An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 285

Clinton Howell Antiques - May 6, 2024- Issue 285
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

The untold wealth that is being created at this time in history is extraordinary--it is estimated that the first trillionaire will be created in the next decade. The business side of the world of arts, and all that the term implies, struggles to find ways to get the rich interested in what they have to offer. The world of English antique furniture is barely a dot on the "i" in that particular tale as the fine arts, from the iconic to the newly minted hot properties, tend to lead the way, although occasionally, a great piece of furniture emerges to garner seven figure sums. But even the traditional fine arts find it a struggle to stay monetarily relevant--Da Vinci, Picasso, Van Gogh, Rembrandt--sorry, there are none, and if one happens to show up, it may mean a reasonable payday but offers no consistency in outcome--it's unlikely another will come along time soon--it isn't a market, it's a one off which is why the auction houses these days position themselves as purveyors of "lifestyle" items. It's a tough way to make a living not that I have much sympathy for them. They hyped the English furniture market, after all, and that turned into a disaster.

I received an email from Christie's not so long ago with an offering that included a "Unico Red Sapphire Camo" wristwatch--advertised as "exceptionally hard to find, a limited edition of Hublot's flagship Big Bang watch". The watch case is made from a single sapphire, red and translucent, the dial and strap in camouflage pattern. Clearly this was a marketing ploy by Hublot because who, in their right mind would wear a red sapphire watch that was also a camouflage watch--why make it in red sapphire? The whole idea seems a little paradoxical, not to say wacky, but as a marketing ploy, I think it might have a hint of genius behind it. The paradox becomes a talking point, a story as it were, and in the end, story is what all of us want in our lives--it gives us, in an odd way, a kind of meaning. That trillionaire, whoever it is, is likely to have story after story presented to him and, dare I say it, he of she might start considering some of those stories to be, to put it nicely, a con.

Separating rich people from their money is a story as old as mankind. Salespeople that are "naturals" can navigate from product to product without too much heartburn and if they have an air of sophistication to sell at the high end and a sense of humor, the world welcomes them with open arms. (The auctioneers at the top firms often betray that soigne elegance coupled with urbane confidence.) But for such a person, there is also the necessity of a product that rewards their skills. Great salesmen are happier when they sell a billion dollar yacht than selling a thousand row boats, even though, in the long term, the rowboat salesman has a much bigger, though not as lucrative market. Furthermore the consistency of rowboat sales is more assured and likely more rewarding in the long run--everyone on the water needs a rowboat. But the art business doesn't have the consistency that rowboats provide, it has the vessels that show up in the moment. And so gimmicks and fads and fashions emerge like seedlings in the spring and some sustain and most die. Securing that trillionaire as a customer is every salesman's dream, but he better have the right seeds to sell.