An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 52

Clinton Howell Antiques - May 20, 2019 - Issue 52
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
Art fairs are always enjoyable--it really doesn't matter how tony the event is as long as the art is reasonably well lit and easy to see. The European Art Fair (TEFAF--a tony event) comes to New York twice a year in the fall and spring and the event is always worth the wait. The spring TEFAF is supposed to have more of a contemporary vibe and the fall more of an antique feel. It sort of works that way, but almost every exhibitor I know will try and put their best items forward. Of course, no old master dealer is going to be showing Renaissance art, but there are antiquities dealers in the spring whose works are thousands of years old. Frankly, creating divides seems sort of silly to me, but I presume clients are more interested if they think that things are older or newer, depending on their own particular preference. I enjoy all art and antiques so I don't have a problem with attending any art fair. Indeed, two of my favorite events in NYC are the Affordable Art Fair and the New York Academy of Arts spring exhibition. 

What I would like to discuss, however, is not art fairs per se, but what the public is buying. Clearly, there is a market for established artists of the 19th and 20th centuries, but the question is which ones? I can't claim to know the answer, but what I will say is that Camille Pissarro, several of whose works I saw at the fair and a notable figure in the history of art, is not focused on in the same way as, for example, Edvard Munch, Paul Klee or Josef Albers. The belief in traditionalism is there, but with a much fainter heart beat than it once had. And yet the right Pissarro will sell as well or better than the above artists. On the furniture and objects side, elegance dominated--invariably. I would like to say that all the contemporary furniture I saw was interesting, but it wasn't--only one booth had distinguished, livable furniture and that was Lefebvre from Paris. It was Deco and sublimely beautiful. The contemporary and modern furniture I saw was competing for the prize of  how not to look like a piece of furniture while still being functional. As a student of the London College of Furniture, that was a traditional pastime of all the design students. Its a fun thing to do, but will it ever get used?

As far as I can tell, the market is dominated by the concept of art as investment and that the sale of any one piece is less about what one is looking at than what one may be hoping to gain from it. I do not condemn this point of view in the slightest as that is my job in being a dealer, but what it does seem to do is narrow the playing field, at least for some of the better known works, to only the richest among us. Again, this is not a sad thing as it will spur on discovery of other works of art and that is the point. But the investment angle is, without any doubt, just a little weird and it will only get more so with all the cash that is in the world these days. And as I write this, the current noise is about the ninety odd million paid for Jeff Koons' stainless steel rabbit. Long may he run.