I often think of my grandmother these days who was fifty years old when the Depression hit the United States in 1929. My father was 19 and he had a brother of 17 and another that was 12. My father was at Yale and his two brothers were in boarding school in New Hampshire. My grandfather was an Episcopal minister, he never referred to himself as a priest, and he did not earn a great deal of money. My grand mother thought it foolish to own things and, apart from her house on the lake in upstate New York, which was not uncomfortable but sparsely furnished, she didn’t.
Indeed, she gave away her interests in adjoining land to her sisters because she did not want to pay the tax on it. She just did not think she could afford to own fallow land. What I think about is what she would say were she to see me as an antiques dealer with an inventory. She punished me for various offenses as a child, scared the bejesus out of me in fact, and she would probably do so again.
But I beg to differ.
I don’t think there has ever been a better time to be an antiques dealer from one point of view. That is to say that the customers buying now are not only clever, but they are dedicated. These are people who understand that cash is a commodity that allows you to live in the fashion you would like to live in. It isn’t for having a big bank account. It isn’t for looking at piles of cash. If you have a great deal of money, it is always time to use it, and to use it wisely and to the best of your ability. Naturally, as someone who stockpiles a commodity, it is easy for me to say that others should buy my goods. But I am not saying that. There are great things everywhere, some of them are oversubscribed with collectors and some less so. My favorite client who well understood this was Alistair Bradley Martin. His words on collecting went something like this, go to where there are fewer fishermen as you will have a better chance to catch a big fish. When pieces from his collection come on the market, and that isn’t often not counting, of course, the things from his home that sold at Christie’s, they make huge sums.
He devoted his life to finding areas of collecting where others did not tread. It is a great lesson and belies the obsession for contemporary art which often seems a mob scene of hipster wannabes. No, my inventory has not moved substantially in 2011, but I will say that it has moved and some of it quite well. Those collectors who know themselves and are confident in their taste have not had a problem spending money in this fiscal maelstrom we find ourselves in. I can’t know what they are thinking, but surely, one of the things on their minds is that when all is said and done, everything on earth is going to be more expensive so I might just as well buy now as ever. I don’t know if I agree or disagree with this as I am not an economist and can’t forecast anything. I will say that English furniture continues to be expensive to buy, particularly in the more obvious venues such as at major auction galleries.
But I would also posit that dealers are not as marginalized as they once were by these venues. The overall inventory of English furniture, at least at the very highest level, is diminishing and clients are re-learning that dealers offer a great deal more than auction galleries. But will 2012 be a lackluster year, an average year or a break out year when English furniture once again becomes “popular”, a term that I reject whole heartedly? English furniture always has been fashionable and coveted, so a breakout year isn’t going to happen. Will more collectors come into the market? It is hard work to put a collection of English furniture together now and if anything will slow a collector down, it is the realization that certain pieces are and will be very hard to find. I would posit that it is easier to put a collection together of almost any other genre or style of furniture than it is to collect English furniture. For the collector, it becomes a pursuit and that is asking a lot of a busy person and it is not something a collector wants to leave to surrogates. But, yes, I do believe there will be more collectors coming into the market and that 2012 will be a better year than 2011.
This rather self-serving analysis is not based on fact so much as the pieces that I have been selling. They are great items, things that are hard to find. And the enquiries that I have had for things that are rare and seldom seen. This world of English furniture is of a sort that my grandmother never knew. She was a minister’s wife and if I could have shown her the correspondence that was shown to me by a client that was written between my client’s grandfather and a Chinese porcelain dealer that covered three years beginning the fall of 1930, she would have shaken her head in utter despair. Essentially, it was about a pair of celadon vases that my client’s grandfather purchased which he left with the porcelain dealer whose first letter was to thank him for his purchase. The second letter, written a few months later was to enquire if the client would like to sell the vases? The third, fourth and fifth letters were all in the same vein, only the dealer started offering the client profits. Finally, he allowed that it was John D. Rockefeller who wanted to purchase the vases and would he consider selling for more than two and a half times what he paid for the vases.
There is a lesson in this correspondence.