Provenance

A letter floated in to the galleries the other day from another dealer, who by way of representing the quality of her inventory, cited its ‘provenance’. Within the context of the letter, it appeared that she didn’t really understand the meaning of the word. But then it occurred to me that this term, so often used in the trade, and on ‘Antiques Roadshow’, is probably not completely understood. Perhaps, then, a brief discussion and the implications when applied to a piece of furniture might be of some use to all ten of my readers.

As a working definition, ‘provenance’ simply means who owned the piece before. Clearly, with a number of pieces in our inventory as much as 300 years old, everything has been owned by very many people before, but we don’t often cite provenance. Mostly, the prior ownership is either unknown or insufficiently significant to be worth noting. When provenance is cited, it is for several different reasons. Firstly, provenance when it can assist in attributing the piece to a known workshop. In the 18th century heyday of stately homebuilding in England, Thomas Chippendale, Mayhew and Ince, Thomas Cobb, William Vile, and a number of prominent craftsmen completed vast suites of movables to furnish these massive new piles. Chances are, if the piece has remained in the home and with the family for whom it was originally commissioned, the original invoice, prepared and issued by Chippendale or the like, survives. With English furniture in particular, rarely labelled or marked by its maker, provenance often plays a critial role in attribution.

More recent provenance, absent knowing its original owner, might not be helpful in attribution, but can argue for the quality of the piece. For instance, a mid 18th century serving table in our inventory was part of a collection assembled in the early part of the 20th century by the furniture historian R.W.Symonds, one of the leading intellectual lights in the English furniture field. We always include this when citing the piece’s provenance. Although of a Chippendale design in the Chinese taste, it is unlikely that Symonds chose this piece for that reason. Rather, it is more likely that the selection was based on timber quality and color, and the fact that the blind fret carving to the legs and the frieze is original. Since very many pieces of this basic design were ‘enhanced’ by recarving in the Chippendale revival period of the late 19th century, original carving was, and still is, an extremely desirable feature.

Finally, provenance can sometimes be a value-added feature on its own, regardless of the quality of the piece, if the prior owner was or is a person of particular celebrity. Immediately I think of the collection of the late Bill Blass, auctioned off at Sotheby’s a few years ago. Some of the Regency furniture was of excellent quality, some was not, but everything sold for a lot of money. Interestingly, although very much a factor in the trade in America in the early part of the last century, aristocratic provenance seems lately to be more of a selling feature in Europe. Although nearly all European countries are long since republics, presumably buyers there still encounter enough aristos wandering around that it makes the notion of aristocratic provenance more meaningful.

Post Sine DOMA

One of the highlights of this week, or of any other week in my recent experience, was going down to City Hall to apply for a marriage license. Does the expression ‘positive vibe’ mark me indelibly as a child of the sixties? I can describe the atmosphere in the city clerk’s office in no other way. We were there with a number of other couples, mostly men no longer in the first blush of youth, who were, like us, excited almost to the point of euphoria about doing something that seemed would never happen. Most were moving directly to having their civil ceremony performed in City Hall following the issuance of their license. Although we hadn’t planned to do that, I told Keith, with all the excitement, I would have no objection to a ceremony there. He then went all Cher on me, and loosely parroting her character in ‘Moonstruck’, said something about bad luck with a civil ceremony with only strangers looking on. Maybe, I thought, loosely parroting Vincent Gardenia. In any event, Keith is seldom emphatic so in the event he is, I seldom argue. Venue to be determined.

Still and all, filling out the application for the license begged some interesting questions. On the one hand, equal treatment results in one size fits all, and the questions about name changes (Keith I believe seriously considered this) and who’s the bride and who’s the groom (to so designate was optional on the form, so we both opted out) also begs some consideration of how we from now on will publically designate one another.

Interestingly, this has been an issue for decades, and to my mind, never satisfactorily resolved. When Keith and I began our life together 33 years ago, two men who cohabited in a romantic relationship were generally referred to each other as lovers. Well, of course, but in the parlance of the time, and considerably earlier, that connoted two people of any combination of sexes who were having sex with each other on a frequent basis. We were, for those of you prurient enough to wonder, but that wasn’t the only basis of our relationship. ‘Lover’ seemed incomplete and has gradually grown out of fashion, and, if anything, has reverted to its earlier, more limited meaning. We have from time to time had friends, always gay men, who referred to Keith as my boyfriend, which I suppose he was at one point- in the one month period before we became fairly firmly committed to one another- so again, not a very acceptable or enduring term.

Not during my adult life but for a number of years, outside the gay community, the other half was referred to as someone’s ‘friend’. This was always said rather archly, clearly with inverted commas insinuated, to make certain the hearer knew that something more than friend in the usual sense of the word (now I’m sounding like Norma Desmond) was meant. ‘Partner’, though, is another term that has gained more recent currency, and seems fairly popular, so much so that two otherwise straight men in business together now frequently will designate one another as ‘business partners’ to dissuade anyone from thinking that the relationship might be otherwise. Between ourselves, we often see ‘business partners’ used in this sense when we actually know that the relationship is, shall we say, otherwise, but that’s a subject for another time.

What both of us have a hard time with is the use of the words ‘husband’ or ‘wife’. This always implies role play that, while perhaps applicable in some relationships, always seems mawkish and a poor attempt to mimic the marriage between a man and a woman. That said, I rarely hear straight couples refer to each other as husband and wife and in a very real way, that’s a good thing, marking as it does progress forward from stereotypes that imprisoned particularly women in subordinate ‘wifely’ roles.

So for the time being, how we will refer to each other in company will remain an open question, as it has been for the 33 years we’ve been together. Frankly, though, this is at best a niggling issue and largely suitable only for what I hope is thought a fairly clever blog. In point of fact, in all the years and in all the times Keith and I have introduced one another to someone new in our acquaintance, no one has ever really been in doubt about what our relationship with each other was.

Masterpiece 2014

What’s the old saw, something about life’s uncertainly compelling one to eat dessert. I suppose that explains why it is that I am beginning this squib in conclusive fashion- I eagerly anticipate the 2014 outing of Masterpiece. This, of course, with the more than positive signs for positive movement in the trade enhanced by the 2013 fair just concluded.

The fact is, this year’s fair made a singular effort to emphasize a more traditional focus- on art and antiques. That seems an obvious move, but it marks a significant shift away from its original raison d’être, as a luxury goods fair, offering wine futures and new cars in the 7 figure price range in an attempt to broaden the base, and numbers of, grandee attendees. Bravo for their bravery in trying this format, and kudos for, shall we say, returning to the roots of a world class art and antiques fair. And bravery, too, for ‘traditional’ seems in this age where even the word ‘yesterday’ has a pejorative connotation. While a number of dealers over the last few years voted with their feet- dealer turnover has been significant- I suspect that there may be a volte-face amongst the trade, with this year’s increased attendance, and significant sales of collector material of the highest quality, and much of it period material, auguring very well both for the fair and its success, and the boost it’s given the accredited trade.

Remembering Joe Nye

We’ve lost a good friend, one of our best and oldest, with the death a few weeks ago of Joe Nye.

Keith and I first met Joe in Los Angeles, in the first hour of the first night of the first Los Angeles Antiques Show we ever participated in. He liked our material and he liked us, and this, through Joe’s good offices, led to a client purchase that was, up to that time, the largest sale we’d ever enjoyed. It also set a benchmark for our relationship not just with interior designers, but with clients generally. Joe, for the tenure of our relationship, did what he said he was going to do when he said he was going to do it.

I suppose that’s what I really want to say in this brief squib- that Joe was always a gentleman and a man of his word. His talent preceded him, but didn’t dominate the person he was. We saw each other regularly over the years, personally as well as professionally, and we were complimented by the fact that Joe purchased a number of things from us for his own collection. But the personal was ever present, with innumerable calls and visits from Joe, apropos of nothing, and I can’t think of any meals out with anyone we ever enjoyed more.

Joe struggled with some personal demons that threatened to get the better of him, but through all that, Joe was always Joe, and always a joy to be around. Keith and I will miss him for the rest of our lives. A memorial service for Joe is planned for later this month in Los Angeles.

DOMA

Of the things in my life that has given me lasting pride and pleasure, nothing can compare with my 33 year relationship with Keith McCullar. As we’ve quietly got on with our lives, we’ve reluctantly borne the brunt of the discriminatory treatment all gay men endure, including that heretofore sanctioned by the federal government. It makes me sick to hear those who bleat about the sanctity of ‘traditional’ marriage, a mindset, it appears, framed by having watched ‘Father of the Bride’- the 1950 version, with Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett and a radiantly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor. What all of this ignores, of course, is the fact that institutional marriage in the United States is not much more than 200 years old, and has much, much more to do with preserving property rights than it does anything to do with a supposed adherence to some scriptural precept. With all that, we needn’t go down the road of biblical literalism on any subject, as those who make strenuous arguments citing chapter and verse can only do so whilst ignoring some of the other Levitican admonitions and truly horrific proscriptions also contained therein.

After word came down yesterday, both Keith and I received a number of phone calls from friends asking what it was we planned to do. The fact is, anything we can do to ameliorate the financial hardship wrought by the discriminatory treatment we’ve experienced during the tenure of our relationship we will do as soon as the courts allow. We’ve been fortunate, the two of us, both with backgrounds in finance to have the knowledge and experience to so order our financial as well as our personal lives- for instance funding life insurances to pay estate taxes on jointly acquired property that in marriage would be within a spousal exemption and always maintaining an up-to-date durable power of attorney for healthcare- mindful, though, these and many other maneuverings cost us lots of time and money.

But that’s been the easy part. The harder portion has been the sense of being looked at down the nose by the larger world we inhabit, including one’s own family, and being relegated to the role of the favorite uncle- or more likely, the rich uncle, that takes everyone out to dinner and pays the bill- he has more money, you see, because he has no children to support, and anyway, his questionable moral status obliges him to pay, and pay again and again, in some sort of vague expiation. And Keith? Well, of course, his status is never really defined, though he’s been a constant fixture for decades. It’s interesting- we attended a family wedding not so long ago, and Keith astutely observed that the new ‘traditional’ marital partner would, after a 30 minute ceremony, be immediately embraced within the bosom of the family, where he, after 3 decades, was still only just tolerated. It might be no surprise, then, that neither of our families said anything to us about the Supreme Court decisions yesterday.

Because we’ve been able to get along with our lives, and overall life has been good to us- a wonderful quality of life, and spared the horrors of HIV that decimated our circle of friends- we’ve not become radicalized. Perhaps we should have done, but for the moment, the prospect of being less victimized is emotionally nearly euphoric. I hope, though, with sanctions lifting and huge queues forming outside registry offices, will come an eventual understanding that, like everyone else, we’re trying to get on in life with a partner we love.

Spencer House

With a good friend of ours on his way to London and staying at Duke’s, I’m put in mind of Spencer House only a stone’s throw away. Herewith a reprise of my blog entry about Spencer House.

Amidst the buzz about the Althorp clear-out, it might possibly be that the focus is on the celebrity of the Spencer family. A pity, as the notoriety about the family and its possessions occludes the splendor of Spencer House, which survives in its now thankfully restored glory.

Its Green Park façade survives in its originality, designed in the 1750’s by John Vardy in the Palladian manner. Interesting, though, to see the crossed palm fronds in the pediment, placed beneath and thereby giving rather unusual emphasis to the ocular window.

With the demolition of so many aristocratic London great houses in the 1920’s, Spencer House is a rare survival. Nevertheless, for most of the 20th century, it was put to hard use, for over thirty years as offices for The Economist, complete with suspended acoustical ceilings in the interior and other institutional detritus. Its restoration began with the acquisition of the property in 1985 by a consortium headed by Lord Rothschild. Astonishingly, significant portions of the interior remained virtually intact. Although in the interior realization Vardy was early on replaced by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart, Vardy’s Palm Room wildly celebrates the aforementioned motif used, albeit with considerable restraint, in the façade.

With the rooms of state all aesthetically fairly exuberant, it might be difficult to discern the segue from the rococo of Vardy to the archeologically accurate neoclassicism of Stuart. Placed directly over the Palm Room, Stuart’s neoclassicism finds expression in the Painted Room. With its complement of damask and gilt, it is some distance removed from the restraint one might expect if one were to gauge from the illustrations in Stuart’s 1762 Antiquities of Athens.

While it is the various works of Vardy and Stuart at Spencer House that are especially acclaimed, the contribution of interior designer David Mlinaric in providing guidance for the restoration of the rooms of state and the successful integration of the lesser rooms to make the entire interior a contiguous whole that arguably constitutes a feat almost as notable as that of those 18th century worthies. Although Mlinaric’s design firm carries on, M. Mlinaric is largely retired, but his years of activity contributed a wonderful legacy in a number of historic interiors. Indeed, Lord Rothschild used Mlinaric in another project to great effect, the design of the rooms in the Bachelor’s Wing at Waddesdon Manor, a Rothschild house in Buckinghamshire.

On the road

Was a time when, with the vicissitudes of traveling, it was more remunerative for the merchant to bring goods to the consumer than it was to wait for the consumer to bring himself to the merchant. The Yankee peddler, of course, is the classic example of the intrepid merchant whose stock in trade consisted of the necessities, and not a few luxuries, that the erstwhile buyer located far out in the sticks would see in rare visits to town, often only annually, coinciding with the post harvest marketing of crops or livestock.

Perhaps my few readers have noticed that times have changed. Travel is no longer a hazardous affair undertaken only as a necessity, although my latest transcontinental plane trip did make me ask myself if the trip were really necessary. That aside, the dearth of door to door sales- does anyone remember the ubiquitous Fuller Brush man?- should indicate that the nature of retail has changed. The rapid evolution has seen the high street retailer now replaced by the shopping mall, which itself is quickly fading into obsolescence with the proliferation of online purchases at the ethereal  ‘virtual’ storefront.

Still and all, some retail trading venues continue to, if not flourish, then at least exist in a specialized niche that would be hard to imagine disappearing from the landscape. In this respect, I think of the well-established art market cities of Paris, London and New York. The famous salesrooms and the finest dealers all inhabit these cities, and any expansion to other regional centers in Europe, Asia, or North America is now something of the past, the occasional ad hoc sale and exceptional fair not withstanding. The why of this isn’t tough to figure out- the buyer pool for what it is that is purchased at the rarefied heights is extremely limited, and it is easier to capture a larger part of that pool if items are offered within an established venue.

It is, then, a surprise to find that the world’s premier art and antiques fair is seriously considering an expansion to China, ostensibly to capture, on their own home turf, what is perceived to be a burgeoning pool of collectors. The why of all this mystifies me as, with sales over the last several years since China has become a real player in the art market, the Chinese themselves have had no difficulty in finding their way to the established centers- and beyond. Moreover, while the Chinese have purchased art and antiques of other national schools, their overwhelming preference has been to repatriate their own treasures. One wonders, then, with the fair’s reputation predicated on the offering of a panoply of fine material from around the world, how broadly successful a new world class fair could be.

It comes as a further surprise that one of the prime movers in the effort to launch a fair in China is one of the major salesrooms, who doubtless will have an overarching selling presence at the fair. While length of purse might make the salesroom of value in assisting to market the fair, the not so hidden message, it seems, would be to perpetrate the notion, a specious one I’ll admit, that one might browse the stock of the established dealer and pick his brains, but then make the ultimate purchase from the ‘wholesale’ salesroom. The fair dealers would at best serve as a decorative backdrop to support the larger marketing agenda of the salesroom, in a relationship as synchronic as that enjoyed between the invading army and the maidens of the besieged town.

Perhaps the experience this week of a consortium of English salesrooms whose vaunted premier sale in China left ¾ of the offered lots unsold, and patronized by a paltry number of prospective buyers, will send a message to show organizers and prospective dealers that the Chinese market is already adequately served, and an in-country presence will not automatically result in a sales Golconda.

The (illusory) youth market

One of the local lifestyle publications arrived today and, per usual, I can’t prevent myself from looking at the society pages to see who was where doing what with whom. San Francisco is a small town, albeit with a cachet that allows it culturally to punch above its weight, but we nevertheless enjoy seeing the 100 or so of the beau monde that feature habitually doing whatever it is they’ve done in the past month. Keith has remarked that these 100 must inordinately enjoy one another’s company, as these self same are always month in and month out pictured together.

Cattiness aside, browsing the pages of the magazine and glancing at the features and articles, a disconnect frequently presents itself, with those front of the book consumables and features that are prominent always at a culturally significant variance from the back of the book grandees that form the core of the society news. That is, nothing really looks like it would be purchased by the great and the good. But the fact is, since there are not that many grandees nor events they patronize, the column inches they take up are limited, and other stuff must necessarily flesh out the magazine. The overall look of our local publication is what I believe passes for kicky, with items for sale or promoted in features that, perhaps the editor assumes, would appeal to a younger reader. Younger, that is, than those established citizens in the society pics at the back. One feature that stands out in the most recent issue displays a panoply of newly made items with at least one of its major components natural wood- a torchere that looks like a middle school wood shop project, a similarly designed vase, a stool with wooden seat surmounting a Bertoia-esque metal base- you get the idea. And all in the $200-$500 price category.

Presumably someone did their market research to determine that, for erstwhile design, this is what younger people will buy and the price point they will pay. No surprise here, as our experience with fine 20th century design, as with fine quality earlier period pieces, at price points many multiples in excess of $500, is that it is the same age demographic that purchases both. For us, in the 11 years we’ve been in business, our typical buyer has stayed basically the same, in the 48 to 68 year old age bracket. Not any older, and not any younger, and rarely, dare I say it? still in the bloom of youth. What we’ve found is that the buyer for fine quality decorative or fine arts is someone who basically has made their money. Makes sense, of course, as what we’re selling no one really has to have to live, and while most of our buyers have moved toward a level of connoisseurship that informs their buying, the nexus of their purchase decision remains one that is financially enabled. Money to spend and connoisseurship- an essential confluence that rarely appears before the fifth decade of life.

With so much local attention given to younger people in the tech world with, ostensibly, money to burn, the misapprehension remains abroad in the land that this forms a significant buyer pool for those of us in the trade. It is apparently the presumption of the print media, too, consequently the disconnect- society folk mixed with features aimed at a hoped-for youth market. However, with the print media generally regarded as on the ropes and with the well-known youth penchant for electronic networking, those of us of shall we say mature years who actually still purchase and remember how to read a magazine make the mistake of assuming that the publication we are reading necessarily has the ability to define a youth market. Doubtful, wouldn’t you say? Consequently, what we might, through the glass of print media, perceive as the constituents of a youth market are at best specious if not downright illusory.

What seems more apparent that, save for the first things anyone newly moneyed purchases- a flash car and a house, sans furniture- the younger consumer doesn’t spend any more now with the trade than they used to. While it might be, as some in the media would have us believe,  the retro chic Heywood Wakefield maple coffee table of my parents’ generation,  or the pseudo- Italian modernism made in Asia and delivered in a flat pack, what’s common to so much material prominently featured is that it is simple, cheap, made in multiples, available online, and crap. For myself, I have no intention of making any alteration to my stock in trade, and will continue to lie in a prone position and try and resume normal breathing when overcome with anxiety about being left behind and left out of a market that probably doesn’t now, and probably never did, exist.

Expensive, again

My last blog engendered a flurry of responders, mostly from colleagues, eager to chime in about the positive merits of the trade versus the salerooms. Well, yes, but a fair old amount of the recent criticism of the salesrooms, and the consequent glee at difficulty it is perceived they are now experiencing, has quite a bit to do with a nostalgia for the good old days.

Was a time, of course, when the salesrooms were the trade only province, a resource for goods bought at wholesale that could then be marked up and retailed to the general public. Unless the trade includes an inordinate number who took their cue from Rip van Winkle, such has not been the case for years. With the promotion of so called ‘interiors’ sales, a term adopted by a huge number of venues, very many salesrooms have sought to basically imitate what might be an online antiques mall, with a mixture of period and vintage material, of varying quality (by which I mean nothing of very good quality) that might be useful for the shopping designer or householder. I suspect that what has made this less successful, at least for the large salesroom that continues to offer this sales format, the proliferation of online platforms makes waiting for an auction a non-essential- the sales platforms are available all day, every day.

And, with items competitively priced, or they should be, with dealers, one would presume, comparing similar items to determine the going rate. But dealers don’t always and, in fact, frequently don’t. Admittedly, for those of us in particular thrall with our own stock in trade, our own inventory can always seem of better quality, and consequently deserving to command a higher price than that of other dealers.

But what sort of premium in pricing is appropriate? I’ve always said our primary criteria are quality, condition, and rarity, but these too often are entirely subjective terms, and, unfortunately, difficult for the prospective buyer to assess certainly when buying online. When in doubt, of course, purchase from a member of the accredited trade who should be able to justify, if such is the case, why their stock might be more expensive, because presumably of better inherent quality, than that of another dealer, or that of a salesroom.

Or possibly not. I remember vividly the first time, and I have subsequently heard the same dealer repeat this many times, that his material was expensive because of how much he had to pay to acquire it. In dealer parlance, ‘putz’ is the term for  a dealer with this type of pricing strategy. Although this gentleman’s runaway ego drives him to announce to prospective buyers how expensive is his acquisition cost, it is surprising the numbers of dealers who, although less vocal, function in the same way. Rather than knowledgeably considering what is a reasonable selling price for the piece prior to acquisition and making the wholesale purchase fit accordingly, items are acquired for an inordinately high price, marked up and offered for sale. Under circumstances where a dealer seeks to justify a sky high price by telling me how much he had paid, my thought generally is the more fool he.

And ultimately, this is how the salesroom, as well as online platforms, have certainly provided a benefit to antiques and artwork buyers, whether seasoned or novice, whether collector or interior designer, with the existence now of a pricing transparency that diminishes the prolixity and fearsomeness of dealing with even the most vaunted members of the trade. Will a buyer get a good deal buying from these online resources? Perhaps, but certainly not guaranteed. What is increasingly likely, though, is that an astute member of the accredited trade will, times being the way they are, will have done their homework and offer items similar to those of their colleagues at a similar price point.

Expensive

One of the major salesrooms has, in short order, announced it will close half its retail sales operation and increase its premium rates. Since the salesroom is privately owned, the why of this must be shrouded in mystery, but a reasonable speculation is that they’ve found becoming art market retailers an expensive proposition.

As, of course, it is. Any member of the accredited trade in any of the better venues in any art market city will tell anyone who asks, that this is and always has been a costly business. Rent, of course, staffing, keeping the lights on and the galleries up to the mark- and this says nothing of the cost of acquiring and maintaining one’s stock in trade. This is, after all, one of the luxury trades and that cannot be pursued on the cheap.

That a salesroom would choose to pursue this is understandable, given the disarray in the wider trade the last couple of years with the global economic downturn. One would assume the gap left in the retail art market with the departure of a number of well known galleries would open up the field. Well, possibly, but the fact of the matter is, now matter how well capitalized a salesroom is and how long length of purse can support a retail trading floor, what cannot be substituted now or ever is the service and expertise a retail gallery will always be able to provide. What early on struck us in this business was how high touch it was, with gallery patrons always spending a goodish amount of time with us, and lots of palaver and bonding occurring before the first purchase was made. Note that I said the first purchase, as, not a surprising corollary, this is also overwhelmingly a relationship business. Our clients may make one purchase at a time, but they seldom make only one- spot sales for us are unusual. The client likes our stock, likes us as gallery owners, and, when looked back over the years, a retail gallery and ours is no exception, finds it has a cadre of clients who, though not buying all the time, when they do buy, go see us first.

Well, of course the why of the bonding between client and retail dealer is not too surprising. Most purchases are destined for someone’s home, so there is, consequently, an intimacy established that, even at some remove, the client is at least symbolically inviting the gallery owner into their home. As is literally the case, too, as our sales typically involve a housecall to see the piece is received in good condition and likewise installed, and rarely does this not involve the client. Always eager are they to display their own collection, and to discuss it with someone they consider in a position to appreciate it.

It would be surprising to me to find that a salesroom would ever provide the same level of service or establish the same level of intimacy as the better retail gallery. As part of what we do, we undertake restoration projects for good clients, but I am ashamed to say, turn away projects from others with a degree of not always fully concealed glee when we find what they need done up is an auction purchase. ‘As is, where is’ is a pretty basic trading condition for salesrooms, and I suspect that that may be the limit of personal service, as well.