Sotheby’s and eBay

In what must be characterized as the desperate move of a slow learner, Sotheby’s has made their financial straits apparent in their plan to, yet again, link with eBay in an attempt to bolster their core auction business. In a New York Times article of a couple days ago, it appears that Sotheby’s feels left in the dust given the bricks and mortar expansions of rivals Bonham’s, Phillips, and Christies, and so is desperately, it seems, moving down-market. I suppose senior management overlooked the fact that, in the case of Bonham’s, following on from their 60,000 square foot expansion on Bond Street last year, the auction house is now on the market.

Still, I suppose the prospect of tapping into the reported 150 million eBay users at the lowest of the low end of the art and antiques market seems too tempting to pass up. All this reminds me of the story of the optimistic little boy who, when put in a room full of horse manure, started shoveling furiously. When asked why, the boy replied, ‘With all this horse manure, there must be a pony in here somewhere.’

Well, perhaps there is, but what I know for certain is that eBay serves as a recreation for vast numbers of their users, who spend their spare time tinkering with their accounts while selling and buying $25 items. I’d opine that the rate of compensation for the average eBay user is probably about 30 cents an hour.  And how is that divisible, exactly, by the six figure salaries  of Sotheby’s senior employees?

Suffice to say, the linkage between Sotheby’s and eBay strikes me as, shall we say, a poor fit that cannot be any better now than it was the first time the company’s tried it.

When word surfaced a few weeks ago that Bonham’s was in play, I asked my partner Keith McCullar if he was interested in being in the auction business. His response was an emphatic no. Actually, his no was intensified by a word we hear frequently these days that begins with the letter ‘f’.  Nevertheless, point taken. The better auction houses in the better venues are plagued inherently by high overheads and wildly fluctuating revenues. Yes of course a high end collector would prefer to make his purchase or consign his seven figure item in a lovely venue, but the fact is, these types of items are not daily making their way through any saleroom.

Moreover, the actual number of these types of items is finite, and so, frankly, are those people who would constitute a market, either as buyer or seller. After we had been in business ten years, Keith and I thought we could put together an economic profile of our customers, and mind you, even at the lower end of our business, our buyers are not strangers to any of the major salesrooms. But the fact is, we calculated that this pool consisted of only perhaps 50,000 people- in the world! To say, for instance, that on any given day an Eli Broad will be purchasing a Jeff Koons sculpture is ludicrous, but the fact is, in terms of appearance and accompanying overhead, the auction houses have to appear as though that very thing will happen.

Further on fake

The news media is historically given to hyperbole, so to say the art world is reeling over the revelations of fake Rothko and Pollack paintings is for me, albeit cosseted in my own little sphere, not much news. After the ABC Nightline broadcast, my email inbox was about as full as it always is and no welter of phone calls prevented anyone from ringing through.  In fact, I sold a painting- mind you, a painting by an artist well established in the canon, and the painting itself with a fairly long provenance.  I suppose what I’m saying is that the art world remains pretty much as it’s been.

What amidst the media brouhaha I managed to sell was a painting by an artist whose work we had handled before, which painting had been fairly extensively restored, with the upshot of those restorations creating some problems of their own. While one of the giveaways, per the ABC correspondent, that a Pollack was a phony was the use of a yellow pigment of a type unavailable to the artist, our painting, of mid 19th century vintage with a fine linen support, had been cleaned, revarnished, and mounted on hardboard sometime in the middle of the last century.  Does this make for difficulty in determining a painting’s authenticity? Absolutely. Does or should this kind of thing raise suspicions and affect the picture’s merchantability? Well- yes and no.

I hedge because, frankly, what results in a sale is as varied as the paintings we handle and the buyers who purchase them. We always chuckle when we see on broadcasts like Antiques Roadshow discussions about original condition, because the fact is, for most period material, either fine or decorative, if it is a century or more old, original condition often time means poor, unsalable condition. Invariably, canvas stretches and paint shrinks, leading to paint loss and tears to the support, and the very varnish used to protect the painting’s design layer is typically over time so yellowed and so approaching opacity that what’s depicted in the picture plane is often difficult to make out.  Our general rule of thumb is, whether painting or furniture, everything requires significant restoration at least once a century. When one sees a picture of some age that appears fresh from the easel, what one is admiring, without knowing it, is oftentimes the restorer’s art.  The yellowed varnish that is removed takes with it a fair old bit of the design layer which the skillful restorer oftentimes has to put back with his brush which, he hopes, will be guided by his knowledge of the original artist’s working technique- if that can be determined. Or, as is frequently the case, by the restorer’s own best judgment.

That there is no hard, fast and immutable rule for restoration, and that techniques have changed over time, complicates matters even further.  In the case of the painting remounted on hardboard, we see this fairly often and while it is perhaps not ideal, in the cases where we have seen it, it provided a simple, durable lining. No lining is ideal. Stretching the canvas over the lining and the effect of the heat table invariably result in a flattened appearance, with brushstrokes and impasto marking the technique of the artist diminished in the process.

Perhaps this discussion of restoration runs afield from outright fakery, but the fact is, artworks, even when genuine in their origin, oftentimes, and perhaps inevitably, have that originality occluded the result of attentions that were of the best intention. And these attentions might be interpreted to be if not fakery, than at least misleading.  Moreover, though personally we try to limit whatever restoration we carry out to what is the least required and always the least invasive, most of our clients require that paintings be wall ready and furniture pieces be room ready.  We do, like everyone else, have our living to earn, so pieces do need to be in saleable condition.

That’s where disclosure by the dealer comes in, as it should with all members of the accredited trade, and where better to disclose than in writing and on the face of the invoice.


Just at the moment, the English trade is in an uproar over some on-air claims by TV presenters about the extent of fakery in the art and antiques world. Naturally, particularly those in leadership positions in the various accrediting associations have taken issue with those claims, and rightly so. A favored client of mine who happens to be a senior jurist once put it this way- ‘If you don’t know your jewels, know your jeweler.’ Of course, for the novice or occasional buyer, the best advice they can ever be given is to shop with members of the accredited trade.

Frankly, though, unaccredited dealers are the overarching presence in the trade, and nothing in the world prevents whoever has the fancy, and the bank book, from opening a shop, or more likely, establishing a website, for the marketing of whatever it is they want, and, as long as they can get away with it, making outlandish claims. But this presumes a nefarious intent, and while that doubtless includes a given percentage in any line of endeavor, often those in the trade operate out of ignorance, to the detriment of those who choose to purchase from them. I am reminded of a dealer fairly close to home who often sold things that were, as they say in the trade, composed of antique elements. This gentleman honestly thought that, if a given percentage of an item was old wood, no matter what subsequently had been done to dolly up the piece, there was nothing wrong with representing it as an antique. We had another experience with this same dealer, wherein he pointed to a darkly stained hall bench that was not old, telling me that, if I found something similar for a given price, he would buy it from me. I said that I would, but anything I represented to him would be period. ‘But that’s period!’ he exclaimed, pointing to the piece the like of which he wanted from me. I could tell from the look on his face and the tone of his voice that he honestly felt that the bench in his shop darkened with lamp black, shellacked and waxed and distressed with rappings from a length of chain was the real deal.

A few years ago, all of us remember the scandal associated with an internationally famous dealer now amongst the heavenly chorus whose stock in trade was to a great extent things that were made up- extremely well, as it happened, fooling a lot of people for a long, long time. Surprisingly, despite the beauty and vaunted attributions of these pieces, none of them seemed to have much in the way of provenance. Hmm…  I suppose this is an argument for caveat emptor, but I have to say that this same chap was a good friend to the design trade and his frequently generous discounts occluded the fact that what he had to sell was decidedly dodgy.

Unfortunately, the plethora of online trading that takes place that marks a revolution in retail that affects even the trade in art and antiques distances the good dealer from the good faith purchaser. What we’ve found, though, is the better online platforms now require more and more from participating dealers in terms of disclosure, and are less and less tolerant of those dealers who don’t deliver as advertised. Still and all, harking back to my friend the federal judge, nothing yet substitutes for, as he put it, knowing your jeweler.

Fortunes waning

The art newspapers are full of the possible fate of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Will the so called ‘grand bargain’ that allows a few heavy hitters to stump up save the museum and its artwork, or will there be a selloff in an attempt to whittle down the city’s enormous debt? Based on a Christie’s valuation of a few months ago, with the collection valued in the $500 million range, the grand bargain seemed likely. Now, however, it appears creditors want the collection revalued, with some indication that the Christies figure is very low indeed, with the collection probably worth in the range of several billion dollars.

On the one hand, the disbursal of any great collection is freighted with powerful emotion, and none of them positive, except for those, in this instance, felt by the city’s creditors, but the fact is, collections come and go. Nearly all the period holdings of any institutional collection were at one time owned by someone else, and acquired when the fortunes of the acquisitor were waxing and those of the disbursing party were waning. One can be sentimental about the industrial gigantism that was Detroit through most of the 20th century, a byproduct of which was the purchasing of cultural trophies that bedizened the museum, but that time has come and gone, and the city is in eclipse. No- eclipse implies that its problems are short lived and its fortunes will, in the manner of an eclipse, inevitably recover. Does anyone believe that? I suppose we are all bit by the same nostalgia bug, with the belief that America’s postwar economic expansion will return with the same force and effect as felt by nearly everyone in this country in the 1950’s. As I look out my window, I don’t see a single man with a crew cut, white short sleeve shirt and dark narrow tie, or any women with Mamie Eisenhower bangs. By which I mean, of course, this country and the economic engine that powers it is as different now as the appearance and modes of endeavor of its population.

To think the Detroit Institute of Arts and its collections should be saved as a public institution is, in the abstract, laudable in the way that making culture accessible to the general run of the populace who might not otherwise have access to it is always laudable, but now the collection serves a purpose that might yield it of far greater and much more immediate importance than it held formerly. The Detroit Institute of Arts as a civic ornament has, as the city it adorned, seen its day come, and now that day has gone.

The sense, or scent, from Shaw Avenue

shaw-adobeWe are pleased to be on familiar turf, which turf is actually incorporated into the adobe walls of our Cliff May design premises. ‘No place like home’? Not exactly- but something along the line of a realization, in my seventh decade, that one’s hometown is an ineluctable part of one’s matrix. Of course, a body can change locales, but takes with him inescapable elements of home. I cannot ever escape the link I have with the clay soil of this neighborhood and at this point in my life, I have no desire to.

Some wags when reading this might, when considering our move, borrow a thought from Louis D’Ascoyne in ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’, to the tune of changing the medieval splendors of Chalfont Castle for the modern conveniences of Balaclava Avenue, SW, but as with Fresno’s impact, so has everything else had an effect, arguably not as great, but nevertheless things that, wherever and how often I move, will stay with me. The occasional whiff of coal smoke on a cold night in Islington, the smell of sewer gas at Jackson and Sansome in San Francisco, and the enveloping warmth of the plumeria scented night air in Honolulu. Why all these smells? In fact, the clay soil of old Fig Garden in Fresno has a particular smell that when damp, adobe bricks give off, too. I don’t really know why scent is the predominant sense as I write this. Actually, I do- the lawn is being mowed and the scent of newly mown grass is pervasive as it can only be on a warm Fresno day.

We’ll further consider vernacular Fresno- art, architecture, and culture generally. My own interest aside, I have to say, however, that the arts organizations locally find fundraising more than a modest struggle, the presumption on the part of the well heeled donor base that anything locally must perforce be second (or third or fourth) rate, that high culture is a phenomenon found in the great urban centers. Piffle. Culture is the natural byproduct of the sentient beings we all are, and from the vantage point of experience, over sixty years worth, I look forward to exploring this from the respite of Shaw Avenue.


An early morning email from one of the better local designers at once chided me for moving away from Jackson Square, but, having left the neighborhood herself a few months ago, quickly told me that moving was the best thing she ever did. I must say, we still have the occasional feeling of ambivalence, as we do have some people down here we will miss seeing, but believe me, by no means everyone.

A few of you know that for a significant part of my working life, I was engaged in commercial lending with a large bank. Asset based lines of credit to middle market companies, with the occasional commercial real estate loan, were what kept me busy, and up to the mark, as most of the businesses I dealt with, although legal entities, were basically the alter egos of the primary owner. All self made, they were to a person extremely sharp and always with their heads in the game. Then, too, were my colleagues within the bank- a few were occupied primarily with keeping the seat of the swivel chair warm, but mostly they were bright and hardworking. All, both customers and colleagues, had strong opinions that they were not reluctant to give voice to. That said, strident conversations were a rarity.

I say this because, in our years in the trade, strident conversations with colleagues are a frequent occurrence. It has astonished me what a petty, spiteful group of individuals are gathered together in one vocation. The why of this is mystifying, but the result of long custom, no longer surprising. A bit of insight was given me early on by one of our less collegial neighbors who, when I decried the leaving of a vaunted colleague on the street for the greener pastures of New York City, told me, and I quote- ‘What do you care? That’s just that much more business for the rest of us.’ What a fool. Any diminution of a venue makes it less of a venue and less of a destination for buyers. The not surprising upshot, when the dealer in question left Jackson Square, we noticed no uptick in business. Using our surviving colleague’s rationale, we should all of us be millionaires, because where we once had nearly 30 dealers in the neighborhood, we now have three. And when we leave, there will be two. They will reap, I suppose, but what they will reap will be the whirlwind.

It seems, though, that the penny did eventually drop, but it hasn’t resulted in anything but additional spitefulness and backstabbing. We had not so long ago a gentleman interested in a piece of our stock, but it was an item about which he was unfamiliar and wanted to have someone of expert mien provide a second opinion. We never say no to this, although it is a circumstance that rarely presents itself. Still, nothing happened until a week or so later, one of our neighbors presented himself right at 5PM. He had been drinking and his first remark was ‘Well, I guess you know why I’m here.’ I didn’t, but when he asked to see the item in question, I put two and two together. His examination was at best cursory, however, and he left without further comment. In fact, nothing further was said to us at all, save being copied on an email sent to the prospective buyer warning him off the purchase, citing a couple of inaccurate and biased criteria. Mind you, this is someone whose own place of business is less than the throwing distance of a large stone away from our front door, yet he did not extend the courtesy of discussing this matter any further with us, before he contacted the client in an effort to put the boot in. I must say, when Keith and  I read the email, we instantly paid a call on our neighbor and told him he was an asshole. We were not so upset, however, that we failed to notice in his shop an item similar to the one he was engaged to assess. Whether his attempt to knife us resulted in a sale for him I don’t know, but what I can say for sure is that he gained our everlasting enmity. Sue him? Ironically, he did us a favor. We sold the piece shortly thereafter for more money.

Diminishing a colleague’s stock in order to put forth one’s own seems to be a favorite trick and it can be accomplished in a variety of different ways. Not so long ago, we had a vetting issue at an antiques fair on an item that we knew was perfectly fine. Rather than relabel our piece with a description we knew to be inaccurate, we decided to just not exhibit the piece. What a surprise to find, later during the run of the fair, the dealer that had raised issue with our item, brought in something similar of his own- with the connivance of the vetting chair! Again, we were in the long run not damaged, as we sold the item to an institutional collector.

While one might initially suppose that commercial advantage (read ‘greed’) might explain a fair amount of this, it is hard for me to believe that so many of our colleagues would be so stupid as to think that a sale lost by me will necessarily result in a sale for them. Witness, of course, the dealers who’ve left, with no increase in revenue for those of us who survive. Beyond that, though, none of us have the same stock or the same look. Similar, perhaps, but the overall aesthetic that each dealer brings to his stock in trade is unlike that of any other dealer. We have people who will trade with us almost exclusively, while our colleagues certainly have a loyal cadre of buyers, as well. While we do have all of us spot sales, no one’s business is built on it. Even on the internet, we find that, as much as in the storefront, buyers still like our signature look and tend to return.

In the late 1980’s and through the 1990’s, though, dealers at least locally cut a fat hog, with dot com companies and their stock option rich owners buying wildly, with dealers achieving incredible markups. With the crash, everyone’s fortunes changed, with dealers very much diminished, both in revenue but also, crucially, in outlook. Keith and I missed all that, beginning trading full time in mid 2002. We’ve never known anything but tough sledding, but our surviving colleagues have never recovered their equanimity following the glory years. We see ego run amuck all the time. One nearby colleague whose fortunes are vastly reduced will tell anyone within five minutes of meeting them, regardless of subject or appropriateness, about his participation in the New York Winter Antiques Show. Our most telling experience, and ongoing for our entire tenure in business, is the absence- I don’t mean dearth, I mean total absence- of referral business from other dealers. I don’t mean it seldom happens- I mean it never happens. Our attitude has always been one of trying to keep business local. If we don’t have what the customer is looking for, we happily will refer them to someone we think might. As well, we do make purchases from other dealers from time to time, usually with a particular customer in mind. This always engenders- wait for it- ill-will from the dealer from whom we make the purchase. ‘Ill-will’? Yes, in spades. Not so long ago, we purchased a set of 12 chairs from a curmudgeonly colleague for a client who happened to ask us for a long set of chairs. When we returned to the dealer to also purchase a sidetable, he brushed us aside, telling us that, next time the client was in town, he could come in and make the purchase himself. The fact was, the client had been in, but found the dealer and his premises so off-putting, he had no desire to return.

So, while I suppose we still have some lingering ambivalence about closing our storefront, none of it is associated with the benighted neighbors we’ll be leaving behind. God bless them, as they stew within their own juices.

‘Best price’

As we make the transition from actual to virtual, and look forward to the cost savings that jettisoning the albatross that has become our gallery space will engender, we will continue to have the frequent non-buyer/tire kicker. One would assume that, with the anonymity and shield from reaction/retribution that is the common feature of all online activity, newly emboldened buyers and browsers will in increasing numbers be kickers of tires and rattlers of chains. Interestingly, we have found that we as frequently experience this in our bricks and mortar as ever happens on the internet. The why of this is hard to imagine. I suspect though, that, face to face, people might not be bolder, but are more driven out of nervousness to say something, appropriate or not. ‘What’s your best price?’ is a not unusual gallery query, and nothing to which we take offense. I have never done what a colleague suggested, and offer the rejoinder ‘200% of retail is what’s best for me.’ We generally assume that ‘What’s your best price?’ is an honest question from a good faith buyer, and our standard rejoinder, equally sincere, is ‘We try to price our prices fairly, but if you have something in mind (or in the alternative ‘if you have a budget’) we’re happy to hear it.’ About 90% of the time, the conversation ends right there, and we know that we have ferreted out a tire kicker. Happy to let them browse, of course, but we know that a purchase is as very far distance from that which would be idiomatically described as in the offing.

However, what we have found, when the one out of ten that does offer a price in response does so, we have someone sincerely interested in making a purchase. Also, and this is very interesting, we have never, ever had anyone offer us something a fraction of what our price actually is. The why of this is likewise unknown. I remember very, very well when we started out and were participating in our very first big name antiques fair, the dealer whose stand we took over told us sourly that the fair was a Mecca for buyers who came at the 11th hour, only to offer, his term, low ball prices. This was a fair we did for nearly 10 years, and made some phenomenal sales, and nothing of the sort ever occurred.

This sounds ridiculously self serving, but it has occurred to both Keith and me that, although our material is not to everyone’s taste, it is likewise not in everyone’s budget. In fact, it is in very few people’s budget, and that’s not our design. We don’t seek to be exclusive or particularly high toned. Basically, we offer what appeals to us, pieces about which we have an interest and can represent with a degree of passion, and that passion, while not necessarily infectious, is more likely to find kindred spirits than offering material strictly because we think we can make a buck.

And I suppose that’s why, when someone does offer us a price, it is generally within reason, and that reasonableness almost invariably allows for some kind of compromise that will result in a sale.

Vintage, again

Always a confluence of items, my last blog engendered a fair old amount of response, and it also coincided with an invitation to the launch of a website devoted to the sale of vintage material. Interestingly, the young lady that invited me had the title of ‘curator’. Hmm…what, I wonder, does that entail? Particularly curious, now that I had a look at her website. Perhaps she’s able to suss out the nature of the stains on the ‘vintage’ upholstery, or determine what sort of household pet it was that made the bite marks on the chair legs. Of note, their featured consignor is a local fellow who proudly offers his wares as worthy of the Paris flea market. He’s bragging about this?

Sadly for those of us who are offering period material, there has been a proliferation of sites devoted to the sale of vintage items that I have seen frequently characterized not as used furniture, but as- wait for it- ‘pre-loved’. But now currently ‘post- rubbish’ or ‘pre-dumpster.’

As my devoted blogophiles will recall from my last entry, I remain surprised that a lot of design has so far plumbed the depths that vintage material constitutes a laudable addition to an interior scheme. Mind you, I’m not talking about fine quality 20th century design, but pieces that are looks-like but isn’t kitsch, and pet-stained soft furnishings. I guess if you miss your first college apartment that badly, this is the look for you. Ugh!

What remains a sad fact, though, is that so many people just don’t know. The notion of what period material means for a dealer or a knowledgeable collector is lost on nearly everyone else. We posted a nice Sheraton period card table online as a featured item the other day, and I immediately received a comment from a poor benighted soul about the problems he had restoring his Sheraton period card table- the one his parents purchased from Baker Furniture in the 1950’s. We were not, as they say, on the same page.

Nor are most people. That sounds snotty, but it is a value neutral fact and something that dealers, collectors, and designers need to increasingly get used to. If one does a key word search for ‘Sheraton card table’, I’d venture to say that, amongst a few good period examples, there will be lots and lots and lots of old-ish vintage pieces. And with the plethora of sales sites that offer mostly vintage material, those period pieces will be in the distinct minority. Given that not everyone is a seasoned collector, this vast array can’t help but confuse, and what choice? By default, the buyer uses the only tool within their ken, and that is- shop by price. Using this single measure, will the buyer get value for money? Probably not, but if the effort is to recreate an upscale version of a college apartment, it might be a step up from what they’re used to.

‘ -speak’

What we used to term jargon is now ‘(pick your industry)- speak’, and while ‘jargon’ had the connotation of something that was, within its context, esoteric and recondite, certainly in the antiques, art and design trades, most of the short hand terms are used to give something cachet. Watching the Antiques Roadshow, the proper name ‘Chippendale’ is widely applied to virtually any furniture piece in even the vaguest of mid 18th century English or English colonial style and of such degrees of quality, usually bad, that it is surprising that we haven’t heard that the master’s mortal remains have spun to the surface of the ground above his final resting place.

A trade-speak term that has sadly found currency is the term ‘vintage’. As near as I can understand it, ‘vintage’ is anything in the decorative arts that has some age but is not nearly an antique. Terms change, but something that is now vintage is what I would have termed for most of my life ‘used furniture’, or if speaking amongst my franker colleagues, ‘firewood’. As my few loyal blogophiles will know from reading one of my recent entries, very many new furniture mass market retailers are producing pieces of vaguely period design, and whose faux distress both in show frame, upholstery, and underframe, while meant to betoken age actually functions to mask inherently poor quality. It is therefore comical to see in the work of many designers an admixture of so-called vintage pieces that by their inclusion seek to give some sort of sophistication and depth of feeling to newly made crap. Just one man’s view, of course, but any contemporary use of a 50’s Heywood Wakefield coffee table is always going to put me in mind of Eve Arden and ‘Our Miss Brooks’.

I’ve seen this bizarre mix of the pseudo period and the vintage lots of times recently, and in a couple of settings here locally- early 20th century houses of neoclassical design- the juxtaposition was truly horrific. The newly bleached parquetry and painted over/painted out plaster grotesqueries and arabesques did make matters jarringly worse. I do not know why householders do not know that unusual compositions in marred and inappropriate settings do not betoken cleverness. They are what they are- just plain odd. Mind you, I am not stumping for some notion of strict adherence to a design aesthetic that, even in its own time was largely the fancy, albeit a studied one, of the designer. The interiors whether of Robert Adam or Frank Lloyd Wright were rarities in their own day, and seldom survive unaltered. Eclectism is the natural result of spaces lived in and when this happens to good effect, it becomes a happy union of the period and the more contemporary, when and if, of course, exterior and interior architecture provide a congenial matrix. An interior scheme that is botched in conception, disjoined from its surroundings, won’t be helped by the addition of so-called vintage material.

In praise of the painted (and gilded)

af12012-0116What occludes the fact that Georgians loved their movables to be colorful is that so very little painted furniture survives. What’s often the only thing on offer through most dealers is dour, heavily oxidized- or in antique dealers’ speak ‘beautifully patinated’- mahogany and not to the taste of absolutely everyone. More’s the pity, as the notion that period furniture runs to one class of goods risks turning off a number who might one day become collectors.

I would venture to say that, during the 18th and early 19th centuries, painted furniture significantly outnumbered those pieces of mahogany, probably because painted pieces, made from common and vernacular timbers like deal, beech and oak and then applied with a splash of paint, were much, much cheaper to produce than those made from exotic imported woods. The brightly colored and high style armchairs pictured have frames of beech, seats of cane, and although finely decorated, the labor to perform the task was in the day the least expensive part of the operation. How times have changed. Even a dense wood like oak could be made to look light and sexy with the right sort of coating.

af02022-0116The George II period japanned coffer on stand is composed of thick planks of quartersawn oak that, while in themselves heavy, are fancifully decorated with a  red japanning that contributes a lightness that minimizes what would otherwise be the dark, glowering mass of the coffer.

The other feature of painted furniture, particular for seating, was that it was a cheap and cheerful support for something that was infinitely more expensive- its fabric covering. In this modern age of machine made fabrics, we’ve no notion of how extraordinarily expensive furnishing fabrics were 200 or more years ago.

af02015-0116All hand spun, hand dyed and hand loomed, the intensity of the labor involved to produce fabric made it immeasurably expensive, and the quintessence of luxurious display.  We’ve tried to replicate this sort of pairing on the sofa pictured, covered in an Italian silk lampas of 18th century design.

But what’s overlooked in all this is the simple fact that, though today mahogany can seem hulkingly overpowering, in its own day it was not. Crisply carved with a wash of red pigment to bring out its own ruddy color, mahogany furniture was very, very bright in a way that would seem garish to today’s collector. As well, the carved details were then often gilt heightened as an accent, witness the cabriole legs of this Chippendale armchair in the French taste.  This gilding, not surprising, seldom survives as it would wear away over time, or be stripped off as fashion changed.

af03007-0117The English sea victories over the Dutch who formerly dominated the trade in exotic woods gave England a corner on the mahogany market, which became, after about 1730, the favored exotic timber. Dense and colorful, often with beautiful figure, mahogany also takes wonderfully to carving- so much so that the beauty of the wood itself was often intentionally subordinate to the carving.

The George II gilded console pictured is masterfully carved mahogany- but also covered in a mixture of both oil- and water gilding to contribute tonal differences that heightened the carving’s three dimensional effect. We’ve done a bit of archeology on this piece, and determined that it was always gilded- the supreme luxury of an exotic material, extraordinarily wrought, and then finished with luxurious surface decoration.

af03027-0117Sadly, changing fashions, and ephemeral surface decoration, meant that most painted furniture even of the best quality, when nicked or damaged, was simply thrown away. Furniture made of the more exotic woods survived, partly because, as their surfaces were less prone to damage, they looked a bit better for longer than their painted counterparts, and partly because, higher priced initially, they were regarded as inherently more valuable.