An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 268

Clinton Howell Antiques - January 8, 2023 - Issue 268

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The Winter Show, formerly known as the Winter Antiques Show, opens in eleven days time and I continue to offer tickets, but you do have to get in touch with me. There are electronic tickets and there are ticket tickets, meaning I can leave them at the "Will Call" booth in an envelope with your name on them. I should know well in advance as I need to organize the process from home before I get to the show.

Show business for the art and antiques world has gone through many changes in my lifetime. The internet, great for advertising if you can get peoples attention, has made shows more imperative because of the importance of seeing items in three dimensions. It is the best reason for shows to exist. The difference between face to face contact with an object and an internet photo can be chasmic. Even though I buy online, there is always a revelation when you actually see the piece in real life. Last year I had an Italian mirror on my booth whose dimensions were not over large, but in person, the mirror felt larger than it was. There were a number of reasons for this--it was a border glass, meaning that it had a central plate surrounded by other plates, and like a lot of Murano (Venetian) mirrors, included colored glass and pieces around the borders that sat on top of the glass. In other words, the mirror carried a visual punch. That kind of presence is very hard to see in a photograph.

Shows can be about selling to other dealers. Dealers are the easiest clients as they know what they are looking at. After that, it is the decorators who are in a job who know what they need. Lastly, it is the private client, the person every dealer wants to meet, who almost always starts looking at something with a certain amount of ambivalence that dealers try to puncture with whatever they have at hand. Usually, that is charm, but occasionally, there are clients who see potential as well as any dealer or decorator, but who really want to understand what it is they're buying. For example, in San Francisco a number of years ago, I had two clients who bought items on opening night--that is a rarity as almost always, clients want to measure and check items out. One of the pieces was a chaise longue that had great carved lions on it and the other was a mahogany open armchair in the Windsor chair style. Both of these clients, one I knew and the other was new to me, had no problem making up their minds. That sense of immediacy is the value of shows.

The major change in show business, however, has nothing to do with the customers or the dealers, per se, it is to do with the cost of putting a major show into production. The single biggest stumbling block for any show is finding an acceptable and affordable venue. When you think about how much has changed in the art and antiques world, just remember that CINOA, the international dealer federation, had a show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1974. I don't think anything exemplifies better how different things are today than fifty years ago--no professional management for the show, the Met and CINOA probably did all the advertising and it was a huge success. Today, it is hard to get people excited about any show. Furthermore, the Met wouldn't dream of hosting such a show today. TEFAF, The European Fine Art Fair, established its present format in Maastricht in 1988 after having gone through several iterations and then generated huge excitement for many years, but that has subsided somewhat. (One thing, it's said, is that private planes are limited at the local airport.) Frieze and Art Basel, both big time show groups, are also less followed than they used to be, despite the enormous success of Art Basel Miami. What has happened to ameliorate the excitement?

One thing that has affected the market negatively is the cost associated with just visiting a show. Tickets are now quite expensive. For example, Art Basel Miami is one ticket, but then there are numerous other shows that can cost a great deal to visit. Another thing is how buyers are using agents to scout shows. Top quality agents give nothing away when taking photos of objects or art because it is their job to remain low key. There is no excitement in giving a photo to an agent--it's nobody's fault, but it doesn't generate anything and if there is a sale, it is often done after the show. Sales during a show electrify it, which revs up buying in general. Sales can also galvanize a dealer and provoke the dealer into giving better deals, particularly if a dealer knows his expenses have been met. But the impediments keep intruding, as now there are money laundering laws that need to be met (in Europe) which have also taken the heat out of a show. Cultural heritage laws, as well, are also giving pause to many buyers, In a way, art and antiques dealing has grown out of its teenage phase and become more serious and today's shows reflect that. I don't know if it's a good or bad thing, but as a show dealer, I know it is a lot less fun.