‘Cheap is cheap’

midnightInParisCribbed from Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight in Paris’, ‘cheap is cheap’ quotes the character Gil’s would be mother-in-law, an erstwhile interior designer, when Gil is taken aback by the multi thousand euro price for a pair of teak deck chairs at the Paris flea market. I was taken aback, too, at the ask price for something that, assuming they were actually period, should sell for maybe $500 each. But the point is made, that very often designer and collector haunts absolutely gouge their punters- whether locals or auslanders. That said, this propensity for gouging that seemed so long established a feature of dealers in the favorite venues has become something of an anachronism by the time Woody made the film in 2011. Still, the point is well made- some people will pay an inordinate price to be able to say that an item was purchased at the Paris flea market, or in the Cotswolds, or on the Via del Babuino. Not too many anymore, though, as the Cotswold dealers have become as scarce as hen’s teeth, and the Paris fleas sell items that so betoken a flea market that that becomes the overarching feature, decidedly detracting from what was formerly a good talking point.

Certainly the internet has become the great equalizer, with punters able to with very little effort see what an item should really sell for and as my few loyal blogophiles will have noted in my last blog, the panoply of items ostensibly similar has brought the asking price of everything down.

And down in every respect, including quality. In this regard, I think about a mass market retailer whose stores, website and catalogs have proliferated mightily in the last couple of years, with a fair old amount of their material offered as period in style. With a vaguely distressed look and soft furnishings covered in off-white linen and secured with darkened upholstery tacks, one might, if one’s vision were bad, think they were in fact making a purchase of a flea market item, distressed in finish as one would expect furnishings would achieve in the fullness of time. Not so long ago, we received one of their catalogs, which was, I was surprised to find, about as thick as the Manhattan white pages. Although artfully produced, what caught my eye immediately were the (cheap) prices for literally everything and, given the production quality of the catalog, those prices seemed to represent extraordinary value. I saw, for instance, a period appearing chair at a price fractionally the price of what we could produce a similar chair in our own workshop, which we need to do from time to time when a customer requires us to augment, say a set of 8 dining chairs when they may require a set of 12. In looking at referenced catalog, I thought, well, perhaps chairs from this catalog merchant might serve us as blanks.

That was my thought, until I had the opportunity to inspect chairs, and indeed all the merchandise, at the retail outlet, which, consonant with the catalog, was artfully arranged. The merchandise, though, was, to use a technical term, complete crap. Poor quality timber, poorly finished, and the joinery so badly done that we’d be unable to use anything even as a blank. Clearly, not quality, but temptingly cheap and appealing to those, and they are legion, who haven’t seen quality and are consequently hooked by ‘looks like but isn’t’ and reeled in by price. Well, as has been said before, cheap is cheap…

Disintermediation

In my former career in the banking business, ‘disintermediation’ was the term we used to describe the dwindling of the cash the bank held on deposit for customers, flowing as it would from time to time from bank directed investments- usually money market accounts- toward customer-directed investments. Hardly exclusive to banking, in simple terms the phenomenon would accurately be described as cutting out the middleman, and in these days of internet trading, disintermediation is an occurrence every retail merchant must be able to cope with.

I suppose the most immediate effect has been the shrinking bricks and mortar environment, with those merchants who represent a variety of product lines finding that their stores are used largely for display, with the shopper making the eventual purchase online and frequently directly from the manufacturer. For the rest of us, particularly in the art and antiques world, where our stock in trade is not just distinctive but in most cases unique, one would presume this wouldn’t happen. However, as a friend and colleague whose speciality is decorative boxes pointed out, his competition for sales can come from bizarre places, Target being one of them. Although we wish it were otherwise, not all of our prospective customers are of shall we say a connoisseurial bent. Say for instance one sought a Regency period decorative box to use to discreetly store the TV remote- this is a common contemporary use!- highly likely one will come up with something in period style and, viewed on the screen- or more frequently these days the iphone- the style example for $26 will look just the ticket, and the $2,600 period example, albeit fairly priced for what it is, will be given the go by. But more than that, when searching online, the browser will be met with a panoply of different items, far removed from what might have been the focus of their search, and like as not their ultimate purchase itself equally as removed as the apple is from the orange.

That’s a lot of the problem the trade faces, with internet shopping largely determined by the key words merchants include to describe their products. Nothing governs this, and the result is a fragmentation of the customer’s online search, carrying them very far afield from what it is that they originally had in mind when the search was contemplated. But even when the search remains relatively focused- using the Regency box example- price shopping becomes the order of the day, and the independent merchant in the antiques trade finds himself competing head to head with mass market merchandisers. And the result? The better capitalized merchant will survive, and the independent merchant will go the way of the buggy whip.

With the struggle the trade continues to undergo despite the improving worldwide economy, the general presumption- or at least the opinion we’ve heard most often- is that tastes have changed, and there’s less of a passion for period material. We tend to discount this, as our buyer demographic has remained basically constant since we established our retail gallery nearly 12 years ago- the buyers are basically the same age, in the same lines of work, and in the same geographic areas. What has changed is the increase we’ve experienced in the online, price driven ‘spot’ buyer of less expensive material- people who are unlikely to ever darken our gallery threshold.
What all this leads me to believe is that the online sales phenomenon that is quickly displacing bricks and mortar, is also fragmenting the dollars normally spent on antiques. The disintermediation that is an inherent feature of online purchases also exposes the buyer to a dizzying panoply of items to purchase. What might be assumed to be, with an improved economy, more money to spend on antiques, is, to the detriment of the antiques trade, hugely fragmented by a disproportionately larger number of items to spend that money on.

The Theta Charity Show 2013- and looking forward to 2014

We’re just back from participating in the 61st annual Theta Charity Antiques Show in Houston- the nation’s longest running fine art and antiques fair, and, for us, one of the best to participate in. Let me say at the outset that a very large part of this is due to the kindness and professionalism of the Theta ladies who, year in and year out, work to make this a stellar event. Behind the scenes, participating dealers are never so well fed and watered as they are by the Theta ladies. And to the wider world, no other fair is as widely promoted. We saw no fewer than 20 TV ads for the show, and countless print and billboard ads. The preview party is an event of the first order, and for this year, not another soul could have been accommodated, it was that full.

For those venal few amongst my handful of readers, you may ask about the proof of the pudding. So, if you must know, we brought home substantially less gear than we took.
But as happy as we are with the spot sales at the show, Houston has become for us nearly like home, given the numbers of collector relationships we’ve been fortunate to establish. Keith and I arrived several days in advance of the show and tarried for two days after its conclusion to meet with clients. High touch, and we like it that way. Collectors ourselves, we happily engage with those who wish to engage with us.

And I suppose, to reflect on the show itself, that’s what’s crucial to remember- engagement. A number of our clients visited the show several times during its run, attending one or more of the lectures from an impressive roster of speakers, and also taking the time to really look at the material that the dealers had on show. Mind you, we did see a fair old number of interior designers- including show speaker and New York based super designer Elissa Cullman  but what we’ve really begun to notice are the increasing numbers of collectors making at-show purchases. This is a happy throwback to an earlier time, with the collecting public establishing, as they did in the old days, relationships with their favorite dealers. We’re happy for the spot sales and the designer driven sales, but it is the relationships that pay the bills year in and year out.

An engaged crowd of attendees may not necessarily make a show successful for dealers in the short term, but I’d venture to say it will in the long term, which is, I hope, how dealers involved with the show would gauge success, and gauge thereby their interest in returning the following year. And so, too, the Theta ladies. Engagement, within the context of certainly the Theta fair involves the dealer and both domestic partners whenever a significant purchase decision is in the offing. When we have both wife and husband in our stand, I know we will have a much, much greater opportunity to sell than if we have either just the wife or just the husband. While the Theta preview is certainly a couples function, we didn’t see husbands in great numbers until the Sunday, the last day of the show. Perhaps next year, the Theta ladies might want to add to their playbook further functions to consistently bring in both sexes during the entire run of the show.

The Theta Charity Antiques Show, held annually at Houston’s George R Brown Convention Center

http://thetacharityantiquesshow.com

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.