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.

We service what we sell

One of very many things I value is the cadre of craftspeople we rely on to put our stock in shape prior to its display in our galleries. I am put in mind of 18th century workshop practice, because we can have a number of crafts involved in the process. A piece of painted furniture, for instance the small japanned bureau on stand illustrated, had three- a painter to restore the surface decoration, a turner to replace one of the legs, and a bronzier to recast a replacement drawer pull. Suffice to say, the end product is something lovely, and in its result, the livery companies of a former day haven’t a patch on us.

It’s also apparent, though, that there’s a degree in backroom complexity associated with this business that one determines in the fullness of time. Moreover, there’s no master protocol associated with anything that requires restoration and the only blanket statement I can make is that everything, and I do mean everything, that we sell has required something done to it. Admittedly, we strive to acquire pieces, whether of the fine or decorative arts, that are in fairly good and largely original condition, but thinking that something might be in entirely, untouched original condition and in good enough nick to offer it untouched is folly. The general rule of thumb, and one to which most connoisseurs would subscribe, is that everything requires some significant work done to keep it in a reasonable state at least once every hundred years. That seems like not much, but bearing in mind that a number of our pieces are three centuries old means that, of necessity, things have been seen to a number of times.

When someone comes into our gallery and admires, in if the planets are in alignment actually purchases, one or more items of our stock, what they’ve also purchased is our assessment of what it took to put the item(s) in saleable condition. Mind you, though our backroom team does a great job, what they do is what we, after a great deal of consideration and back and forth palaver, direct them to do. As a consequence, when we’re asked by those who have yet to favor us with their custom about recommending a restorer, or more frequently asking us to undertake a restoration, we like as not will demur. Probably more than likely. Determining what it is that the client actually has in mind is a tedious task and always requires us, on the odd occasion that we actually undertake custom projects, to provide supervision that is no less time consuming than that required on pieces we actually plan to take into inventory. Further, we always, it seems, have a backup in our workrooms, with a fair number of our own pieces awaiting the magic touch, so slotting in a piece from elsewhere necessarily delays the completion of our own projects. So venal fellows that we are, we will for the indefinite future focus on the remunerative aspect of our business, the retail sale of art and antiques.

Theta Charity Antiques Show

We’re back from Houston and the 60th outing of the Theta Charity Antiques Show, and with profoundly mixed feelings. Glad to be home, of course, but sad to leave the hospitality and accommodation the Theta ladies, and indeed all our Houston based clients extended to us during our stay.

For those of you venal enough to inquire about our at-show sales, let me assure you we brought home significantly less than we took to the show. But, frankly, that misses the point of this blog entry which is, basically, that the only show we’ve done for a long time that consistently understands the symbiotic relationship between benefit charity and show dealer is the Theta show. While of course the Theta ladies understand that for them, the show intends to be a money spinner for the support of their numerous charities, they never, ever seek to move more significantly into the black on the backs of participating dealers. They understand that, if the show is too expensive to participate in, their stock of dealers will wane, and that, if dealers do not do well with at show sales, likewise the dealers will stay away.

Consequently, the Theta ladies make every effort to promote the show and as much as possible accommodate the dealers. During the run of the show, Keith and I saw no fewer than 10 Theta show commercials on TV, and were aware of at least 3 features on the show on Houston morning TV. At least two feature articles on the show were in the Houston Chronicle, one of which, I modestly mention, featured a piece from Chappell & McCullar.

All in all, I’d have to give the Theta Charity Antiques Show the thumbiest of thumbs up for effort and hospitality. And the Theta ladies individually are about as nice as nice could be. We have never been as well fed and watered as at the Theta show, with the dealer hospitality area at the back replete with all manner of edible goodies. And the ladies are always there- from the first to the last, to make sure that everything goes well. Kudos of the highest order.

Moreover, we have to say that Houstonians generally are a hospitable and a loyal lot. Although not all our Houston clients made purchases from us at the show, virtually every one of them stopped by to say hello and browse. Will this lead to after show sales? I would venture to say so. As well, we did not lack for dinner invitations during the run of the show- our Thanksgiving started early. (Read- belts will be worn larger this winter.)

The talent at the show was thoroughgoing, extending through dealer colleagues Gary Sergeant and Lori and Mark Finke of Jayne Thompson Antiques and also speakers including Leigh Keno and Lady Henrietta Spencer-Churchill. Leigh and Lady Henrietta were ably shepherded by our good friends and ASID award winning designers Sarah Eilers and Sandy Lucas.

My goodness, I’ve nearly run out of superlatives. What more can I say, but do what all the best people are doing and mark your calendars for next years’ outing of the show.

Paean to the period

If you haven’t picked up a copy of the newly released Ann Getty Interior Style do so at once. With images of the work of Mrs. Getty and her design team, including in situ images of astonishing pieces from her own collections, dealers and collectors around the world should create an award for her of tempietto dimensions as keeper of the flame for the use of the finest quality antiques. The author of the text, and worthy acolyte to any temple of the decorative arts, is the redoubtable, and very readable, Diane Dorrans Saeks. With an astonishing body of work in both hardcover and periodicals, Diane pens a frequent and engaging blog, the Style Saloniste.  For those handful of you who, perhaps the result of spending the last five years either comatose or marooned on a desert island, are not subscribers, make all haste to do so.