An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 242

Clinton Howell Antiques - July 17, 2023 - Issue 242

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

Last week, I wrote that people buying and selling have what I would call a moral obligation to treat each other fairly. This is where human nature runs into a wall, so to speak. What does "fair" mean? This question is the dilemma for responsible dealers. Are dealers required to tell what they know to someone who is underselling a piece? Knowledge is what drives every dealer, and it is often an evolving knowledge learned the hard way with both wins and losses. Losses can come in unexpected ways such as ancillary costs like shipping, insurance and restoration or underselling items or even getting so excited by what you think you are looking at and not properly examining a piece. Among the most exasperating experiences is having a seller ask what something is worth on the market and then offering to sell it to the dealer for that price. It's like wanting both the cake and the eating experience. 

Years ago, a brother and sister came to me to ask my opinion about a games table they had. It was ivory inlaid (it was before the restrictions that have since been put on trading ivory) made in India and quite valuable. But it was also missing bits of ivory and had warping issues. They wanted to know what it was worth and if I would be interested in buying it? Because I did want to buy it, I told them to go to Sotheby's and Doyles and Christie's, all the auction houses nearby in New York City, and then to come and talk to me. In the end, after talking to two of the three auction houses, they returned and offered the table at what was a reasonable price. Of course, the Tiffany window in the church in Philadelphia I referenced last week may be a more complex situation than described in the article in the NY Times. Indeed, complexity exists in virtually any and all re-selling of things. Houses, for example, get bought and sold all the time--usually the biggest purchase or sale any one person will have in a lifetime. How many potential ethical lapses could either the buyer or seller complain about in such a situation--the answer, of course, is a great many and it is also the reason why there are separate service industries that do a variety of inspections, not to mention the title search. To be certain, everything that gets re-sold, it doesn't matter what it is, has an ethical challenge attached to it. 

I want however, to look at the concept of buying and/or selling in a different light altogether. What great salesmen (and charming buyers) have is the ability to sustain a lightness to the process of negotiation. This might be easier in an industry like real estate that has laws that allegedly protect both the buyer and seller. But good negotiators have an advantage if they know how to use humor appropriately. Six or seven years ago, I was in Delhi and was taken by my tour guide to a carpet salesman who told me that I was going to buy a carpet from him--he said that to me right away before I'd looked at one carpet. I sat down to have tea with him and at the end of half an hour, I bought a small carpet! I learned an immense amount from that man--he was funny and he didn't seem to care if he sold me anything, all the while showing me carpet after carpet and telling me how easy it was to get that carpet to New York. As we talked, he was telling me that the purchase was above the concept of value--it was in the relationship we had in that particular moment and he was absolutely right. Somehow, I became convinced that the transaction was going to be fair. Which, I suppose, is why I ended up buying the carpet. The logic is circular and actually quite satisfying and generally ignores the ethical side of the transaction entirely. And yet I like the carpet and I don't care if I overpaid. Such situations are ripe for abuse, and often are, but they are also part of the human experience. Strictly speaking, nothing is simple when it comes to determining what is or isn't fair. To borrow from Kurt Vonnegut, and so it goes.