An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 48

Clinton Howell Antiques - March 18, 2019 - Issue 48

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

I am going to veer off script in this issue for a couple of reasons. Some of you may know that I am President of the Confederation Internationale des Negociants en Oeuvre d'Arts (CINOA). In that capacity, my job is to determine the best way to protect and promote the art and antiques trade. As the trade has diminished its public presence, fewer and fewer galleries have space on the ground floors of buildings in large cities, the concept of art and antique dealing has become more arcane to the world. Additionally, dealers primary places of public exhibition tend to be at fairs which often look glamorous and expensive locking and just too rarified. In other words, the trade is being pushed into a corner, partly of its own making and partly because of what's happening in a broader economic context. 

This image is not necessarily a good one. It consists, for people who have never visited a gallery and wouldn't know Picasso from Rodin, of effete, wealthy types who make huge profits off of unsuspecting rich people. To begin with, there are no unsuspecting rich people, but more importantly, the aim of dealers is to bolster inventory, find new clients and to meet business expenses and make a profit. Inventory is a huge problem that is met with both luck and hard work. Finding new clients requires endless mailings, shows, exhibitions, catalogs, meetings and so on. Business expenses are no different from any other business, and occasionally a great deal more, starting with the payment of insurance premiums and, of course rent, security, etc. 

So, why I am I writing this? Do I think dealers are disadvantaged? No, but there are storm clouds on the horizon. Legislators, not just American legislators, are looking for revenue and votes. This is nothing new and the focus has turned on what is seen as the free wheeling art and antiques world. The focus of these legislators is to create barriers to trade. For example, last year the anti-money laundering issue arose in the US Congress, due to the successful implementation by the EU of anti-money laundering (AML) legislation. (A second reason would be Donald Trump.)  It failed in the US, but it will be back. Who doesn't want to cut down on money laundering? But, and this is the crux of the matter, how effective will the suggested law be in stopping money laundering? The level for restrictions is $10,000. That doesn't make any sense when you think of who wants to launder money--really rich crooks who obtained their money illegally. Are they going to buy a painting for $10,000? If I were they, I would focus on paintings that were above half a million at the very least.

The regulations that are being created that aim at the art and antiques business are various. There are laws being written (some already exist) that are designed to put a bureaucracy between you and your purchase when you buy over a certain amount in European countries. So if you buy a pair of English cabinets in Italy over a certain amount, you will wait months and months before you get them and, if they determine that they are more important to Italy than being exported, you are out of luck. These are cultural restriction laws and they are very dangerous. Or, every time CITES notes that there is a decline in a population of some animal or plant, there is an immediate barrier created to monitor the movement of such materials. Dealers, as a rule, don't object to this, but CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), in 2014, noted that elephants were close to being an endangered species and that the problem centered on the export of ivory to the Far East. There were no other hot spots in the world and yet the western countries have jumped to create ivory restrictions. There is no one who wants to see elephant extinction, but are the laws restricting ivory in the west going to change anything?

Unfortunately, all these laws have consequences that ripple out farther than most legislators understand. What I would like is for the art and antiques world to come together with the legislative bodies around the world to discuss the best way to combat illegalities of all sorts. This is where the answers lie.