I read the latest Julian Barnes novel over the weekend, “The Sense of an Ending” in which he talks about how certain memories that seem so one dimensional actually have greater depth upon re-examination. This happened to me over the weekend as I remembered a gift from my mother on my graduation from college. The gift was three books on artists, two of which I remember, one on Louise Nevelson and the other on Isamu Noguchi, both sculptors. Noguchi was almost lost to my memory until I went to his museum this weekend in Queens.

The museum is great and so is a lot of Noguchi’s work. I particularly enjoyed the small number of drawings in one room that were done in Paris in the 1920’s when Noguchi was in his twenties. His sense of line and surface were extraordinarily fine, in my opinion, something that presages the work of his final years, at least as far as I can see. The space is Noguchi’s old studio and it has been cleverly  converted into a series of rooms that highlight different eras of Noguchi’s life. It is, for me at least, the first room that you walk into where you see the true power of Noguchi’s art.

The aging process clearly delineates an artist’s work. A chronological display will reveal the growth of both ability and vision of an artist. Some artists just continue to blossom finding new directions and refining their craft. Noguchi certainly did so as his work with stone morphed into a less is more aesthetic. A great deal more in my opinion as huge chunks of stone have small areas of textured surfaces, either polished or chiseled with the remainder left au naturel. The effect is very powerful. It reminds me of the Bob Seger line, “what to leave in, what to leave out.”

One thing I know about myself, however, is that I love surfaces. The attraction of English furniture is certainly in the design, but it is also in the surface. All wood, when treated well, will become something more than what it started out as. Time, not unlike the way in which it affects an artist, mellows timber and gives it a dimension that was theretofore non-existent. Noguchi stopped playing with his surfaces, a lesson that many restorers and antique dealers should learn as well.

I attended the International Contemporary Furniture Fair at the Jacob Javits Center on Sunday. There were miles of aisles and it almost seemed daunting, except, of course, that I am looking at furniture. And there were some great things to see. Foremost in my mind was the folding furniture made by a company in Hoboken called Folditure. They make chairs and tables that fold up completely flat and, from my heart, I have to say they were truly marvelous. The technology and sophistication of the design are just amazing and that the chairs fold flat to ¾” is spectacular.

Creativity in the 18th century appears  as boring to non-existent, the same old, same old, cabriole legs, splat backs, etc. I understand why that characterization is made, but I would suggest that it doesn’t hold weight, particularly for high end furniture of the period. Furthermore, the creativity expressed by makers when transitioning from one style to another often led to unique pieces that combined numerous styles in one piece of furniture. That creativity was subtle, of course, but it was also unique to that maker. When this furniture is good, it is superb. Occasionally it missed as well.

The dimension of creativity today is broader than the 18th century. The variety of materials that contemporary makers can use is almost limitless. Furthermore, machinery helps in realizing some of the more fantastical designs from the point of view of design and construction. In the 18th century, craft was king and the craftsmen of the period had extensive apprenticeships and training. Ergo, design was a function of using those talents to their fullest extent. The differences between then and now seem wide, but they aren’t as wide as you might imagine. After all, the human body hasn’t changed all that much.


I will admit to having some trepidation about defending the trade in ivory. There are two reasons. The foremost is that moral arguments are very hard to rebut. They always seem like such good ideas when they are proposed.  The second reason is that my self-interest could be seen as being entirely selfish. On the one hand, I want to be able to do what I do and on the other hand, elephants are dying. How can I reconcile what seems like wanton disregard to the plight of a species?

Of course, I don’t truly believe that what I want is selfish. That is because I know how to distinguish old ivory in the kinds of pieces that I trade. Indeed, all the antique dealers in their various specialties that I know, can quickly tell you what is and is not old. For the reputable antiques trade, this has never been a problem. We no more wish to sell fakes or look-alikes than fly to the moon. It is our job to determine authenticity and if we make a mistake, we often pay dearly for it.

This is the heart of the matter, in my opinion. To think that any of the people in the two top antique organizations would want to deal with poached ivory in any way at all is to misunderstand how we feel about our work as well as the morality of elephant depradation. We care about both. Hence, our solution to the dilemma seems fairly simple to us. Create a data base of those pieces that use pre-ban ivory. It will help to enlighten customs about what is and isn’t old and it will help to save the species.

The moral argument of banning the trade in all ivory needs very careful assessment. The idea behind it is fine, but the reality of implementing such a ban neither addresses the elephant’s plight nor the effects such a ban would have in demonetizing all antique ivory. Many people may comply with the new law, but many may not. What kind of enforcement will ensue? What do you do with someone who has sold a piece of ivory they have owned for generations? There is a Kafkaesque dimension to this scenario.

In the end, I feel that those wishing to ban the trade in all ivory must also do due diligence in understanding just what their law will and will not do. Is the moral high ground worth it? Is an ivory ban that doesn’t truly address the elephant’s plight valid, or is it just smoke and mirrors? The American public has many facets of opinion—one facet will applaud this legislation while others may feel it to be inadequate. I am one of the latter and it is because I, too, truly care about the elephant.

I visited the World Wildlife Fund website the other day. It is a terrific site that is devoted to the struggle of seeing our world’s ecosystem remain in balance. That includes climate change, over fishing and animal extinction. Their goal is essentially to get people to donate money to pursue programs that will allow them to pay for lobbyists to get legislation enacted. They also wish to encourage responsible behavior on the part of world governments, a goal that seems somewhat elusive in even the most idealistic of moments.

I applaud their efforts. I would like them to be successful for the most part, but I am beginning to wonder if they can be at all effective. I think this way because I oppose their current campaign of what they call a campaign to save the elephant. The cornerstone of the campaign is to stop all trading in ivory, no matter how old it may be. This is, they believe, the moral imperative that must be enacted to alert the world and to put a halt to the slaughter of elephants. It is an emotional approach that resonates deeply with animal lovers, but which, on examination, disregards some practical realities.

There is no question that the ivory from slaughtered elephants is being used to make goods, some of which are selling in America. Stopping the trade in ivory will certainly put a halt to the trade in this ivory. But how much of it is being sold in America? Apparently, 35,000 elephants are being slaughtered each year. A single tusk weighs close to 250 pounds so 35,000 elephants would yield up to 17,500,000 pounds of ivory. How much has been found in America? According to the Convention on Illegal Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) report of 2013, only two tons or 4,000 pounds of illegal ivory was confiscated. That represents eight elephants.

My numbers may be slightly skewed, but even if they are off by 50%, it is clear that the majority of illegal ivory is not coming anywhere near the US. My questions for the World Wildlife Fund are, what happens if we go and ban ivory and the elephants continue to be slaughtered? I fear that if Americans do ban the trade in ivory that 1) the slaughter won’t stop and that Americans will throw up their hands feeling they have done all that they could do, 2) an illegal trade will develop and 3) the current owners of valuable, formerly legitimate ivories, will form black markets and that our legal system will be burdened with yet another law that is hard to enforce.

As an owner of antique ivory, I see the legislation as a shotgun approach to a problem that could use a scalpel. The shotgun is an effective killing weapon, but it doesn’t discriminate between friend and foe. I know that antique organizations would agree and cooperate in creating a data base of antique ivory. I also know that a modest tax from the owners, sellers and buyers of ivory would be willing to pay a fee to be part of this data base. There are, according to Lark Mason who culled information and extrapolated from sales of ivory in Cincinnati over a 6 month period, 300-600 million pieces with ivory in America.

Even if Lark’s figures are three times too great, the taxing of the movement of 100 million ivories could go a long way to both setting up a data base, learning about the illegal trade and eventually in helping the elephant population. The World Wildlife Fund is a worthy organization and they need to get this issue right. They also need to get the right people on the right side of the issue. Currently, a lot of law abiding citizens who disagree with this approach will flout what they consider to be a bad law. Americans have done that before and will do it again. The WWF should work to get this right.

This is an art and antiques fair that should change the way that all art fairs look. It is absolutely sensational. Rafael Vinoly’s design not only works, it hums with energy as art and antiques pull you left and right around the Armory. I have never seen the likes before and I am certain that all future fairs that are in the Armory will have to reckon with how spectacular this design is for a fair. If you haven’t seen it yet, there is today and tomorrow. Hours are 11-7:30 today, May 3, and 11-6 tomorrow. The Armory is located between 66th and 67th on Park Ave. More on the fair next week.