Mallett at 40 New Bond Street- the glory years

Something we always did when walking down Bond Street was press our noses against the glass looking in to Mallett’s exquisite showroom. We rarely went in. I suppose relative to the contents and the locked door and the warder at the front, Keith and I felt ourselves the modern day equivalent of Dickensian street urchins, knowing we’d never be able to purchase anything inside, but were nevertheless inclined to see how the other half lived.

Nearly 40 years’ on from our first nose-against- plate glass, and 20 years on from our debut in the trade, we can’t help but feel wistful about the closure of Mallett, and saddened it died such a hard death. For nearly its entire existence since it began in 1865, Mallett has been the ne plus ultra in the trade in English antiques, and certainly for the bulk of the 20th century, the preferred dealer patronized by oil sheiks, international bankers, and, more recently, Russian oligarchs. If one was looking for a bargain, however, it was not to be found there. For us, Mallett’s pricing became something of a yardstick- if we had a similar item in stock, we sought to achieve 25% of Mallett’s sticker.

Expensive, yes, but location and reputation and cachet are substantial factors in pricing. As well, in the glory days in the trade in the 1950’s through the 1980’s, Mallett had a long enough purse it could acquire pieces either privately or at auction, salt them away for a few years, and then bring them to buying public as fresh to the trade, with some extraordinary pieces always on offer at the crowning event of the London season, the Grosvenor House fair, itself now only a thing of memory. Quality and condition were always Mallett’s hallmarks, even if those features might have been a bit overdone for collectors. ‘Malletized’ was the sub-rosa term used in the trade for items that might have had a bit more restoration than absolutely necessary.

Mallett no more- vacant and surplus to requirements

For many years, Mallett had existed as a public company, and while at one time fairly well capitalized, it nevertheless had to pay out a lot in salaries and occupancy for its locations on Bond Street in London and Madison Avenue in New York, and with declining revenues and changes in taste, could not skinny back its overhead expenses to match declines in revenue. Auction sales of inventory at several times in the last decade, and the sale of its leasehold on Bond Street were quickly gobbled up, and served only as very temporary stop gaps. As well, Mallett’s reputation suffered the embarrassment of having its New York director jailed on fraud charges, the effect of which, frankly, was less severe than it might have been otherwise, given that Mallett overall had by then generally hit the skids. Moving twice in five years to cheaper premises in London, and its purchase by another company clearly have made no difference, with until fairly recently the only thing remaining was the Mallett name. Even that doesn’t appear saleable- erstwhile dealer and auctioneer Mark Law failed a few weeks ago in his attempt to purchase it.

Now, saddest of all, Mallett’s final premises in Pall Mall are now vacant with a ‘To Let’ sign in the front windows. This week’s issue of The Antiques Trade Gazette quotes a terse statement from the company’s current owner Stanley Gibbons Ltd that the space is ‘surplus to requirements’.


A brief follow-on from my earlier blog, with the results from the sale of the personal effects of Vivien Leigh testimony to her lasting appeal. With a broad range of material documenting her personal life with Laurence Olivier and after, and virtually her entire career on stage and in the movies, very nearly everything sold at a significant multiple of its presale estimate.

Some noteworthy items are shown below:

John Piper’s gouache and watercolour of Notley Abbey, sold for £32,500 against a high estimate of £12,000.

 

First edition of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, sold for £30,000 against a high estimate of £9,000.

 

A pier mirror from Durham Cottage, Chelsea, sold for £60,000 against a high estimate of £1,500.

 

And, fittingly, to conclude the sale, a gold ring inscribed ‘Laurence Olivier Vivien Eternally’, for £37,500.

All these pieces acquired as keepsakes for mournfully adoring fans? Absolutely, without a doubt. And the high prices? Can one put a price on sentiment?


We’ll soon be treated to a disbursal of the effects of the extraordinary Vivien Leigh, with fine and decorative arts and personal memorabilia from her sadly short life but sensationally fruitful career. It is extraordinary to consider that she’s been gone for 50 years, but I suppose that’s a component part of the timelessness spoken of to describe a person of matchless talent.

John Piper, ‘Notley Abbey’, watercolour and gouache

The sale will include items from the homes she shared with her paramour then husband Laurence Olivier. Notley Abbey, the country home they shared, restored and decorated with help from the legendary decorator John Fowler, and their bijou London home, Durham Cottage in Chelsea.

Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier at Durham Cottage, Chelsea

Recounting these names in the context of a single paragraph sends shivers down my spine. How wonderful it would have been to be a part of the lives of these Olympian figures. Even now as a jaded man of very, very late middle age, the thinking of the confluence of these lives makes me weak in the knees.

Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty, ‘The Roman Spring…’ or any other season!

As does the thought of a very young Warren Beatty in a late Vivien Leigh opus, ‘The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone’, but I mustn’t be too salacious, or at least not this early in the morning.

 

Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando, ‘Streetcar…’ and desire!

Or paired with a luscious Marlon Brando in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. Yes, I promised to leave concupiscence aside, but my mind even as a superannuate sometimes runs that way.

 

Keith and I do feel an oblique connection with Miss Leigh, having sold an exquisite piece that once graced Notley Abbey, and installed there by no less than the redoubtable John Fowler. A particularly fine quality William and Mary period Japanese lacquer cabinet mounted on a giltwood stand, we didn’t at the time of acquisition realize its connection with either John Fowler or the Oliviers.

William & Mary cabinet on stand, from Stoke Edith to Beverly Hills, via Notley Abbey

Although the cabinet on stand itself was unprovenanced at the time of our acquisition, the presence of an old label to the reverse from a carver and gilder in Hereford put us on to a notion that a piece this grand must have been in a stately home- and presumably that home was near Hereford.

Stoke Edith

As these things so often happen, our acquisition of the piece coincided with the publication of John Cornforth’s Early Georgian Houses. Leafing through it, I quickly saw an old Country Life photos of the now lost manor house Stoke Edith. There beneath the wonderful decorative painting wrought by Sir James Thornhill was the cabinet on stand. Further research brought us quickly to the disbursal of it and the surviving contents following a fire that led to the eventual demolition of Stoke Edith in the 1930’s, and the cabinet’s acquisition by Colefax and Fowler for placement in Notley Abbey.

 

The great hall, Stoke Edith, with the cabinet on stand to the right

This tangential contact with Vivien Leigh hardly brings Chappell & McCullar into the ambit of the Oliviers, but it is nevertheless a wonderful anecdote to recount, and makes us all the more interested in the upcoming auction. Does this make us, pardon me, ‘star-f—ers’? No, no, never- but for those of my gentle readers who are, here’s the follow-on. We did sell the cabinet on stand to a show business celebrity for placement in her home near to Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, in a house that was for years the residence of Merv Griffin, with a rose garden laid out by no less than Merv’s good friend Nancy Reagan. Now I suppose we’ve been caught out, so I’ll admit this business does have some tantalizing aspects.


This week, the Gazette Drouot, the house organ of the French state auction monopoly, led its online edition with the following:

Paris or Hong Kong? Why, both, my good sir! While the City of Light is preparing, in a tense environment, to host the new offshoot of the Biennale des Antiquaires, rechristened ‘Biennale Paris’ for the occasion, the former British colony is awaiting collectors of art and antiques for the 12th edition of Fine Art Asia. According to a joint report by Artnet and the China Association of Auctioneers (CAA), Asia, particularly Hong Kong, is gaining the upper hand in the Chinese art and antiques market to the detriment of less demanding Westerners. In this category, “the share of value sold in Asia (excluding mainland China) increased from 66% in 2011 to 78% in 2016,” to quote the report. A tendency favourable to the fair founded by Andy Hei, where turnover depends largely on Chinese antiques and a local clientele. In contrast, the new Biennale Paris is seeking a more international audience, and aiming to finally steal the limelight from its competitors, TEFAF (Maastricht/New York) and Masterpiece (London). Will collectors turn up in the hoped-for numbers? An unknown factor that should not affect the visitorship of the unobtrusive Parcours des Mondes: the tribal art fair staged the same week as the Biennale, which in only a few years has become a gold mine those who love the genre. Why not give it a go!

Frankly, it’s difficult to know what to make of this squib, since presumably the publishers of Gazette Drouot would prefer to focus exclusively on the redesigned Biennale. It’s unfortunate TEFAF and Masterpiece were identified as competitors, but I suppose all this is an acknowledgement that, for the moment, the trade in art and antiques in the western hemisphere is, shall we say, in a state of flux, while China appears to be where the action is.

Perhaps there is some truth in this, but the fact is, the Chinese market remains primarily driven by an interest in golden age Chinese fine and decorative arts. Qianlong porcelains and huang huali furniture, never precisely the mainstay of any but a handful of dealers in the west, continues to command enormous prices from newly enriched Chinese collectors. The irony, of course, is that so much of this material is being repatriated following a centuries long diaspora that did not abate until less than 2 decades ago. In fact, our first visit to the People’s Republic of China in late 1985 included stops during our tour to government owned galleries specializing in period material- porcelains, cloisonné, and jade- at what were knockdown prices. We did, frankly, acquire some excellent pieces. But then, we had something the Chinese government wanted more- hard currency.

It would be foolish to fail to acknowledge that, through whatever complex processes, economic and cultural hegemonies shift with some varying degrees of fluidity, and China for the moment continues in the ascendant.  Not just for this reason, the Biennale this year has nevertheless changed, with the Drouot Gazette opining it has gone a bit down-market. Two of the fair’s longtime mainstays are gone, Didier Aaron and Galerie Kraemer, formerly considered the crème de la crème of French furniture dealers.  No longer, with both caught up in a scandal, accused by French authorities of selling chairs to be placed in the Palace of Versailles that were, shall we say, fudged up.  An interesting side note, for 2017 Christopher Forbes is listed on the Biennale advisory panel, a real irony, as Forbes magazine had printed an article unctuously praising now besmirched Galerie Kraemer, terming it ‘the billionaire’s IKEA’.

Still and all, scandal and global economic shifts aside, it would be foolish to ignore that the traditional triumvirate of art market cities- New York, London and Paris, in no particular order- remains paramount. If I’ve a choice of destinations in the next month, gentle reader, you’ll find me in Paris at the Biennale in the glorious Grand Palais- as you would have found me at TEFAF Maastricht in March, and Masterpiece London in July.


Of all the good times I’ve had in my life, those enjoyed in Houston particularly stand out. We’ve been privileged to do a great deal of business in Houston and environs and without exception, we’ve been generously gifted by Houstonians with extraordinary hospitality.

In light of Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath, it may be a small thing encouraging my gentle readers to join me in sending relief to those beleaguered from its effects.

For very many years, we participated in Houston’s Theta Charity Antiques Show at the George R Brown Convention Center.  While we know Houston will bounce back, we know as well that the charity endeavors of the Theta ladies will in no small part assist that effort.

Many hands, they say, make light work. Let’s see how many hands we can contribute to lighten the work ahead for all Houstonians.