me as I would like to see this organization as fully aware and functional, not mired in repetitive document processing.

As someone who has attended a number of CINOA (Conferation Internationale des Negociantes en Oeuvres d’Art) conferences, I have heard several good ideas that might shorten the procedure. To begin with, it might be worthwhile to have a department within CITES dedicated to works of art. As for the works themselves, there have been suggestions of microchips and/or bar codes glued onto items that would correspond to a passport. Another idea is to give a dealer an account where they register all of their pieces with CITES  containing banned substances which could be checked whenever the item was shipped. In other words, the problem is far from insoluble and could save time in the shipping process for everyone involved, including the CITES people who must, after all, be extremely busy.

I had a conversation with a curator friend the other day about just what museums were spending their money on. He says that contemporary art is getting the lion’s share of attention, which baffles him. He doesn’t really begrudge that fact, instead he feels it is inevitable, but what he begrudges is the lack of understanding that guides the contemporary art field. He says that he is still looking for the edge that will give him the grip on what contemporary art is trying to be.

I, too, am looking for that edge. I would dearly love to understand contemporary art. How does someone become a modern master? It seems either presumptuous or premature to give an artist that label. My lack of understanding is revealed in the end game of the art market, or at least art in the last twenty years that it has become an investment. I remember when English furniture was considered an investment. That was not true then and it certainly isn’t true today.

The only thing I can relate it to is the market for real estate in London. I was there last week and virtually every single person I talked to mentioned the real estate market. Clearly, London is an attractive city for foreign money and, furthermore, foreigners do not have to pay tax on profits they make on London real estate. Such incentives are creating a bubble that currently has no end. Rational explanations are only part of the picture however, given how much time people spend talking about the market.

Contemporary art is intriguing and often beguiling, but rational explanations for the explosion in value of a few artists belies the reality of what time can do to an artist’s work. Clearly everyone, including the museum world, understands this. Some of the money they will spend on a big name now may not be a big namein fifty years. But for collectors who want to manipulate concepts such as taste and tax law, the game has become one of very high stakes. At this point, we are not really talking about art.