An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 188

Clinton Howell Antiques - July 4, 2022 - Issue 188

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

FOur days in Brussels with dealers from around the world is a kind of heaven for me. As I said last week, we are not large businesses, most of us are running our own show with the occasional assistance of one or two other people. We have shared concerns, complaints, stories and successes that people outside of the world of dealing just can't understand. I stayed in the Sablon area which is the hub of the dealing world in Brussels, largely dominated by tribal arts dealers, but with a fair number of other sorts of dealers as well. It is a picturesque area with a market square which is put to use not just for markets but for dinners on Thursday night which I was able to attend and enjoy as I found a properly made and very good zabaglione being prepared at one of the stalls in the market. When I ordered ten, for all the dealers I was eating with, the chef widened his eyes and mimicked my ten outspread fingers and mouthed ten with a look of disbelief. No problem, ten minutes later, we were eating the best zabaglione I have had in years.

I was in Brussels for the Annual General Meeting of CINOA (a French acronym for the one world wide dealer federation) where we gathered to discuss what lawmakers are doing that affect the art and antiques trade. To start, it is distressing to me how legislatures around the globe don't think about small businesses. We are micro-businesses that generally make small amounts of money (it varies according to what you are dealing) and legislatures think next to nothing about adding more paperwork and hoops to jump through to do with all sorts of things from export licenses, CITES licenses, customer identification, etc.--it can be a very long list, particularly if what you deal in is considered culturally sensitive to someone. Brussels is one of the many homes of a sizable group of tribal arts dealers and they are particularly affected by these regulations which, more often than not, cross the successive lines of absurdity, inanity and insanity--a Kafkaesque potpourri of hoops to jump through. The assumption by legislators is that dealers should have provenance going back to when the object first emerged in the market--never mind that trading is what man has done since time immemorial and that the receipt is a relatively modern invention.

CINOA, of which I am the President, is seriously underfunded. I do my damnedest to guilt independent dealers to join organizations and to help increase our clout, but this is another trait of small independent business people--to go it alone and to somehow cope with whatever gets thrown at you. It isn't as if joining an organization is that expensive (at least most organizations) and supporting us will, I believe, have a positive outcome, at least in Europe. The United States is another problem, but without a doubt, although we in the U.S. have less paperwork and fewer regulations, I tell my American colleagues that what happens in Europe is a foreshadowing of what will happen in the U.S. (And vice-versa.) Most galling, however, is how aligned industries are oblivious to what is happening. The auction houses, for example, generally want to carve out exceptions for themselves, but I say to them that a blockage happening in one area will sooner or later gum up everything. And the art fairs? These are the groups that directly rely on dealers--that they are ignoring what is happening is a little like growing the same crop in the same field year after year without thinking that the land just might need a little fertilization and rejuvenation. After this trip, I can at least say that I know where to find a good zabaglione--will I have any colleagues to eat it with remains the question?