In the broader scheme of things, the scandal involving Pimlico antiques dealer John Hobbs, and, tarred with the same brush, his brother, Upper East Side dealer Carlton Hobbs- well, it’s not unrest in the Middle East, but it’s a big deal for us. Nearly all our clients- both private collectors and interior designers- have brought the subject up, asking our opinion and trying to ferret out any additional information. ‘Additional information’, in this context, could best be defined as synonymous with gossip.
There’s been plenty of gossip, as one can imagine, but what’s moved from gossip to the front page is the fall-out from the scandal, predictably involving design professionals and, one would assume, their clients. Not many designers represent themselves as experts on antiques- that is the dealer’s job. Designers are engaged to complete interior and exterior schemes in a way and with materials that the client will find pleasing. This is always preceded with a floorplan and a budget, and shopping then commences.
My faithful readers will have noted in an earlier blog how I’ve termed these shopping excursions ‘designer junkets’- the designer with the client in tow, and so it is when shopping is done at an antiques show. Typically the designer has visited the show before, identified certain items, and then returned at a future time, and pointed out to the client what’s good. Scotch that- at a vetted antiques show, it’s all good. What I mean is, what works in the particular project. To reprise from my earlier blog, we love to see designers shopping with their clients, as decisions can be made on the spot and sales frequently result.
The more elaborate junket, of course, is the one that involves travel. Frankly, our Jackson Square and Kensington Church Street venues are still a sufficiently attractive draw that we do have a number of designers shopping with their clients, and, frequently, it is the same protocol. Certainly, it is the highest and best use of the clients’ time to let the interior designer do their job, narrow the focus, and then bring in the client to make the final decision. Particularly at Jackson Square, we see this a lot, especially with Los Angeles based designers. Typically, the designer will be in on a Thursday, shopping, and their client will fly up on the Friday and pay us a visit, with their designer as shopping docent. I’ve got to say, nearly all designers will let us know in advance their objectives- the pieces they want to show the client, the nature and scope of the project, and when they plan to return. For the dealer, this information is wonderful to receive, because then we don’t ever make the critical error of getting between the designer and their client. Good feelings generally abound when the designer and client shop us in San Francisco, since even if they don’t find what they want, the worst that can happen is to enjoy a pleasant weekend in San Francisco.
Abroad, however, things become very, very different. What would be termed a designer junket is transformed into what I would characterize as a designer-client progress- ‘progress’ in this context analogous to those Queen Elizabeth I would make, progressing from stately home to stately home, showing herself to her subjects, and allowing her retinue to be feted by the local great and good. I don’t think this is an overstatement, because, of course, anyone willing to shop abroad for antiques is going to go to the poshest venues. Further, it is unlikely, when shopping for antiques on Bond Street, that the clients and their retinue stay at the Comfort Inn near Paddington Station. Probably not wide of the mark to say that a stay at Claridge’s, the Ritz, or the Connaught is concomitant with West End, Knightsbridge, Fulham Road- or Pimlico Road- antiques shopping.
What’s astonishing to me has always been that, given how financially successful some designers’ clients have been in their own sphere, they check their acumen at the door when they first inhale the aromatic mixture of furniture wax, brass polish, and Santa Maria Novella potpourri that pervades all the best European dealers’ showrooms. As I think about it, our galleries in San Francisco smell that way, too- perhaps what we lack is some sort of European ozone. For whatever reason, though, the designer’s clients seem to lose all sense of doing business. Perhaps you’ve read before, we consider our inventory as a fungible commodity- even with antiques, reasonable market prices can be determined, and that is what we charge. At the galleries of some of dealers at the highest end, nothing of this sort seems to happen- at least in terms of so-called ‘asking price’. What I continue to find astonishing is, when given the asking price, how deeply- and readily- some dealers then are willing to discount that price. I’m not astonished, of course, that the dealers are willing to provide a deep discount. I am astonished that clients would be taken in by what I would term a ‘come-on’, using a discount to occlude the fact that the merchandise is significantly overpriced to begin with. Hardly what I would term fair dealing.
With all that, it should not be surprising, then, that some of these same dealers might salt their inventory with items that we politely call in the trade ‘confections’- disparate period and contemporary elements, blended together with varying degrees of skill to yield a brand-new ‘antique’. It is unfortunate how often this is done by some dealers, but, again, it seems that the high discount dealers have a high tendency to be those that also manufacture fake pieces. Granted, every dealer is at some time fooled by a piece he’s acquired- us included. Under that circumstance, the honest dealer grins and bears it, and makes an effort to quickly move it out of his inventory- not tart it up to turn the piece into what the dealer would like it to be.
Perhaps it’s jet lag, or too many beverages consumed in the hotel bar, that results in lapses in judgment, making it easier for some dealers to take advantage of clients. Certainly, there also still exists an easy contempt amongst European dealers for opprobriously termed ‘rich Americans.’ And, in fact, the conspicuous display that the designer-client progress engenders probably feeds the dealers’ contempt. Ironically, given the hard times the European antiques trade has fallen upon- the double, no, triple whammy of dollar weakness, popularity of 20th century material, and overall travel malaise- one would assume dealers would then make an extra effort to ensure the client and their designer get real value for money. The unfortunate fact is, though, a number of dealers, following on from the glory years in the trade in the 1980’s and 1990’s, have ramped up their own lifestyles to match that of their clients. It is hard to imagine, though, that utilizing unsavory business practices in an attempt to make ends meet constitutes a better, more intelligent choice for some dealers than biting the bullet and instead deciding to sell the chateau in France, one of the Bentleys, or both.