‘In My Opinion’ 2017 Archives
By John Fiske
Auction Changes – November 2017
There have been a couple of big changes in the auction world recently. At first glance they do not appear to be directly related, but as I don’t believe in random coincidences, indirectly they must be. Both changes affect selling online and both reflect the opinion that online is where the action is, it is where the best development opportunities are to be found.
Phillips of London and New York (struggling with Bonham’s to occupy third place behind Christie’s and Sotheby’s) now offers fixed-price online sales as an alternative to traditional auctions. This move may have been prompted by Sally Stratton and Guy Saville, two ex-directors of Bonham’s, who recently started their own auction firm, the Pedestal, that offers consignors the choice of selling online by auction or by fixed-price via a brokerage scheme. It is significant that two next-to-the-top-level auction houses have arrived at the same conclusion at the same time: auctions and/or fixed price. They are, after all, faced with the same market conditions.
Of course, Phillips and Bonham’s, traditional houses working at the higher end of the market, are way behind eBay. As we all know, eBay started as an auction site, but last year 85 percent of its sales were fixed-price (eBay’s fixed-price sales do not include a brokerage model.) eBay, Phillips, Bonham’s — fixed-price sales are pressuring online auctions.
Why? The players in the game point to a number of factors. Online auctions are necessarily open for three, five, seven or even 10 days – they need that sort of time-span to accumulate enough bidders. Over the longer haul, a fixed-price sale will reach a far larger audience than a limited-time auction, because an auction cannot be extended indefinitely – it has to close regardless of the number of bids and bidders. The time needed to attract enough viewers, however, means that early bidders may have to wait up to 10 days before they know if they were successful or not. They may not want to. With a fixed-price sale, buyers can buy, pay and arrange shipping within an hour of deciding to purchase. Another downside of the online auction is Google: any item needs to be online for about 30 days before it will be picked up by Google.
eBay has long had a couple of options for fixed-price selling: “Buy It Now,” when the sale is made immediately, and “Best Offer,” which allows for negotiation between buyer and seller. A bit like real life! And exactly like dealers who sell from their websites. I’ve been selling like that for the past 15 years – Hey, Phillips and Pedestal, you can have me right now if the money’s right!
Zero buyer’s premium
Sotheby’s is another auction house that is exploring new ways to thrive in the new digital marketplace. The firm shocked many when it announced recently that it was eliminating the buyer’s premium at all of its online-only sales (nobody was shocked, however, when it announced in the same release that it was raising the buyer’s premium to a whopping 25 percent for its regular auctions. Christie’s also raised its premium to 25 percent, but did not eliminate the premium from its online-only sales).
Sotheby’s have realized that where the sale is conducted may be as significant as what is offered for sale. At its online-only sales last year, 45 percent of the buyers were new clients. So Sotheby’s plans to at least double the number of online-only sales this year from the 16 that it held in 2016. Sotheby’s may not be offering the most expensive lots at its online-only sales, but it is selling lots at up to $50,000, with an average sale price of $10,000 per lot. The bidders are not just new clients, they are exactly the new clients that anyone would want.
The fixed-price sale or the online-only sale: one with no bidding, the other with no premium. Which do you think is most likely to hit digital pay-dirt?
Fixed-price and online-only sales have both walked away from what used to be considered the main appeal of the traditional sale-room auction: its high drama. For each, there’s no live audience to hold its breath while a couple of bidders push the price up into the stratosphere: there’s no crowded room to break into spontaneous applause when an item sells for a record price. Of course, these fiestas of adrenaline will continue, but they’ll be confined to a few headline auctions by the headline auctioneers. And, we suspect, all the bidders will be experienced, traditional collectors – no first-timers among them. First-timers do not want to be fueled by adrenaline; they do not want to put themselves up against seasoned competitors.
Online business is conducted at a less frantic pace in a less highly charged atmosphere – much more conducive to new buyers. The sense of competition is ratcheted down and thus the fear of being a loser is downplayed – no-one wants to be a loser, so why emphasize that every bidder has a 50 percent chance of being just that? And why make them experience losing in front of a huge audience? In fixed-price sales, the competitive side has been almost eliminated, though everyone knows at the back of their minds that someone may jump in before them if they dally too long. Fixed-price sales are not essentially geared to making an instant sale: unlike auctions they are open-ended, longer lasting and less immediately competitive.
As a website dealer (which my customers have turned me into), I experience the same buyer preferences as Sotheby’s – only more so. In the last two years, all of my new clients, every last one of them, have come to me online. One couple did follow up their online discovery with a visit to our shop to see a particular item, but also to browse and, I assume, to meet me and form an opinion of me as well as of my inventory. In online selling, with its conversations in person, by email or on the phone, there’s no pressure involved and very little sense of competition – though I have been known to remark that ours is a funny business and you never know which item will sit for months and which will walk out the door tomorrow.
A goodly chunk of new clients today are likely to be millennials, people who are used to living their lives (and doing their shopping) online. I don’t know how many millennials shop at Walmart, but the retail behemoth, locked in a battle with Amazon for online retail customers, has just announced that its online sales are 60 percent higher than last year’s. Millennials are used to buying with a thumb-press on their phone, and they are used to instant gratification – which leads me to predict that fixed-price sales will appeal to them better than online-only auctions. And the last thing they are likely to do is to spend hours sitting in a sale room, however high the drama!
The digital is here
It’s a common gripe among antiques dealers that the auction houses have stolen their business – indeed, some dealers have actually turned themselves into auctioneers. There is some truth to this: over the last few years, the auction business does seem to have been livelier than the bricks and mortar retail business. Partly, of course, this is because auctioneers have done more than most dealers to take advantage of the digital revolution.
Importantly, the leading auctioneers have realized that “online” is not a fixed environment. I’ve outlined here two of the strategies by which auctioneers are responding to conditions today that they expect to become predominant in the near future. The brokered, fixed-price model borrows from selling at auction in that the seller simply consigns the item, and the broker takes care of photographing, listing, promoting, etc. (There’s no brokerage model on eBay.) The zero premium model is focused on capturing a key market segment (new buyers) and follows the Amazon belief that market share is more important than immediate profit: increase the market share and the profits will follow. I wonder if Christie’s refusal to eliminate the premium on online-only sales will allow its rival to dominate the market share and take this segment of the market away from Christie’s?
But, amidst all the uncertainties, one thing seems certain: the digital world is expanding even faster than we thought it would. I think we’ll have to turn the oft-quoted Chinese wish upon its head: “May you live in interesting times” should now be understood as an opportunity, not as a curse.
Meaningful Things - Oct. 2017
I’ve just learnt about a very peculiar ritual. It started in the Middle Ages, it’s European, it takes two or three years to complete, and it is performed by artisans such as carpenters and joiners. It checks all of my boxes – but I’d never heard of it.
Basically, it’s a two- or three- year period of wandering that marks the transition between an apprenticeship and full-time employment as a skilled artisan. It seems to occur only in the German-speaking countries of central Europe. These young Germanic wandergesellen, translated as “journeymen,” but not to be confused with “journeymen” in the English and French traditions, where a “journeyman” was one who had graduated from his apprenticeship and was ready to be employed by a master tradesman. He was employed, and paid, by the day, and the name “journeyman” comes from the French journée, meaning a day’s worth of something: a journeyman gave a day’s work for a day’s pay. Nothing to do with journeying.
But these Germanic journeymen do go on a journey: they hit the road with nothing but the tools of their trade and a change of underwear. They wander through the countryside, trading their skills for food and lodging. If you know the code, and apparently most do, you can tell what sort of journeyman is walking up the path to your door. He, or she, will be wearing the traditional costume of a white shirt and dark corduroy pants, but it is the color of the jacket that matters: woodworkers, bricklayers, bakers, roofers, stonemasons, gardeners, tailors and the rest all wear jackets whose colors identify their trades.
These wanderers (in German) must be less than 30 years old and unmarried. They travel in order to hone their skills, to meet and learn from experienced craftsmen, and from each other, to meet their customers face to face, and generally to mature into the trade that will be both their lifetime’s work and their social identity. When one of them says, “I am a joiner,” he is referring to so much more than his ability to make a mortise-and-tenon joint: a joiner is who he is.
The Millennial mindset
Pause for a moment, and consider that these journeymen live in the same society as millennials! Can you imagine a conversation between them, provided, of course, that you could get a millennial to look up long enough from their device to actually have a conversation: face-to-face conversations are, in general, not part of the millennial lifestyle.
Now, don’t think that I am just knocking millennials…sorry, I have to rephrase that: please recognize that I am knocking millennials because I admire the characteristics that are central to a journeyman but which I can’t see at all in a millennial.
The wandering journeyman of the German tradition and his more stay-at-home namesake in the Anglo-French tradition are fundamentally more alike than different. Both undergo a long apprenticeship whose aim is to produce a skilled tradesman, a trustworthy citizen and an artifact that is as trustworthy as the man who made it.
The English craft guilds could send “viewers and searchers” into any workshop to ensure that the work was being done with the right materials, by the right methods and to the right standards. Viewing and searching was a way of guaranteeing that consumers could buy the product in the good faith that it was what it purported to be: the process made artisans trustworthy and consequently enabled customers to trust them. It is no surprise, then, that the municipal governments of early English towns consisted mainly of members of the trade and merchant guilds. Good citizens.
OK, now I come to another point where I have to admit my ignorance. The other day I came across a reference to the iGeneration, who, apparently are already 25 percent of the population. Twenty-five percent of the people around me, and I’d never even heard of them. Praise the lord for Google: the iGeneration (or Gen Z), I read, are the offspring of millennials who were born in this century – and there’s me who didn’t even realize that millennials were old enough to have children, oh dear… I suppose they’re called the iGeneration because they’ve been reared by their iPhones and iPads and iPods, and the only iSight they have is through a screen!
What millennials miss
I expect you can see where I’m going here when I set the millennial against the journeyman. We live in an age where a commodity is reduced to a function: if it does what we want it to, we’ll keep it, but as soon as it fails, or as soon as something else appears that can do it better, we toss it away without a thought. In the millennial mindset, things are reduced to their function.
An artifact made by journeymen, however, is far more than its function; it is overlaid with values of trustworthiness and of mutual interest; it carries its maker’s knowledge that his skill results in his sense of self-worth; it enables him to look his customer in the eye. All sorts of values like that – hard to put into words and not always felt consciously, but always there. An artifact is not reduced to what it can do, it carries values that bind together the makers, the users and the communities in which they live.
I must be careful not to overstate my case here. I’m almost as far removed from a millennial as anyone can be, but I am wedded to my iPad (which I will toss as soon as it stops functioning.) I am even more attached, however, to a generic ship’s portrait of the Rosa entering Naples harbor in 1871. The skipper was a great, great (perhaps a third “great”, I don’t know) uncle of mine; Rosa was named after my grandmother, Nellie Rose Warren, who was probably born about the same time as the ship was launched. The painting hung prominently and proudly over the fireplace in my grandmother’s dining room until she died, when it came to me. Along with it came a few pieces of blue and white china that the Rosa had brought home from one her voyages to the Far East, as we called it in England then. Now it hangs in my office, and when I lift my eyes from the monitor, there it is. And it’ll still be there after my iPad is in the trash. In my grumpier moments, which have become increasingly common, I’m inclined to grumble, “They don’t make things like that any more.” And sometimes, you know, grumpy old men are right.
In the artisanal age, things were in comparatively short supply, and so they came laden with the social values I’ve been talking about, and when they found new owners the new owners added their values. The things in the home really meant something.
The industrial age started to dilute the value-dimension of things. They were widely available, and many people could own exactly the same thing. (Today, of course, we try to find artisanal values when we sell them – “hand-colored,” “engraved with owner’s initials,” or at least to identify the factory that made them, “Bennington,” “Mappin & Webb.”)
In the digital age, even those faint traces of personal values have disappeared. I have no idea, nor do I care, where or by whom my iPad was made. Digital things are bought new, so personal histories are never involved: no iPad can tell the personal stories that Rosa can. Of course, my iPad is by Apple, but that’s a brand, and branding subsumes all individual differences into an anonymous mass: Apple wants me to be exactly the same as every other Apple user. When things have no history and no personality, but are merely a function, something that used to be very important has gone out of our lives.
Advice columns for those thinking of retirement (no, I’m not!) often raise the problem that older people own a lot of things that their kids just don’t want. This makes the parents feel awkward and the kids feel guilty. The kids feel bad about not wanting grandma’s china or grandpapa’s chair, not just because they don’t want the things as things, but mainly because they don’t respond to the family history in those things in the way that their parents do. So when parents downsize, or move into a retirement home, the thoughtful kids rent storage lockers where they will keep all those things that are meaningful to their parents but are just unwanted stuff to them. When the parents are gone, their things will be sold. Things just don’t mean as much as they used to: they are reduced to their functions: grandma’s formal Lennox china is no use to us, so we don’t want it. Things are no longer material connectors between owner and owner or between maker and user, they are no longer part of a community in which they embody memory, identity, and trust. They’re just things.
Which is tough for us in the antiques business, because, at their very core, antiques are things that mean. Antiques are valuable, not just in the sense of their price-tags, but because they are value-laden. Once upon a time, not too long ago, the values borne by antiques used to place them squarely in the mainstream: today, however, their values contradict the mainstream. We can’t change that fact, but we can exploit it. Americans have never been a homogeneous mass – the melting pot has never melted all our differences. All of us are caught up in the digital world, but we are not totally caught up in it: the speaker that I run from my iPad is standing on a seventeenth-century table, and I love the way that the table tells the speaker not to think too much of itself: “I’m 350 years old,” it says, “and you’re three.” If the speaker sat on some customized speaker-stand, it would be uncontradicted. And it needs contradiction: We cannot allow the digital to occupy the position of the be-all and end-all of everything. I think of my speaker/table combo as a journeyman holding up a millennial: there you go!
Pole Position - Sept. 2017
Our little town is currently suffering from a bad case of “monopolar disorder,” and it’s all the fault of the MBTA. If you live in Ipswich, you’ll know immediately what I mean. But as most of you don’t, I’ll explain. Ipswich is on a well-used MBTA commuter rail that runs from Newburyport to Boston. The MBTA (the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) is obeying a federal requirement to install a Positive Train Control System to prevent accidents automatically. Well and good.
Then somehow, we don’t know how because the MBTA has never consulted with the town or sent us a single communication, this PTCS (don’t bureaucrats love acronyms!) became merged with a proposal to improve Wi-Fi for train passengers. Consequently, the 30- to 35-foot high poles for the PTCS system suddenly grew to 74 feet high. No residential or commercial building in town is anywhere near that height (church steeples are another matter, but we like them!).
The Historical Commission hates the idea that the most dominant features of the skyline will be ugly utility monopoles, and, judging by the passionate voices at a recent meeting of the Board of Selectmen, so do most of the residents. So, on behalf of the Commission, I’ve been writing official sounding (i.e. slightly pompous) letters to the MBTA’s Board of Control (copied to our State Rep.,) to the Massachusetts Historical Commission, and to the local paper.
Our opposition is based not only on the way that these monstrous monopoles will destroy the town’s historic viewsheds, but also on two specific concerns. One monopole will be slap-bang in the middle of Appleton Farms. Appleton Farms has been farmed continuously since 1638 and is as good an example of living history as you’ll find anywhere. Predictably, most of the farm buildings have changed over the centuries, but much of the land has not. To this day, Appleton Farms contains uplands and lowlands, meadows and planting lots (as tillable fields were originally called,) wetlands and woodlands…in other words, it is still a close approximation of what a successful farm looked like in the seventeenth century. And now, after 379 years, they’re going to plant a 74-foot monopole right in the middle of it! Not if we can help it.
On the other side of town lies our other specific concern, the Bull Brook archeological site – one of the largest Paleo-Indian sites in the country from which more than 6,000 artifacts have already been recovered. The main site, excavated in the 1950s by amateur archeologists, is now a gravel pit (!) but nobody knows how many artifacts remain buried beyond that excavation or where precisely they lie hidden, possibly on the very site of the monopole to be erected nearby. At the very least, we are demanding that Native Americans must be consulted about the possible disturbance of their ancestral relics.
Between Appleton Farms (1638) to our south and Bull Brook (c. 11,000 BCE) to our north lies the most historic town in New England, and the MBTA wants to build a chain of 74-foot high monopoles through it.
Building on the past
In my activities on the Historical Commission, as a dealer and as a writer/editor, I frequently have to grapple with the problem of what to do with the past in the face of an unconcerned present. There’s never a single answer, and never an easy one. Antique structures, antique objects and antique landscapes or townscapes may have a lot in common, but they each have issues that are unique to them.
I’m reminded of a recent project on which the Historical Commission cooperated with a property developer. In 1833, to go back to the beginning, a breakaway group from the First Church set up a Unitarian Church in town and built themselves a nice church to worship in. It was, incidentally, one of the first Greek Revival buildings in Ipswich. But ten years later, the Unitarians ran out of steam and disbanded, and the town bought the church building to serve as the new Town Hall. In 1876, the building had become too small for the job it was doing, so the town raised it up, built a new first story underneath it and added a large two-story extension on the rear. In this enlarged form, it served as the Town Hall and the District Court until 2004, when both those offices relocated. From 2004 till 2016 it remained unused and neglected.
But it has been brought back to life: It is now in the final stages of conversion into condominiums.
Fortunately, when the town raised and enlarged the original church in 1876, it did so in basically a Greek Revival style — a Greek Revival Revival, if you like. It ended up as a handsome Victorian-Greek Revival building. Repurposing it again, this time as condominiums, required adding new windows and making other changes to existing windows, doors and trim. The developer worked closely with the Historical Commission to ensure that the new changes were historically appropriate.
The end result is a building that respects and retains traces of its history while serving a modern purpose. And, the frosting on the cake, it’s an historic building that would no longer exist if had not been repurposed and restored. A win-win situation: preserving the past for the sake of the future.
If you drive into Ipswich from the south, you’ll see the building on the right: it is freshly painted in authentic Greek Revival colors (light gray clapboard, dark gray trim, black sashes and door). Stop and look carefully, and you’ll see the modified, but still recognizable, Greek Revival church up on the second floor. You’ll also see the reconstruction that turned it into the Victorian public building whose historical identity is clearly visible in its new iteration as private residences.
I think we did the right thing with it: we continued a living history in which a church grew into a Town Hall that in turn grew into condominiums, all the while making each change as respectful as possible of what went before it.
But I’d have a blue fit if someone treated a piece of antique furniture in that way. Many years ago, I sold a seventeenth-century chest of drawers to an interior decorator. It had a damaged top, but she didn’t care, because she was going to put a sink in it and use it as a bathroom fixture. That was at least ten years ago, and I still have a guilty conscience about it, I still wonder if I should have refused to sell it to her once I knew what she was going to do to it.
Would I have felt the same if it had been a Victorian wardrobe that she was going to convert into an entertainment center? No, I wouldn’t, in fact I might even have encouraged her to go ahead. Blundering inconsistency on my part, I admit. Part of it, of course, is that I don’t care much about mass-produced Victorian wardrobes – certainly not in the way I care about seventeenth-century chests of drawers. Another part of it, however, is the fact that people don’t want big mahogany wardrobes anymore, so the only way to preserve at least a few of them is to adapt them to something that people do want (well, that didn’t last long – entertainment centers are now as out of date as wardrobes!). But at least it prevented the doors and sides from being made into fake Georgian tables, a repurposing that is even more common and utterly more egregious!
There’s also the question of how social uses change over time. I bet almost every one of you still uses a chest of drawers for storage somewhere in your house, but I bet far fewer of you have a wardrobe. Am I right? There’s a purpose for a repurposed wardrobe, but repurposing a chest of drawers into a washstand is a mindless decorative impulse: there are no changes in social history to justify it. I definitely should not have sold it to her!
Another reason why I feel bad about the chest of drawers but quite OK about the wardrobe lies in the proportion of the past that is being either preserved or lost. I’m willing to bet that today there are 1,000 surviving Victorian objects for each seventeenth-century one. So that chest of drawers carries a far larger share of the material culture of its time than a Victorian wardrobe does. Historically, it is more valuable.
Where do all these ramblings apply to those mega-monopoles being imposed willy-nilly on our sleepy historic town? For starters, those poles show no respect for history. They imply that a contemporary use is sufficient unto itself, and has no need to take account of non-technological factors such as community, history and aesthetics. For the railroad engineers, landscape is merely something to be crossed. Equally, they think no further than the present: They show no awareness that 74-foot monopoles will quickly be outdated as a means of delivering Wi-Fi. (One of those who spoke at the Select Board meeting pointed out that a friend had just returned from Europe on a plane that flew seven miles above the earth and he had Wi-Fi all the way without a chain of monopoles linking the plane to the ground!).
Being in the business of history in a digital period is both fascinating and frustrating: it requires thought and judgment, a refusal to take anything for granted, and the willingness to fight for values that have gone right out of fashion. That’s OK, there are still enough of us who are refusing to give up on that fight. They won’t find us push-overs.
- Stop the Press: The Monopole project has just been canceled, citing specifically its “impact upon historic sites.” Standing up for our history really can pay off!
Collecting Stories - August 2017
I always enjoy talking with collectors about their collections, so I was really happy to reread our features this month before sending them up to the press shop. What rang a bell with me was something that that these three collectors had in common with the multitudes I’ve talked with over the years: the objects in the collection almost always led to conversations about people. For antiques collectors, things and people inevitably go together. As Frank Sinatra pointed out so persuasively, “This I tell ya, brother, you can’t have one without the o-other!” In museums, by way of contrast, things stand by themselves – with perhaps an acknowledgement of their donor/collector, but no personal narrative.
Our three articles, however, are steeped in personal anecdotes. Antiques are great storytellers, among the best ever, and often the stories they tell would have been lost to us were it not for the antiques that kept them alive. Three or four generations back from Allen Shepherd, for example, there was a Sarah Ann Silver in his family. In 1828, when Sarah Ann was nine years old, she stitched a sampler that today hangs on the wall of Allen’s study. But it doesn’t just hang there mute and inert – oh no, this is a family antique, and whatever family antiques are, they are never mute and inert. In 1978, another Sarah, Allen’s older daughter, at the age of thirteen, re-purposed the concept, and stitched a version of it as a Christmas card for her grandmother. Two generations back from Sarah Shepherd, three or four generations on from Sarah Silver, the narrative connecting the two Sarahs moves back and forth over time and will continue into the future where it will be told by two samplers not just one. It’s a unique story, and it’s a story uniquely told by things. Search a genealogical website, and I’m sure you’d come up with the relationship between the two Sarahs, but it would be in print, not in things that the fingers of each Sarah had touched and created – one-dimensional, instead of flesh and blood. No comparison!
Listen to the echoes with John Sayer’s story. His wife was no collector of ephemera, but dutifully, she accompanied him to a show where, out the blue, she found a photographic card from her mother’s home town, Iroquois, and then, on turning it over, she discovered that in 1909 it had actually been sent by her grandmother! Now, many period postcards later, Judith has images of the Main Street where her mother and grandmother did their shopping, she knows who was on the High School football team (perhaps her mother dated one of them?) … and so much more. Her encounter with the card brought antiques and family together, and her imagination took fire in a way that it never did when the family history was merely words – words without things.
Our two writers have something else in common: a Eureka moment – all good stories have a Eureka moment when a mystery is solved or a vital connection is made. “Holy Moly!” exclaimed Scott Berube looking at an upside down chair: “a genealogical epiphany” was how John described his wife’s Eureka moment.
Scott Berube was faced with a different issue than John or Allen: he had the things (a set of chairs,) but only a hint of the stories they told. So he spent two years finding the stories that connected with the chairs he had bought at a local auction. It turned out that the chairs were mute witnesses to the life of John Hancock, and what Scott did was to go to the history of John Hancock (mostly well enough known) and discover the history of the chairs (not at all well known); he then linked the two histories to each other and to the chairs themselves, to the things. These things now tell stories from different points of view: one as grand as the founding of our nation and the other as humble as two local craftsmen in Massachusetts.
Stories told by things
All human societies tell stories: storytelling is as human as walking upright. Narratives make sense of the unfathomable (where did humans begin?); they connect the dots and bring things into a relationship that might otherwise pass unnoticed; they make things easier to remember and to pass along; and they engage the imagination as well as the intellect.
But there is something special about stories told by things. Language is universal, a thing is minutely local – in fact it can reduce the local to its smallest dimension, the personal. Allen Shepherd’s swords tell a story of his family and the Civil War and his great, great uncles who fought in it, but when his grandsons play with them and agree on which of them will inherit which sword, the narrative becomes purely personal. It connects the dots between the Civil War, the grand uncles who fought in it and the grandkids who live in the age of the smart phone.
Some may think that the story told by John Hancock’s Hepplewhite chairs is the most important of the three we are retelling in this issue. Perhaps, but it all depends on what you think is important. Certainly, Hancock was one of the most influential founders of the country whose influence shaped both the nation of the United States of America and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but for the Sayers, Judith’s sudden new connection with her grandmother through a postcard may be just as meaningful.
Some of the major figures of the time, including George Washington, must have sat on Scott’s chairs in Hancock’s Grand Parlor. The chairs bear witness to the intense discussions about how to move forward now that America was no longer a British colony. But wait a minute – the chairs may have been made in Massachusetts, but in style they were indisputably English. The independence of a new nation was formulated on “English” chairs.
It seems as though two contradictory narratives are at work here – a revolutionary break with the political, economic and legal impositions of the English, yet a whole-hearted embrace of English style and culture. Which narrative lasted the longer – the revolutionary break or the cultural continuity? That raises another question: who was more in touch with the future of America – Hancock and Washington who sat on the chairs or Samuel and William Fiske (no relation) who made them? Hancock and Washington: national celebrities whose names are forever associated with the birth of the nation; and the Fiske brothers of Dorchester, Mass, obscure craftsmen whose names were know only in their locality, and whom I, at least, had never heard of until I read Scott Berube’s story.
Culture is what forms our identities, our tastes and preferences and the ways in which we make sense of the world. At a deeply sedimented level, New Englanders in the 1790s still took it for granted that they were, in fact, English. So, English style chairs were not a contradiction of the American words that were spoken from them. Indeed, there’s a strong case to be made that American Federal furniture is, paradoxically, the most “English” of all American styles; straight out of the Hepplewhite and Sheraton style-books. (There may have been a brief period, early in the nineteenth century, when styles from the French Republic were deemed more patriotic in the American Republic, and Lafayette became an American hero, but it did not last long.) It is almost as though the break at the national/political level produced an unspoken desire at the local/cultural level to retain the traditional connection with England. Culture may have served here as a reassuring counterbalance to the politics of the new and the separate.
As an English-American, I hear the chairs telling a slightly different story than Scott Berube does. Scott pays more attention to the Hancock-Fiske-Berube connections and less to the English. But we both agree that those chairs connect the dots that link national leaders, local craftsmen, the age they lived in, and Scott and me and you, who are all listening to their stories a couple of centuries later. And I’m sure we both agree that seeing and touching the chairs makes the story more meaningful and memorable than any retelling of it in words, as Scott and I have attempted to do in this issue. The “thinginess” of the chairs infuses knowledge with imagination.
The upshot of all this? If collectors want stories, then obviously we dealers should take every opportunity to provide them. We have a great opportunity: antiques are the best storytellers of anything that’s available on the retail market. And as antiques follow the rest of retail onto the internet, our opportunities only expand. Social media, blogs and newsletters are perfect digital pulpits where dealers can stand and speak to anyone who wishes to listen. Those of us who are becoming digital have already learned the importance of the image – we have, of necessity, become photographically proficient. We’ve always been great talkers; now we have to transfer our spoken words into writing and post them. And that’s another big advantage: instead of telling one story to one customer at one time, the story we post in cyberspace will be there for everybody for ever. A far more efficient use of our time than waiting in a shop or a show booth for a single listener.
Just think of our internet customers as kids at bed time, “Tell us a story, Gran’pa, tell us a story!”
Back to the Future - July 2017
Back to the Future
I seem to have come across the phrase “tipping point” a lot recently, particularly with regard to e-commerce and the speed with which it is replacing bricks-and-mortar shopping. The general consensus is perhaps expressed most clearly by the research firm L2: Once online shopping reaches 20 percent of total national spending in a category, it reaches a tipping point when gravity accelerates the speed with which the new replaces the old. There’s no going back.
The point is reinforced by another research firm, Reis: Between 2010 and 2014, e-commerce grew by $30 billion annually, but for the last three years the average annual growth has been $40 billion. One inevitable effect of this is that even small retailers are fleeing physical spaces such as shopping malls and town centers, and are now renting space in huge warehouses that allow them same-day shipping.
More gloom for the physical retail business: Customer Erica Dao used to visit malls at least once a month to keep an eye on what’s hot. Now she looks for her inspiration on social media. Similarly, Elizabeth Troy, who calls herself the “queen of sales,” has stopped visiting on-sale racks and outlet malls in favor of Stitch Fix, an online “store” that lets her try out clothes at home and decide what to keep. “I almost never go out to buy now,” she says.
Let’s take a step closer to home: “Manhattan antiques shops founded decades ago are vanishing at an alarming rate, unable to compete with online offerings.” So begins a New York Times story. And I’m sure we’ve all read that Christie’s is closing its South Kensington saleroom in London, scaling back its Amsterdam rooms to two contemporary art sales a year, and cutting 250 employees, about 12 percent of its workforce. Contradictorily, however, it expanded its online-only sales last year and saw a 109 percent increase. Equally significantly, one third of Christie’s new clients come to it online.
A single but significant instance: a dealer at the Philadelphia Antiques & Art Show in April was reported saying that he made four sales during the show, “One on Facebook, two on Instagram and one on his website.”
Are these the tipping points in the antiques business? We can’t say for sure – we do not have the data that would allow us to say that 20 percent of antiques sales are now made online. I may not have data, but I do have a gut – and my gut tells me that our business is at, or even past, the tipping point.
Contemplating the future
If we are past the tipping point, at least there is something we can do about it. We are human, members of the species Homo Sapiens. There have been several recent psychological studies that have identified one of the defining characteristics of our species: the ability to contemplate the future. Some go as far as to think that we might consider renaming ourselves as Homo Prospectus, because we thrive by considering our prospects. Without this prospection, they argue, humans could not have created civilization. (When I hear “creating civilization,” the antiques business immediately pops into my mind – what are we but traders in the objects of civilization?)
The psychologists of prospection note that it can be either an energizing or a de-motivating ability. Optimists are energized and encouraged by their ability to contemplate the future: pessimists are the opposite. Now let’s act for a moment as positive Homo Prospectus; let’s consider our prospects after the tipping point. So, sit back in your chair, raise your glass (half-full, of course, we don’t have glass-half-empty people in the antiques business!) and project yourself 10 years into the future. What will the antiques business look like then?
Past the tipping point
Here are a few of my ideas (please note that I focus on dealers because of space limitations):
- There will be one website for the whole antiques business. It will be minutely searchable. The buyer will be able to search under, say, “cupboard” “mahogany” “American” “1830-1870” “36” to 40” wide” “$750-$1,000” and will immediately be presented with dozens to choose from.
- The Brits are moving faster in this direction than we are. They have a few huge conglomerate sites: Sellingantiques.com, for instance currently has 45,984 antiques on offer: Online Galleries has 35,000+, and Antiques-atlas has a mere 11,690. Taken together, that is nearly 100,000 antiques accessible by a click. I couldn’t find the equivalent stats for 1st Dibs, but it’s the only American site that comes close.
- There will be no single-dealer websites. Visitors who follow a specific dealer will simply search her name to see the whole of her inventory.
- Antiques offered online will exist as clusters of high-quality images. Still images will outperform video (I’ve never experienced Virtual Reality, so I’ll hold off foreseeing that, though I think its future is limited.) Video will only work, if less efficiently, if it can be slowed, frozen and reversed. The viewer will not accept the videographer’s decisions about which shots to include, which order to show them in and how long to spend on each. The still camera can post a menu that allows the viewer greater control over what and how she watches. All images will be 3D and rotatable.
- There will be instant delivery and return transit systems from antiques warehouses. Because an antique is a unique object, and thus cannot be stored in multiple warehouses around the country, antiques buyers (unlike any others) will accept next-day, not same-day, delivery via air plus drone – probably one scooting along a drone lane next to the sidewalk, not flying. Dealers will use the same transit system to send their inventory to the warehouse.
- Returns will become the norm. People will buy an antique to see how it looks in place, and return it if they think they can find one that does the job better. Returns will be free, with instant drone pick-up. The Stitch Fix model.
- Dealers will describe condition accurately. The website will have a Yelp-like feature for customer reviews of dealers. Nothing will draw a negative review faster than an undisclosed condition issue.
- The antiques website will be multi-purpose: it will not be for sales only. It will accommodate visitors who do not want to buy, but who want to spot trends, compare prices, send pictures to friends, or just pass the time. Visitors who want to browse seriously but not buy will search more loosely and tap, for instance, “New England Furniture 1725 – 1775:” Instantly they will have thousands of objects to browse through.
- The multi-purpose website will replace print. Instead of sitting by the fire with a book on eighteenth-century ceramics, a collector will search on his device. Each picture that he pulls up will be equipped with a “read” button that will yield a description, a social history of the form, links to comparable antiques and relevant museum collections, links to recently sold examples, links to collectors’ clubs or chat rooms – all the information and more that is currently available in print, online or on social media.
- The online business will not replace the physical business entirely. The number of see-and-touch sales will decrease dramatically but will not disappear. Because there will be fewer bricks-and-mortar buyers, they will be concentrated in fewer venues, not dispersed around many: I foresee a very few high-end shows and a very few high-end auctions taking place in physical salerooms. The mid-market has already shown itself well suited to online sales, while the very top still prefers see-and-touch. There will be no single-dealer shops and probably no group shops.
- Less confidently, I foresee small dealer-only shows where pickers and dealers can set out their wares for other dealers to replenish their inventories. In the online business, every sale will be visible to everyone, and dealers will need “secret” sources. “Fresh merch” will be in short supply, so dealers will pay a premium for private sales. But I may be completely wrong here. In the digital age, people display everything to everyone – the less you keep private or secret, the more popular you are. So today’s attraction of the “private source/private sale” will become obsolete: buyers will want everyone to know what they have, where it came from and how much it cost.
2027 is coming
OK, that’s my prospection for 2027. If that makes you throw up your hands in horror, you’re dead. The future is inevitable, and everything I foresee in my 2027 has already begun somewhere in the retail business. The dealers who thrive will be those who contemplate the future and ask themselves how early can they adapt to what they foresee, and where exactly do they start adapting to the future right now? A quick concluding thought of mine: successful dealers will be not only experts in antiques, but also experts in cameras, keyboards and, of course, electronic devices. If you’re not, learn quickly – or reserve your burial plot.
References: New York Times: Dec 5, 2015, March 23, 2017, April 15, 2017, April 30, 2017, May 19,2017. Maine Antique Digest May 2017.
History That We Wish Wasn’t - June 2017
In My Opinion
For some reason I feel driven to skate on thin ice this month, and stumble around in a complex issue that is rarely if ever raised in our business. But perhaps it ought to be.
A Nazi belt buckle was what got me going. A reader of the New York Times asked the paper’s ethicist what he should do with a Nazi belt buckle that his father, a WWII vet, had left him. “I really don’t want it in my house,” he wrote. “I have checked resale sites and it does have some monetary value, but I do not want it to fall into hands that may use it symbolically for what my father fought against.” Is there any legitimate role for a Nazi belt buckle in our society today? I suspect a militaria collector would say “yes.” And I would have to agree with him. But there does seem to be a critical difference between selling it to a neo-Nazi and to a collector of militaria. Big problem.
Where meaning is found
My memory suddenly took me a long way away, to the Australian desert during Reagan’s presidency. At the time, I was teaching cultural studies in an Australian university. Early in my time there, the Department of the Interior issued a report on the situation of Aboriginal peoples living nomadic lives in the deserts of central Australia. The nomadic Aboriginals identified two things that would make their lives better: A Toyota four-wheel drive (fairly predictable) and a video cassette recorder and monitor that would run from its battery (a bit more surprising).
The Aboriginals were avid consumers of movies, and at the time of the research, the most popular by far was Rambo, which was also, apparently, Ronald Reagan’s favorite movie.
That makes you think a bit, doesn’t it? But it turned out that Reagan and the Aboriginals were actually watching quite different movies – or rather, were watching the same movie quite differently. For Reagan, Rambo was the all-American, all-action hero who overcame all obstacles through his courage, strength and individual prowess. The research with the Aboriginals, however, revealed a quite different Rambo on their screens. He was a member of the third world, as were they; his inarticulateness reflected their feeling that their voices were never heard; his disparagement by the white officer class reflected precisely their disparagement by the bureaucrats of the Department of the Interior; his heroism in standing up for himself was a huge encouragement to them. For the Aboriginals, the figure of Rambo embodied their victimization by the white bureaucracy and the ability to stand up and resist them. Probably not what Reagan saw in him. Anyway, the lesson I taught my students about this was that you cannot predict the way a cultural product will be consumed from the product itself.
The meaning of a cultural product – a movie, a caricature of a Native American on a baseball uniform or a belt buckle – can only be determined by looking at the social context in which it is consumed. The meaning of a cultural product, then, will vary as its social context varies.
I’m going to leave you hanging for a while before I tell you the ethicist’s advice about the belt buckle. Instead, I’m going to tell an anecdote that involved me personally. We began our antiques business by renting space in the Mulberry Point antiques mall in Stillwater, Minn. At that time, Stillwater was an antiques “destination,” and people would drive out from Minneapolis to browse through the half-dozen or so malls that occupied the old lumber mills and warehouses along the river front. Beside paying booth rent, we also had to spend a number of hours a week staffing the mall. While this could be inconvenient, it was actually a good thing for a new dealer like me – my time on duty taught me an enormous amount about how the business worked, about the wide variety of dealers in it, and about customers and their behavior (quite an eye opener at times).
Anyway, I was on the front desk by the register when three big, beautiful African-American women came in. They combed the mall pretty thoroughly, and eventually ended up with their spoils at the front desk. They had found a slave shackle (the most serious item of African-American history in the mall) and a number of what we might call “Aunt Jemima” collectibles – cookie jars, recipe books, advertisements and sheet music featuring happy black people, you know the sort of thing, there are still plenty of them out there.
I was simultaneously full of questions and totally intimidated. But I did manage to stutter something about what a great collection they must have. They gave me a big smile and the answer that their collection reminded them of where they’d come from. They drew no attention to how condescending, if not insulting, these images might appear to be – probably because they were being polite to an inoffensive white man at the cash register. But they must have been aware of the white view of black people that informed each image. They must have at least thought of what an Aunt Jemima cookie jar meant to the white woman who bought it and to any black woman servant she might have employed. It obviously didn’t mean that to the women paying me for their purchases. (After the women had left, another dealer told me that their husbands were NFL players for the Minnesota Vikings, but that’s not the point here.) I sold them bits of white history of which I disapproved and which I would never allow into my house. They bought bits of white history that reminded them of what they had overcome, of what their previous generations had had to endure and that enriched their homes. But I could see no risk that they might put an Aunt Jemima cookie jar to the same symbolic use that Nazi belt buckle could be.
I felt no such qualms about selling the slave shackle: Its meaning is so imperative and so singular, no matter to whom, that it can stand for nothing but the horror of slavery. There is surely no one alive today who might use a slave shackle as an inspiration to oppress African-Americans.
History works differently in these cases. A shackle and, to a lesser extent, a cookie jar can be safely locked in the past with no risk of causing harm in the present. I’m sure the cookie jar sits differently in white and black collections, but if any of the meanings are socially harmful, they are only mildly so, and it’s no bad thing to learn how to live with them and gradually minimize them.
Not so with the belt buckle. And in racial relations not so with the one word from history that a white person can never speak today. If I were a bookseller, I could never sell a first edition of Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel whose later editions were published with the new title, And Then There Were None (the deeply racist nursery rhyme from which the book took its original title has also been revised to “Ten Little Indians” [not that much of an improvement] or “Ten Little Soldier Boys”).
History is history: It happened and we cannot deny it. Of course, some of that history is shameful and we should be prepared to make considered value judgments about it. For me, a Nazi belt buckle and an early edition of And Then There Were None deserve to be judged more harshly than a cookie jar – not necessarily for what they are in themselves, but for how they might resonate in today’s social context.
So, what was the ethicist’s advice to the owner of the buckle? Bury it. Should I echo him to the book owner? Burn it. No, that’s not the answer. We cannot erase a shameful history by destroying the objects that were produced in it. That’s almost like destroying the history itself, and thus letting ourselves off lightly.
The harm in the shameful object is caused by the fact that it can be used to revive the shameful context in which it was produced. Times do change, and there may come a time in the future when neither of those historical objects can be as socially divisive and harmful as they are today. The answer, I believe, is to lock them in an iron safe and keep them out of circulation until times have changed enough that we can let them see the light of day again.
The slave shackle, however, can sit proudly in bright daylight. It tells of a past that must remain past; it tells of a battle to overcome it, both in society and in our ways of thinking; and it reminds us that as a society, we are capable of making enough progress to render a return to that past unthinkable.
It is the very nature of antiques to carry the past into the present, but with some objects, we need to take a hard look at the present to see if it is capable of receiving the past that they carry with them. Which can be a tough job.
Who knows? May 2017
Looking back on the antiques scene in New York in January, I found myself going back to two, apparently contradictory, things that struck me. The Christie’s and Sotheby’s Americana auctions were gang-busters, top dollars all round: In the Winter Antiques Show, however, the number of Americana dealers was lower than I’ve ever seen it, perhaps the lowest ever. So what’s really happening to the Americana market? Is it up or down?
One thing is that dealers are bidding on behalf of clients at auctions. They’ve been doing this for a long time, of course, and I have no statistical evidence to support my gut feeling that this practice is becoming more common – almost standard on the more specialist, higher priced lots. This would seem to be a good thing for the dealers who can earn a goodly chunk of change without having to risk their own capital by buying the item for inventory. What their clients are paying for here, of course, is the knowledge and insight of the dealer. And they are paying less for it than if they bought from a dealer’s stock, because the dealer would have had to mark up the piece further to cover all his overheads, including tying his own capital up in it for however long it took to sell.
I don’t know the terms under which dealers buy on commission at auction for clients, and I have to wonder if the dealer is liable if he makes an error – if he misattributes something, if he misses a significant restoration or, worst of all, if what he buys for his client turns out to be fake. If he sells a piece from his inventory, however, he is liable for all of these conditions, and stands to lose his own money if he sells the piece as something that it turns out not to be. But that may be a red herring: I assume that top dealers make as few mistakes when buying for a client as when buying for inventory – which means very few indeed.
There is a handful of top auctioneers who thoroughly research their most important lots, and who print detailed information and condition reports in their catalogs for which they will take full responsibility. But that handful is not a large one. Most auctioneers make it clear that research into the lot and its condition is entirely the responsibility of the bidder: They stand behind nothing that they sell. So, of course, at these auctions it makes sense for a bidder to hire a dealer to provide what the auctioneer does not – knowledge. When a bidder is confident of his own knowledge, of course, as many are, he has no need to hire a dealer.
Reading and looking
Now what has this got to do with the paucity of Americana dealers at the Winter Show? I think they may be two sides of the same coin. I believe that in general collectors and dealers of Americana are the most “scholarly” of all – at the Winter Show, I will certainly recognize that collectors of antiquities and the Middle Ages share the same scholarly bent.
There’s a sharp difference, however, between those who buy well researched antiques and those who buy antiques that rely more upon their visual appeal than on their historical origins or authenticity. A personal observation to support that assumption: When I cover a show looking for “Show Stoppers,” I photograph the label as well as the object. Without exception, the Americana dealers provide long, detailed labels sharing the results of their research. Rarely, however, is a visual-appeal, decorative object accompanied by more than a couple of dozen or so words. Sometimes less.
On the whole, interior designers seem to care nothing about gobble-de-gook such as history or authenticity. They want a “look,” particularly a look that makes a “statement.” In a clear sign of our times, a decorator’s “statement” doesn’t have to say anything, it just has to be stated. We live in the age of the image, not the word. Which is why these “statements” are never put into words, because their sole job is to hit you between the eyes.
It’s a bit like “going viral.” In the age of the image, going viral is the equivalent of what significance used to be in the old-fashioned age of the word. This week, a video of a political science professor talking about the crisis in Korea went viral – not because of the significance of his ideas, oh dear no, but because his kids ran into his study and “photobombed” the interview. Sure, the sight of a cute little girl hugging her Daddy during an interview by BBC television was amusing, but in the age of the image, it was far more than that: It was the most significant image of the day.
The fact that the professor’s expertise in Korean history and politics was less significant than the visual impact of his kids parallels precisely the length and depth of the labels in Americana booths compared to the intellectual nudity of those in the decorative booths. The word vs. the image.
One evening recently, Lisa and I had to literally fight our way through the crowds in Times Square in New York. It’s the most visited place in the city, and one of the most popular sights (note that word) in the nation. And what is it? Nothing but a hundred or so neon-lit advertisements. Advertisements! Aha, there’s the dinosaur in me rearing its head: Tourists are not looking at the advertisements, they are eye-struck by the state of the art technology of the visuals. It says something about our culture, doesn’t it, that the most visited place in the country offers nothing but non-stop commercials manifest in the most powerful, futuristic images you’ll see anywhere? America is both the future and the commercial selling it.
It has probably dawned on you by now (please take that as sarcasm – in the age of the image we have lost our ability to recognize it) that I am a word guy, not an image guy. Partly that’s because I’m old, and partly it’s because I think that I don’t just react for 20 seconds and pass on to the next stimulating image. I feel like the dinosaur that won’t die.
The word is the tool of knowledge, it is essential in the quest for truth and understanding. It assumes that truth does not lie around on the surface waiting to be picked up by a casual passer-by. Truth needs excavation to find it; it requires learning from all the others who have sought it, which means reading the verbal records of their thoughts and discoveries: It means conversing (exchanging words) with people who know more than we do. Of course, we’ll look at images as well, they are a very important part of communication, but in the age of the word, the images are never presented without words. For the hangovers from the verbal age, like me, an image without words makes us ask immediately: What is it? Where is it? What am I looking and why am I looking it? We need words.
I’ve read that there’s one of those social media things that wipes out each image in, I don’t know, two minutes or so after it’s been posted – no time for questions, no time for words, just immediate and brief visual impact. No knowledge, just sensation. Make of it what you can, because it won’t be there tomorrow.
Oh dear, I’ve gotten myself into another contradiction with the culture of today. I remain one of those dinosaurs who believe that there is such a thing as truth, that you can make your way toward it, and that when you get there, you can support it with more out-of-date things, the ones that used to be called “facts.”
This sort of truth doesn’t disappear or change in the blink of an eye. And it can’t be conveyed in the blink of an eye: It’s not fleeting notes from the song of a passing bluebird. It endures, though it may evolve as new discoveries contribute to it. In the antiques world, as in the rest of the world-that-used-to-be, truth is still a valid objective, whether it’s scientific truth, historical truth or imaginative truth, but it takes time and passion to acquire: Specialist dealers and collectors devote many of their waking hours and almost all of their imaginative energy to finding and enjoying the truth about what they sell or collect.
To them, an antique is never an object, complete and independent in its own right: It is an object to be investigated and excavated. We need to dig out from it an understanding of how it carries a history, a culture, a different set of aesthetic principles that indicate a different way of life – all sorts of depths that you cannot immediately see just by looking at it. And what we learn from it and about it, we put into words so that we can share it with others.
So I am pleased that dealers and collectors work together to share their knowledge at auctions in order to decide what to buy and what not to. And I am absolutely delighted that the Americana dealers at the Winter Show still write labels that are longer than 140 characters.
In My Opinion - Light upon Darkness April 2017
Light upon Darkness
It suddenly struck me that the Hebridean islands in northern Scotland and the Atlas Mountains in northern Africa have a lot in common – and not just that we’d visited both in the last couple of years. I love it when these unexpected flashes come out of nowhere and make me think.
Lisa and I were taking a winter break in Morocco, and that out-of-left-field idea hit me as we were driving away from the cities where we’d spent a few hectic days and out into the countryside toward the mountains. The geography changed radically, and so did the culture. The mountains are where the Berbers lived – they were the original inhabitants of Morocco, but got pushed to the economically weaker areas by the Arabs who invaded the country in the 700s and converted it to Islam. Before then, the Berbers, or to give them their proper name, the Amazir, had been Christian and Jewish and had closer links with Andalusia in southern Spain than with the rest of north Africa.
“Berber,” by the way, derives from “barbarian” which is the derogatory name the Romans gave them when they conquered the country a few hundred years before the Arabs did. The profitable and bloodthirsty pirating business that these “barbarians” established in the Mediterranean led to the name “Barbary Pirates” and eventually to Johnny Depp. But what’s in a name? I digress.
Wet and dry
The Hebrides are wet and windswept, the foothills of the Atlas are hot and arid. But both have been inhabited for centuries by subsistence farmers who were also part time artisans working for an extra penny – the Hebridean crofters wove wonderful Harris tweed, and the Amazir were potters and rug makers. (Our souvenirs, incidentally, are an earthenware cooking pot and a Berber rug.) Subsistence economies, like these, operate on the margins of the central, developing economies and lie outside the reach of new fashions and new technologies: They thus change very little over the centuries.
Another factor shared by the wet islands and the dry mountains was the absence of trees. This was a major factor in their commonalities, particularly in their housing. Poor people build houses with what is most readily available, and in the Atlas and the Hebrides, this meant the earth on which they stood. Houses made from the earth appear to be part of nature, rising from the soil, not imposed upon it like houses in wealthier, more developed societies – societies, incidentally, that cared more for status than community.
The Hebridean houses were narrow, long and low: Their walls were three or four feet thick, with inner and outer faces local field stone and the middles filled with earth and sod. The Atlas houses, too, were narrow, long and low; their walls were two or three feet thick, also made from the earth, in their mud blocks faced with adobe.
Both house forms had to be narrow, because such wood as there was could not stretch over long spans. Therefore they had to be long to be large enough to be useful. The Hebridean roofs were pitched to shed the rain and were thatched with local reeds or straw supported by the best rafters the inhabitants could find. The Atlas roofs were flat and made of mud lying on a tightly packed layer of local bamboo (often today with a blue tarpaulin on top) that in turn was supported on the best rafters the inhabitants could find. Both types of house had few windows, and the ones they had were small — windows let in light, but also the weather: Small windows were a good compromise.
Light, more or less
My work on our town’s historical and architectural commissions involves me in the preservation of early houses, and it leads me to think about the features that early houses have that later ones do not, and that therefore define them as “early.” In one respect, at least, our first period houses here in Ipswich seem to me to be closer to these Atlas and Hebridean houses than to the houses built recently in upscale developments near the Route 1 side of town – far away from the historic area.
The size of windows is what I’m thinking of. Our first period houses, pre-1725, had small windows, not much larger than those in the houses in the Atlas and the Hebrides, though there were more of them: Our ratio of window to wall was higher than theirs, although much lower than in the houses that were to follow in the eighteenth through the twenty-first centuries. The ratio of window to wall is a pretty good yardstick for dating a house: The lower the earlier.
First period windows were not only small themselves: Most had small panes set in thick wooden muntins that further limited the amount of light they let inside. Light, as we shall see below, was a highly prized and highly priced commodity. As glass technology improved and could produce larger panes at affordable prices, the owners of first period houses enlarged their windows and fitted them with larger panes and thinner muntins. We call these windows “Georgian,” and putting them into first period houses was a key part of modernizing them (we often say “Georgianizing”) and making them look like second period “Georgian” houses which, of course, were built with these larger, more efficient windows in the first place.
And the process continued: Each architectural period favored windows with larger and fewer panes. The process has culminated, of course, in the huge, single-paned, plate glass windows available today.
So another yardstick in dating a house is the ratio of wood to glass in its windows: The lower the ratio, the later the house (not always, of course – Georgian windows with multiple, smaller panes were seen as “classy” even when larger panes were available, and they still are). But in general, the larger the panes and the thinner the muntins, the later the house. So the development of windows follows the trajectory of “more light, less weather.”
We’re talking here, of course, about natural, free light. But as any antiquer knows, devices for artificial, expensive light were among the most common domestic artifacts. I am deliberately making the contrast between free natural light and expensive artificial light, because it is difficult for us today to realize just how expensive artificial light was.
I’m no economist, but William Nordhaus of Yale University is. He published a study of the comparative cost of light over the centuries that really opened my eyes. According to him, if I use a fluorescent bulb to light our dining room for a two-hour dinner party, I would have to work just a tad more than half a second to pay for the electricity.
But Benjamin Franklin didn’t have it so good. If he’d thrown a similar dinner party, he would have worked for 10 hours and 40 minutes to pay for the light. No wonder he kept sending those kites up into thunderstorms looking for electricity!
You might guess where Nordhaus is taking me next – to ancient Babylon, more than 3,500 years ago. If I’d lived then, I don’t think I’d have held a dinner party at all: We would have eaten by lamplight and I would have worked for 82 hours to provide enough of it.
Now, I’ve no idea how William Nordhaus arrived at these astounding numbers, but I’m not going to doubt them – hey, he’s from Yale and I’m only from Ipswich — but they do shed light (sorry about that) on certain aspects of everyday life when our antiques were new.
They tell us why, for example, our forebears lit the activity, not the room in which it was performed. Lighting devices were portable so they could be moved close to the needlework, the desk or the card table. When you went to bed, you carried your light with you (in England there’s a type of candleholder known as a “go-to-bed”). You had to be very, very wealthy to light the room rather than the activity by using a non-portable device such as a chandelier.
Less directly, the economics of light explain the move from carved furniture to veneered. In low light (think small, first period windows) carving worked well – the designs were visible as highlights and shadows. But with more light (think large, Georgian windows) the decoration on furniture could be flat – veneers, inlays and so on. In the first period, delftware and shiny pewter served as decoration because they reflected the little light that was available: Later on, in better lit rooms, paintings and wall paper became the decorative norm.
And in the low, narrow houses of the Atlas Mountains and the islands of the Hebrides there was no decoration, because there was no light to see it, and, in a subsistence economy, no spare cash to waste on it. In our period of first settlement, the conditions were not quite as constraining, but we can see similarities in how people responded to them, particularly in the carved and molded woodwork, and portable lighting
In a world where we are made so conscious of the differences between peoples, it’s comforting to think about things that we have things in common with people far distant in place or time. Let there be light.
Place Matters - March 2017
As discoveries go, it was a pretty minor one. But the world of American antiques has been so thoroughly picked over that it seems that there’s nothing new to be discovered. Which is why I had such a warm feeling when I thought I’d identified something that nobody else had.
It’s a simple story: A real estate agent who specializes in period houses called me to see if I could help with some early furniture in a first period house she was trying to sell. It was close by, in Rowley, the next town to Ipswich, so of course I agreed. The owners had already moved into their new house and had no room for whatever was left in this one. The furniture I looked at was either undistinguished or large and in poor condition, so I was not able to give good news about its current market value.
“While you’re here,” said the agent as we turned to leave, “You should look at the parlor, it’s got some nice paneling.” That, it turned out, qualified as the understatement of the year. The room was beautifully paneled with vertical, raised panels and classical pilasters, but what really caught my eye was the best, or at least the second best, built-in cupboard that I’ve seen in New England.
The other cupboard (also best or second best, depending on how you cast your vote) is in a house here in Ipswich: I wrote about Abraham Knowlton, the man who made it, in our January, 2015, issue. His masterpiece work is a bombé pulpit that he made for the First Church here, but just as significant is a paneled room he fitted in the Captain Richard Rogers house, c. 1728. It is believed to be the earliest Georgian interior in Massachusetts. The most important wall is the one containing the fireplace. The raised panels over the fireplace are flanked by two stop-fluted classical pilasters, virtually identical to ones in the paneled room in Rowley. Outside the pilasters, in perfect symmetry, are two arched doors, one of which is a doorway, and the other opens to reveal a cupboard.
The Rowley cupboard is angled into the corner while the Ipswich one is flat against the wall, but apart from that the two match each other detail for detail, with only insignificant differences. The domed “shells” each have 12 flutes, whose open ends are treated identically. The central fan in the Ipswich cupboard is better carved, but the Rowley one is similar, and the internal stop-fluted pilasters are identical in both.
I could list more similarities, but the clincher for me was the treatment of the front edge of the shelves – exactly the same in both cupboards. These minor details are often the most telling “signatures”: If the Rowley cupboard had been carved by someone else who was copying Knowlton, he would have focused on getting the salient features right and would most likely have overlooked something as comparatively minor as the shelf edges. The same scratch-molding blade had been used on both cupboards.
I am confident, very confident in fact, that the same man paneled both rooms, and that that man was Abraham Knowlton of Ipswich. My serendipitous discovery has doubled our known oeuvre of interiors by Knowlton, which, I suppose, is worth something.
From first to second
Both interiors are important, not just because of the high woodworking skill required (those incurving, three-dimensional, domed shells are difficult to lay out on the raw timber and rely on the eye of the carver for their final form), but because they are the first signs of the shift from the first to the second period.
In first period houses, the massive post and beam framing was left visible, all lines were straight and all angles were 90 degrees. In the second period, all this was reversed: The structure was covered over by paneling, and curves were introduced as definitive features of the new “Georgian” aesthetic. This is a significant change: Timber wants to run straight; making it curve is expensive in time and money.
In the Georgian period, houses became expressive of the sophistication of their owners, who must have looked back on first period homes as primitive. The Ipswich house was built in the second period, so the parlor could be designed to accommodate the earliest and best “Georgian” wall in town. The Rowley house was built in the first period and Knowlton was hired to “Georgianize” it some 30 years later, so he had to make do with what was there. He had no opportunity to create a whole wall of perfect symmetry as in the Ipswich house, but he still did a great job.
In its place
The owners of the Rowley house had told the realtor that an antique dealer had made them a generous offer for the corner cupboard, but they refused because they thought that removing it would have spoiled the room. Whew, a narrow squeak – let’s lift our glasses to them for their good taste and good sense!
The story left me with an enormous sense of relief because it resonated with a feeling of mine that has strengthened markedly over the last few years: The feeling that an “antique in its place” has more going for it than one displaced into a museum or a collection. I wrote last month about the “Lummus” chairs that had started life in the Lummus house here in Ipswich. They had then been displaced, moving with members of the family who had left town, until one of the descendants offered to donate them to the Ipswich Museum. Of course, we jumped at the chance to re-place them in their native town (high on my agenda is to take them to the Lummus house and photograph them in their original location – antiques in their place). As chairs, they’re not that special, but returning them to their place is: They’ve come home, and they’re the better for it.
The museum has also just bought a sampler, signed “Lucy Davis Ae13 Ipswich mar 23 1794.” The sampler, again, is not outstanding in its own right, but re-placing it in the town where Lucy lived has given it a dimension of value that it would lack were it hanging on a wall in, say, Connecticut.
Lisa and I have also participated in a couple of re-placements. In an antiques shop in Portsmouth, N.H., Lisa came across a silver-topped cane inscribed “George Clark, 1698.” The dealer told her that it had come from Ipswich. When she got it home, we discovered that George Clark had not just lived in Ipswich – he had lived in our house in Ipswich! Well, actually he had lived in a house on the same lot that was taken down to make way for the new (1725) house in which we live – a shame in some ways, but at least we have the same fieldstone cellar! But, his cane has come home.
And then, more recently, I saw an ink wash by Arthur Wesley Dow that was listed in an auction catalog as “Ipswich.” I checked on it, and, lo and behold, it was actually a picture of our house! Today, Clark’s cane and Dow’s ink wash sit closely together in the house that they have in common, which is the house that we brought them home to, and which is the house that we come home to every day of our lives. I can’t really describe the feeling that that gives us, but it’s an enormously pleasurable and gratifying one.
As I said earlier, I’ve only become aware of the value of “antiques in their place” over the last few years: Some 50 years ago, when I first started collecting antiques in England, such an idea would never have entered my head. It must be part of my reaction to globalization: I don’t know and I don’t care where my iPad was made; its place of origin has nothing to do with its identity or with mine. It is a technological marvel of mind-blowing functionality, but that is all that it is. And that seems to be all that the world wants.
George Clark’s cane was once functional: Silver-topped canes were rare in Ipswich and he must have cut quite a figure as he strutted around town with it – I don’t think he limped so its function was social rather than physical, just like the introduction of curves into second period houses.
Today, his cane serves no social nor physical function: It is literally useless. All we do is look at it, and occasionally handle it. I’ve just had to get a new iPad because my old one became literally useless, but, my point is, who wants to own or look at a useless iPad? The uselessness of Clark’s cane, on the contrary, is no disqualifier because his cane has so much more to offer, especially now that it is back in its place.
There’s another reactionary experience involved here, too. An antique in its place forms a material connection between physical entities – the antique itself, its place, the people who owned it then and the people who own it now. That sort of material connection, a connection where we can stretch out our arms and let our fingers touch one another over the centuries, that sort of material connection provides a total antithesis to the digital world in which we live today. In our ubiquitous digitization we connect to places, people and things through images on screens and we never have to be in any particular place to make those connections. It’s all virtual, none of it is material. But you have to be in place to see either of Knowlton’s cupboards. You have to be in place to see the Lummus family chairs or Lucy’s sampler. And you have to be in our/his place to see George’s cane.
The quality of experiencing an antique in its place has become so important that I don’t care if only a handful of people can experience it. I have come to believe that Knowlton’s cupboard really should remain in its place in Rowley, even if only the friends and family of the owner can see it. It is there, that’s what matters, and it is better there than displayed (displaced) in, say, the MFA in Boston. Place matters.
February 2017 - Love and Money
Love and Money
This month, I’m going to act as your financial advisor. And I’m going to give you advice about buying a bicycle. Ok, I know that’s sent most of you off to watch Celebrity Apprentice or something, so will the three of you left please pull up your chairs and listen.
Of course, I wouldn’t dare give financial advice personally – I can hardly balance a check book. So I’m channeling Carl Richards, a guy who makes his living telling people the best way to spend and save their money. He knows what he’s talking about.
Now, personal finance is not usually at the top of my topics for pleasurable reading, but Carl’s headline caught my eye: “The Financial Benefits of Buying What You Love.” That immediately got my bells jingling; I’m an antiques collector after all. What Carl fell in love with 11 years ago, was a very expensive bicycle. The bike in question was made by Moots and back then it cost north of $5,000, many times more than any bike he had ever drooled over. Antiques collectors will sympathize with what happened next. He couldn’t get the bike out of his head, he did all sorts of comparison shopping, he looked at all sorts of bikes that he didn’t like, and, eventually, he pulled the trigger. The Moots bike was his.
What followed may also seem familiar: A feeling of buyer’s remorse that closely resembled terror, occasionally tinged with guilt that he had seriously overindulged and his comeuppance was bound to come soon. Actually, it didn’t. Actually he came to realize (he’s a financial guru, remember) that buying that ridiculously expensive bike was one of the best financial decisions he had ever made. The factors that led him to that conclusion are well worth thinking about – and they did not include the dream of many antiquers that their beloved purchase will increase in value and eventually enable them to retire to the Bahamas. Carl’s experience also contradicted the conventional financial advice: Buy cheaper, save more.
Carl is quite clear about the bottom line: He bought the bike he loved, and because he loves it, he’s kept for 11 years, and since he’s kept it for 11 years he uses it all the time. He calculates that it has saved him five other bikes. The guys he rides with (they’re a competitive bunch) ride carbon fiber bikes, which he calls “plastic,” and they update them every couple of years or so. Each time they sell a bike and buy another, they lose money.
Carl doesn’t. He bought a bike that has lasted 11 years and counting. The important point here is that his bike is lasting so well not just because it is well made, but because he loves it. He’s never tempted to look for one he likes better, because such a bike doesn’t exist – the newest design tweak means nothing to him. When you buy something cheap, he says, you get bored with it (now that’s a bit of wisdom that’s worth passing on to customers). It’s not just that cheap stuff wears out physically – it wears out imaginatively as well. His bike saves him money because he never gets bored with it. Buy an antique that you love and you’ll never again have to think about buying anything to replace it.
Last month in this column, I told you how I bought my first serious antique, a refectory table that that I fell in love with as I drove past it on the sidewalk outside a sale room. Of course, I bought it. Since then it’s been round the world with me and now it’s an integral and much loved part of our living room.
Carl thinks about his bike the way I think about my refectory table: “It’s beautiful…If you’re planning on having something for a long time, you’d better like looking at it. Any time I even consider looking at a new road bike, all I have to do is wash mine and see the beautiful welds, and I fall back in love again.” What I have to do here is substitute “polish” for “wash” and “beautiful dovetails” for “beautiful welds” and I know that Carl and I are on exactly the same page, even though I had never in my life imagined that a weld could be beautiful – my bad!
Carl’s conclusion may well underscore the vast difference between our tastes, but I know exactly how he feels: “When I’m done and can no longer ride my bike,” he writes, “it will hang above the mantle over my fireplace. That’s how much I love it. It’s a piece of art to me.”
It’s hard to think to two objets d’amour that are more different than a twenty-first-century bike and a seventeenth-century table (and even harder to think of hanging a refectory table over the fireplace). But that’s exactly the point. Carl and I understand each other perfectly: It’s not the object that matters, it’s your love for it.
Much though Carl and I have in common, he’s a financial guru so he thinks of things that I don’t. He tells of another cost-benefit of buying what you love. He calls it the “cognitive benefit.” “Buying things” he says, “is agonizing. The cognitive expense of switching, replacing and constantly thinking about whether you need a new bike or not has a cost associated with it, too.” That’s a cost he never has to bear. And nor do we antiques lovers. Because I know that I’ll never replace the refectory table that I bought for love some 50 years ago, I can look at other antique tables with genuine pleasure and zero cognitive expense. And I’m especially happy when I look at one and think, ‘It’s great. But I like mine better.’”
This cognitive cost is something we antiques lovers are faced with only if we buy cheap, only if we buy for price and not for love. Then we are stuck with something that we like, but don’t love, and when we see one that we like better, we will be faced with Carl’s “cognitive expense of switching, replacing and constantly thinking” about whether or not to replace it.
In other parts of my life, though, I’m all with Carl: The cognitive expense of wondering whether or not to buy a new car is so darned high that it drains my emotional bank account and leaves me stuck with my old car for yet another year. If only I could find a car that I loved and would last my lifetime…
Many, many years ago, when the market was booming, I used to urge dealers to persuade customers that buying a good antique was a wise financial decision, because in eight or 10 years they’d be able to sell it for more than they paid. In those days, that was actually true. And the consequence was that I never had to think beyond the monetary dimension of the investment.
I have to thank Carl for making me realize that the emotional investment in an antique is every bit as important as the monetary. I have to thank him for pointing out that love has a financial dimension. In fact, he takes me further than that: he argues that true love is always good finance: true love always reduces future costs. “Buy nice, or buy twice” as the saying goes: Buy for true love and you’re set for life; buy because you like it well enough and it’ll do the job, and you’ll be looking to replace it. Don’t even think about thinking of marriage here!
I suppose I’ve always known this, but I’ve never thought of it explicitly until Carl prompted me to. When a customer is hanging her nose over a special piece wondering if she can afford it, I have often reminded her that I’ve never had a customer come back complaining that they regretted buying something because it had cost more than they’d planned to pay. But I have had many a customer tell me that they regretted not buying something because at the time it seemed to be beyond their budget. They make me promise to tell them immediately if I get another one just like it: An easy promise to make, but almost impossible to keep – how often do we come across “another one just like it”?
The one big problem with the argument that I’m making, of course, is that I’m an old fart. The people who are driving the world today not only have no long-term view, they don’t want one. They don’t want things that will last them a lifetime; they want to be switching and replacing every couple of years – no cognitive cost involved. For them l’amour d’objet is a temporary and easily transferable emotion – I do hope they think of their spouses differently, but apparently, they’re waiting till later in life to get married, which, taking everything into account, I suppose is a good thing.
Anyway, let’s not get too worried about all these irritating millennials: We old farts have a history of hanging on and refusing to go away. And old habits die hard – dammit, I even have a first model of the iPad, and I’ve forgotten how old my phone is. If it still works, why change it? (Actually, truth be told, I see the ads for all the new phones and they scare the pants off me; they’re so much smarter than I am that I’d be terrified of one if I bought it!)
But damn the millennials: There are still enough good antiques to raise my heartbeat above normal; there are still enough antiques lovers for us to share our passions with one another; we still have shows, shops, auctions and websites stocked with good things to drool over and occasionally buy. We antiques lovers may be in a backwater, but if you don’t particularly like the mainstream, a quiet, beautiful and peaceful backwater is not the worst place in the world to be. But I’m still not going to hang my refectory table over the fireplace.
Ref: Carl Richards, “The Financial Benefits of Buying What You Love” New York Times, Dec. 21, 2015.
January 2017 - Historically thinking
I loved the talk, even though it was held in a barely heated carriage barn with a stone floor on a late November evening. I should have worn an extra pair of socks. There were between 90 and 100 people there, a pretty good turn out for a small town. I knew a good chunk of them, people from the museum, the Historical Commission and those whom I meet drinking coffee at Zumi’s. but there were a lot I didn’t know, which is always nice to see.
Oh yes – the talk that pulled us all together. It was called “Farming in the First Period” and it was given by my friend, Peter Cook. Peter and his wife Nancy now run Tareshirt Farm, using pre-industrial methods. By a clever and well-researched breeding program, Peter is recreating the cattle and swine that the first settlers brought over with them. During his career, he’s been chief curator at Plimoth Plantation where he revitalized the farming program, a co-curator of New England Begins at the MFA…the list could go on and on: But my point is that there nobody who knows more about first period farming than Peter, so it’s no wonder that he held 100 listeners in the palm of his hand – cold feet notwithstanding.
History and antiques
I was enjoying the fact that I live in a town where so many people are interested in local history, when it suddenly hit me like a douche of cold water: To the best of my knowledge, Peter and I were the only people in the room who collected antiques. I’m both a historian and an antiques dealer/collector, and I like to think of my two sides as being joined at the hip. It seems so obvious that one should overflow into the other: History and antiques, antiques and history, history in material culture. But, I wondered, were Peter and I the only ones to make that interconnection? Not many other people seem to, and nowadays it seems rarer than ever.
As I was turning this over in my mind, another thought struck me. As antiques dealers, 20 or 25 years ago we exhibited frequently at charity benefit antiques shows. They were invariably run by a committee of well-heeled, usually older, women who not only supported the charity, but also supported the dealers. They collected or furnished with antiques so they all bought something at the show as a matter of course. And that could give us dealers a durned good start.
Aaah, the good old days! That practice has steadily declined, and now it’s a rarity to find a committee member who buys at the show. They’re more interested in the decorations and the parties than the antiques. It’s not quite the same disconnect as love-history-but-ignore-antiques, but it’s sort of parallel. People who are, for part of their lives at least, directly involved with antiques don’t want to live with them.
Larger museums show this even more clearly than little local ones like ours. Take New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, (which, despite its name is a museum of antiques and antiquities). It gets nearly 7,000,000 visitors a year – no shortage of interest in history. Now, if one in ten, or even one in a hundred, of those history-interested museum-goers actually collected antiques, our business would be booming. Is it?
Now of course, supporting the antiques business is not the only reason to learn history, though I do hear antiques dealers attributing their problems in part to the decline in history teaching in schools. Our Ipswich Museum runs excellent history programs for local schools, and we certainly can’t measure their success by how many of those kids grow up to collect antiques. The Museum is also a popular attraction for visitors to the town, but when I was a docent leading tours of the Whipple House, I very rarely had a comment or a question from someone who was an active collector.
I’m beginning to come to the reluctant conclusion that there is no necessary connection between loving history and collecting antiques. In fact, in my more cynical moments, I wonder if museum-going isn’t basically similar to tourism. The tourist is fascinated by what he sees, but he wouldn’t like to live there. And I’m sure that visitors to the American Wing at the Met are fascinated by what they see, but equally, they wouldn’t like to live there. They want to come home to their familiar surroundings, with just a gallery of pictures on their phones to remind them of all the exotic thigs that they saw. And, who knows, they might joyfully put some of them on Pinterest. Whoopee!
I’m quite sure that there are more reasons than I can think of here for this modern disconnect between history and antiques. But I bet one of them is the influence of interior designers and shelter magazines – a particular bugbear of mine. It’s not just that designers and shelter magazines have no interest in the past – though they might dip into it to rescue an antique whose look they happen to have a use for because it happens to match a pillow; it’s not just that they can’t keep their minds on anything but the present and the immediate future; it’s not just that their business model depends upon their design creations going out of date within five years so they will be re-employed to design another short-term layout; it’s not just that…I must hold myself in check, or I’ll never get to the deficiency that I want to highlight here.
The design world is interested in what everyone else is doing, it wants its “new” designs to echo everyone else’s – just to be a little bit “better.” What that world does not want is that the interiors it designs should be attuned to the personalities and tastes of the people who live in them. Because, heaven forbid, a collector’s personal tastes may not mesh with those of her neighbors, in fact, I can pretty well guarantee that they won’t. And, equally forbidden by the heaven of designers, a collector’s tastes don’t change every five years with the prevailing fashion: They last for a very long time, possibly a lifetime. And while the visual appeal of an antique is very important to collectors, that appeal is simply the visible element of something much deeper – it is where the history, identity and authenticity of an antique are made apparent. The visual appeal is far from the be-all and end-all of an antique as it is with a design object.
I’m reminded of the first serious antique I ever bought. I had been hired to give two-day seminar to a bunch of engineers on how to write technical reports. The seminar was to be held some 70 miles away, which on English roads in an ancient English Ford Anglia (painted teal blue, if I remember correctly) was actually quite a trek. So I set out in good time. In one of the country towns through which I drove, there was an auction slated for that evening and some of the lots had been set out on the sidewalk to catch peoples’ attention. One of them caught mine, and I stamped on the brake, which brought the car to a slow, juddering halt. It was a seventeenth-century refectory table with a single-board elm top and an oak base. It spoke to me, we immediately formed a bond, and I had no choice but to leave a bid on it. My bid was my fee for giving the seminar.
On my way home, I stopped to see if I’d been successful: I had. The table was mine. And so was the problem of getting it home. The helpful auctioneer came up with some sacks and a large ball of baling twine. We spread the sacks on the roof of the car, lifted the table upside down onto them, and I spent half an hour constructing a spider’s web of twine, so that my precious table couldn’t move an inch in any direction. I had to slide into the car through the driver’s window. I then started the drive home, which was not made easier by the fact that the table weighed at least as much as the car, that the car’s suspension was so ancient as not to deserve the name, and that English country roads twisted and turned like serpents. A nail-biting experience.
Anyway, we made it home, and that table has stayed with me ever since, traveling to Australia, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Vermont and now Ipswich. It’s actually not very convenient to eat at, and no designer would ever pick it out – but then I would never hire a designer to tell me what I wanted in my house. As far as I know, no antiques collector ever allows a designer to have any say in how she lives. Designers focus on finding the piece for that place: For collectors, the problem is finding a place, any place, for the piece that they must have. My problem with the table has never been what it looked like, but where to put it. We’ve always found a place. Of course we have: We’re collectors not designers.
There are two histories attached to this table. There’s the history of the table itself, the signs of thousands of feet on the stretchers, the knife and chopper marks on the top, made when it was relegated to the kitchen from the hall – and so on. Then there is the history of the table-and-me. Each of those histories supports and enriches the other.
The designer sees no history at all. The museum-goer-as-tourist sees one history only, that of the object, and lives in a society that provides her with no motivation to discover how the object-history and her personal-history can mean so much more if she brings them together. In most cases that possibility is a non-starter.
Studies show, horror of horror, that we modern Americans want homogeneity: We are more and more inclined to live in neighborhoods populated by people like us, and we are moving away from the countryside and into the city – where this homogenization is more effective. Designers are agents of homogenization so cities and suburbs are where they thrive. Cities are becoming enclaves of similarity.
Today, the nourishing habitat of traditional antiques is the country, not the city. Thank heaven that there are still enough of us antiques collectors to buck the trend, to oppose homogenization, and to celebrate that part of ourselves, our society and our history that makes us different. We’ll always lash that table to the top of the car because we know it’s different from every other, and because that difference is ours. Vive la différence.
‘In My Opinion’ Archives 2016
December 2016 - Millennial Musings
I’ve read a couple of pieces recently about how Millennials think about furniture. They both contain bad news for those of us who want to sell antique furniture to younger people. Basically, they are telling us “Fruitless enterprise!”
Millennials, apparently, have little interest in owning anything; indeed market researchers call them “NOwners.” A start up called Furlenco (Furniture Lending Co., get it?) has just raised $30 million to rent furniture to them. Furlenco recites the now familiar refrain that Millennials prefer experience to things. Millennials travel a lot and change jobs, so ownership’s impractical.
The company has 15 in-house designers who, with changing ownership in mind, work on of-the-moment pieces that last but can be easily refurbished. The team is designing reclining chairs that have replaceable seats that can be swapped out in a snap, for example. They must look brand new for the next renter.
People used to dream of growing up and acquiring a bunch of stuff. Now, it seems, dreams are different and millennials prize experience. For a globally connected generation whose only constant is change, permanence is burdensome—and that includes furniture.
The same day as I read about Furlenco, I read about Ikea’s new advertising campaign. Summing it up, Miguel Sahagun, assistant professor of marketing at High Point University, said, “The messages they’re using, they perfectly align with the way Millennials, and some Generation X people, think about furniture and goods,” he said. “It’s about the experience.”
Because of this, he explained, advertisements that play down the actual products can be surprisingly effective. There we have it again: Experience over things. Don’t advertise that Sheraton card table, communicate the experience of playing poker at it.
The Ikea messages that the good professor was referring to are ads that show vignettes of family life in a post-recession world where the living may be hard, but Ikea furniture is always in the background.
One vignette, for example, shows a father tiptoeing from a crib in a bedroom and settling with his wife on a folding bed in the living room: The couple has given up the sole bedroom to their baby. Another shows a living room where a man who is surrounded by file boxes and paperwork nods off on the sofa. You get the idea – the ads focus on how people experience life today, particularly the less well off, and make the furniture incidental to the experience.
In the antiques business
Now all this is diametrically opposed to the traditional way the antiques business sells furniture, or other antiques for that matter. We are (almost) totally object-centered. Dealer and auction ads consist exclusively of pictures of objects. Ads for shows, however, often do illustrate the experience – we do sometimes see people milling in the aisles or lining up at the gate. They do hint, at least, at the experience of attending the show, not just the objects within it.
Experience over things. Well yes, we all know that the experience of living with antiques is not only pleasurable, it is one that most of us cannot do without. The problem is how to communicate that experience to the new buyer – the experienced collector needs no reminder, she already feels it every day of her life. For the collector, turning the table upside down and examining every square inch of its underside is a necessary and enjoyable experience; for the newer buyer, however, it may be discouraging; and for Millennials it is probably the ultimate turnoff: They have zero interest in investing that amount of knowledge into something that they will probably move on from in a year or two, they can see no point in paying that amount of attention to something that they assume will never be more than incidental in their life (a false assumption in my opinion – see below).
It may be worth asking ourselves what it is that we are looking for with our close inspection of surfaces that the maker never expected to merit such intense scrutiny? In general, what we are looking for is authenticity – the evidence that the object is as old as it purports to be and that it has had no restoration and minimal, preferable no, repairs. It is basically in the condition in which it left the cabinetmaker’s shop – with one proviso: It should have acquired “patina,” the unmistakable and almost unreplicable effects of age and use. It looks old, not new, but old in a way that is unique to antiques, a way that allows us to talk with straight faces about original finish and original condition, when we mean patinated and aged, not original.
But anyway, it’s a far cry from Furlenco designing furniture that can be made to look brand spanking new after each owner has done with it. “Old is good” is not, as far as I can tell, an epigram that resonates with Millennials. “Authenticity” is a head-scratcher to those who have no concept of the inauthentic. That Furlenco armchair is new, despite the fact that it’s had multiple owners already.
We don’t have to turn an antique upside down to talk about its historical presence. An antique does not just tell us about the past, it embodies that past in the present: It allows us to experience the past every time we use it or look at it. Hmm, I used the word “experience;” are we getting closer to what Millennials want? Sadly, I don’t think so. There’s no evidence that they want to experience the past, especially when it’s telling them that the way they live now is not the only way for human beings to live. That’s what my wainscot chair tells me whenever I sit in it or see it, and it’s a very salutary lesson to experience: If I thought that the way we live today was the only way to live, I’d become a total misanthrope and retire to a cave – and there’s no fun in that.
In my writing and in my dealing, I do make some attempt to present antiques as objects that carry an experience with them. It is an experience of historical difference, but also of social difference. Instead of bemoaning the fact that antiques are now even more a minority taste than they used to be, I celebrate it. For me, the mainstream of our society has so many unattractive features, that I’m happy to identify myself as a member of a minority who likes, sells and writes about things that lie way outside the mainstream.
Antiques do more than bring the values of a historically different society into my house; they bring the social difference between me and those who are satisfied with Furlenco and Ikea. I thrive on the experience of that difference.
But as dealers, what can we do? Well, I’m going to sit it out. The Millennials will eventually grow out of their anti-thing stupidity. From our shift away from nomadic societies to settled agrarian ones, human beings have always surrounded themselves with things. Originally these things may have been mainly functional, but very quickly our forebears wanted their things to be beautiful as well. Even the earliest pots and baskets show traces of decoration, and I’m willing to bet their stools and tables did as well. Beautiful things may make our lives functionally more efficient, but they also surround us with reminders that we are more than functional survivalists, we are linguists, artists and symbolists who value things that point us toward a humanity that is wider and deeper than the functions they perform. Beautiful things affirm our humanity. Millennials are going to have to overcome millennia of human creativity if they are to marginalize the importance of things in our lives. And of course, I mean the right things, things that are well designed and well decorated – as I’ve said before in this column, an antique always performs a function, but it does so beautifully.
So, when will the long-awaited maturation of the Millennial actually occur? Not before their mid-40s, and maybe not till they are 50 or 50+. In our own business, Lisa and I have a slow, but steady stream of new buyers who, as far as I can tell, are middle-aged, broadly and tactfully defined. There are still enough mature people in America to sustain an, admittedly smaller, antiques business. Consequently, I have no desire to waste my imagination or marketing dollars upon the so-called “young collector.” Now, I fully recognize and applaud those who deal in antiques that do touch the millennial taste, and they may well hold the future of our business in their hands. But I’m an old fart, and I can’t do what they do. For me, “young collector” is an oxymoron: If they’re young they don’t collect, and if they collect, they’re not young.
Which is a perfectly fine state of affairs. Numerically, the Millennials are the largest generation – there are more of them even than baby boomers. There is this huge new market about to open up to us as Millennials mature into human beings and realize that good things make for a good life. And when they reach this realization, I’ll b
In My Opinion
The past is the future
Why won’t it die? That was the question asked by the New York Times (9/30/16) about midcentury design. The paper went back to a 1998 issue in which it noted a “new design trend.” To be cool in that year, you had to toss out shabby chic (remember that – I do, with horror!) together with wrought-iron beds and funky candles, all sourced through thrift shops and flea markets. The hot trend was Midcentury Modern, and the heat has not yet dissipated. Just look at 1sdtdibs.com.
No modern design trend has lasted this long, and the NYT asked a range of designers for their thoughts. The paper didn’t ask me, but I do have some ideas about the question, and before I get to theirs, I’m going to run through mine.
The last antique?
Midcentury Modern is, I believe, the last design period that meets the criteria of being antique. It speaks its period with unrivalled clarity. It is the style of its time, and it’s a style within which numerous designers could produce original works; not unlike the Queen Anne style in Colonial America. Importantly, more than any other design period, midcentury style was married to new technology and materials.
The critical new technology was machine molding that could produce previously unattainable shapes, first in plywood and then in plastics and other compounds. The new materials were primarily the result of advances in metallurgy, particularly thin, strong tubular forms that could bear loads that previously required much thicker members. The new tech and new materials enabled the style while the style pushed the new tech and materials to their limits.
The heat-molding of plywood was developed in WWII, where its combination of strength and lightness made it ideal for products that had to be flown to American troops all around the globe. One of its earliest uses was making light, strong leg-splints for wounded soldiers – now very collectible. When one is unaware of their original function, they actually resemble three-dimensional abstract art and look great either as a free-standing sculpture or as wall art.
But the attractive look of wartime design was, of course, secondary. Wartime design was necessarily serious; its function was what mattered. But by the 1950s, America has shaken itself free from the grave purposefulness of war. The nation felt free, happy and on top of the world. Midcentury Modern was well-adapted to this sense of cheerful wellbeing. A playful aesthetic re-formed and freed-up the design possibilities of the technologies and materials now available for peace-time use. At its best, Midcentury Modern provides the perfect combination of art and industry.
This combination was most apparent and most productive in furniture and the timing could not have been better. The troops returning home made the 1950s the decade of house building, the decade when the suburban family flourished in the suburban house, and the decade when there was enough prosperity to furnish the house with stylish appliances and furniture. The decade was, in fact, the perfect storm of technology, design and life-style.
While the 50s could well be described as the American decade, they continued what many Americans had experienced so vividly in the war: The sense that America is not alone, that it has deep links with the rest of the world, Europe in particular. The fact that midcentury design was as much European as American was, I think, another reason why it felt, and still feels, so satisfying. American, Italian, Finnish and Scandinavian designers were all singing the same tune. The style continued international alliances that had been forged in war but were now meaningful in peace.
All this, I think, underlies the reason that midcentury design has lasted so well. Crucially, the style has more to offer than visual appeal alone, even though that appeal has been produced by great designers such as Arne Jacobson, Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, Mies van der Rohe and Florence Kroll, to mention only a few. Its appeal goes much deeper than the merely visual: The style is solidly grounded in history and in its social context, both national and international. Its undeniable visual strength has solid footings; it is not just free-floating form. Like any antique style, midcentury design is not just rooted in its period, it carries that period with it into the present: It reminds us that we have a past as well as a future – and in so doing it contradicts what so many other contemporary products are telling us.
But unlike many other antiques styles (and this may be why so many antiques aficionados dislike it so much) midcentury modern makes itself easily accessible. It does not yell out that you need a developed sense of connoisseurship to appreciate it: It is welcoming and inclusive. Perhaps traditional antiques are a tad jealous of it – they wish they had its breadth and ease of appeal.
Design and ‘the look’
OK, so now it’s time for me to turn to the interior designers and their comments about midcentury design to the NYT. The first thing to point out is that they are far from unanimous in its favor. Some designers said things like “When this stuff was designed, it was specifically made to be democratic and to be lived with,” or “Simplicity is universal and understood by everybody, whereas the Baroque and Rococo take a person who appreciates fantasy.”
But then others opined “You do get bored,” or “I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread and now I’m tired of it. I’m also tired of skinny legs controlling a room.” (As a dealer in heavy-legged oak furniture, I love that last opinion. There’s not a skinny leg in our shop!)
All the comments were about the appearance of midcentury design, particularly its appropriateness to the current move back to city living – it is ideal for furnishing a loft where space is at a premium. These were designers, for heaven’s sake, so I shouldn’t allow my impatience with people who are simply concerned with looks to do bad things to my blood pressure. We do, after all, live in the age of the look. “Look what I look like” is the appeal of the selfie.
But if the look stops at the surface, it is all but valueless, whether you’re looking at an antique, a cell phone or a real person. Midcentury design, as I’ve just argued, has depth as well as surface. That’s also why I called it the last antique. The 70s, 80s and 90s had no design that embodied their essence. If you tell someone that you have a 1980s armchair they will not be able to visualize it, as they would if you’d told them it was from the 1950s. I have a good idea of what midcentury architecture looks like, but no idea of the architecture of the 1990s. Do you?
And herein lies some good news. If my arguments here are valid, then the reason that Midcentury Modern is still hot is because no one has been able to find a subsequent style that has depth under the surface. Looking for what lies behind and underneath the look is the mindset of the antiques collector.
“I’m completely over it,” one designer said of Midcentury Modern, “I roll my eyes…Oh my gosh. Enough!” “Your eye does get bored,” said another. Now if the people with the mindset of the antiques collector are getting bored with midcentury design, the only place for them to go is back. Anecdotally, I’ve received some confirmation of this. Over the past few years a number of people have commented to me that their taste is moving away from modern furniture and they are starting to think that antiques might suit them better. One specifically told me that she liked our early oak furniture because it seemed informal and easy to live with, and it was much more interesting than the modern stuff she was currently living with (incidentally, she has never come back and bought anything).
But my point is that there are people out there who want what antiques can offer – an attractive look that has history and society behind it. Now, these are not young people. The young today seem to be perfectly satisfied with the look-with-no-depth. But tastes change with maturity – think of the food and the drink you consumed when you were in college! In my maturity, I want food that does more than fill my belly, I want drink that does more than give me a buzz, and I want my house to be furnished with things that are more than mere furniture.
I’ve been hearing good things from dealers recently. Their shows have been better, there are new signs of energy in the business and even antique furniture has started moving again. At our most recent show, we sold four pieces of furniture – I can’t remember how long ago it was that we did that. Now it may be a long stretch to link these signs of increasing activity to the signs of increasing boredom with midcentury design. But I wouldn’t discount it. To turn this dissatisfaction with the modern to our advantage, the first thing we have to do is to run around the designers. Designers are always looking for the next style: We want customers who are looking for the best style, and who don’t care if they have to go back a few centuries to find it. They’re out there: We need to go and find them and, even more importantly, we need to make it easy for them to find us.
In My Opinion
Archeology has occupied a good chunk of my brain space recently. Antiques and archeological finds are in essence things that have been left behind: Time has moved on past them, yet they have survived – sometimes intentionally, sometimes randomly. This randomness is an interesting difference between them: With antiques, there’s always a selection process involved – someone has always decided what is, and what is not, worth preserving. Antiques are biased toward the best.
Not so with archeology. One of the most enjoyable books on historical archeology is In Small Things Forgotten by James Deetz. Historical archeology, by the way, is archeology from periods for which there is documentary history as well, and matching the archeology artifact with the appropriate documentation is one of the most valuable and enjoyable things that antiques scholars and archeologists do.
But sometimes, even in historical archeology, there is no documentation because people at the time didn’t think something was worth recording. Deetz, as a result, spends a lot of his time in what may euphemistically be called “waste pits,” because that’s where people discarded things that were broken or no longer needed. The depths at which he found broken clay pipes, for instance, enabled him to date them. In studying his finds more closely, he discovered that the internal diameter of the stem changed consistently over time. As a result, we now have a method of dating clay pipes that would not have been available to us without archeological research – nobody at the time, of course, thought that the internal diameter of a pipe stem could have possibly been worth documenting.
Deetz also found, to take another example, that bent or broken table forks did not commonly show up in waste pits until well into the eighteenth century, which enabled him to conclude that, in general, Americans were far later than Europeans in using forks at table.
Similarly, no one thought it worthwhile to record the contents of a nineteenth-century tavern for later historians to draw upon, but archeologists found a pretty good record of the china and cutlery that had been used in Williamsburg’s Wetherburn Tavern – and where did they find it? In the nests of the tavern’s rats. Without those rats and the archeologists who interpreted the fragments they collected, we might never have known that a dictionary was included among the tavern’s contents. Hmmm, good for a thought or two, as well as for bedding.
Even more than antiques collectors, archeologists are detectives. Antiques collectors generally deal with complete objects, not fragments: The reverse is the case for archeologists. They study the random fragments that have been left behind, and from these clues they attempt to reconstruct a much larger picture of how people in the past actually lived.
Archeology and history
All of this was going through my mind as I was preparing “Buildings Archaeology” for publication in this month’s issue. It was also going through my mind as I acted as a participant observer in the drawdown of water held behind the Ipswich Mills Dam, here in the center of town.
I need to step back for a moment and explain. In 1637, only three years after the town was founded, Richard Saltonstall, son of Sir Richard Saltonstall, one of the settlers of Ipswich, was granted the right to build and operate the first gristmill in town. He built a dam to power it at the Upper Falls, a series of rocky rapids rather than a vertical waterfall, which provided one of the earliest crossing points of the Ipswich River. The dam he built was most likely a crib dam, one of the earliest forms of dam, which consisted of an open wooden framework filled with rocks and soil. The obvious advantage of a crib dam was that you could build it while the river kept flowing naturally.
The river bank beside the dam later became known as Mill Garden because of the many types of mills located there over the subsequent years – gristmills, fulling mills, sawmills, bark mills, a scythe mill and a hemp mill.
The industrial era, which began in Ipswich in 1827, required a more powerful dam to drive industrial-sized mills. So a new stone dam was completed in 1829 to power a textile mill for the Ipswich Manufacturing Co. The mill changed hands in 1868 and changed its name to The Ipswich Mills Co., and it became the largest manufacturer of hosiery in the country. The use of water power for the mill may have continued until at least the 1970s (we don’t know exactly) and since then the dam has been a historical relic – decorative but not useful.
As you probably know, there is a national movement to remove non-functioning dams and restore rivers to their natural condition, much to the delight of fish and other wildlife. I am on a committee to study the feasibility of removing our historic dam and the temporary drawdown was part of the effort to study the natural flow and water level of the Ipswich River.
It may be a tad surprising that something as large as a dam is not well documented, but the records of ours are very patchy. As a result, people have misread some of the clues in order to fill in the gaps. To take an example: It had long been believed that just upstream of the current industrial dam was a rocky ledge extending three-quarters of the way across the river. This ledge was the main natural component of the Upper Falls and was thought to have laid a couple of feet below the surface of the pond formed by the dam. It was believed that this ledge was the base upon which the crib dam was built. The belief in the ledge arose after probing with iron bars hit something solid. The probing provided a clue that was quite logically interpreted. Quite logically, but erroneously. For when the water was drawn down, what was exposed was not a natural ledge, but the remains of a dam, presumably the crib dam built by Richard Saltonstall. The probes had hit a dam, not a ledge.
Now there is no documentary record of Saltonstall actually building a dam. We do have a record of him being granted the right to build a grist mill – which would have needed a dam, and a dam at that time and that place would almost certainly have been a crib dam. These suppositions have now been validated: There actually was a crib dam at this location, but there was not a ledge just under the surface of the pond.
A crib dam had to be built on something solid, and when engineers probed through its newly uncovered rocks they met a “consistent refusal” (I love that technical term) about five feet down. This “consistent refusal” is now thought to be the ledge that was correctly assumed to have been there all along, but, incorrectly, to have been much closer to the surface.
To my mind, this archeological correction actually provides a more compelling, as well as a more accurate, history. To build a dam on this ledge as deep as this was no small undertaking: Saltonstall certainly had his work cut out for him.
Our drawdown took the water down to within about 12 inches above its level in Saltonstall’s time, and the ledge was four feet below that. His dam needed to be four feet high just to reach the surface, and at least two or three feet above that to hold back enough water to power a water wheel. I have no idea how wide a six- or seven-foot high crib dam had to be, but surely it must have been at least four feet. The river is 200 feet wide at this point, so Saltonstall’s crib dam must have required about 5,000 cubic feet of rock and soil. And all of it had to be carted and piled into the crib by hand and small boat – possibly ox carts at low tide? Wow!
It’s a wonderful example of just how hard the first settlers labored to establish a livable town. It makes sense that a grist mill should have been one of the first non-residential structures: The very first, of course, was the Meeting House – always feed the spirit before the flesh – but, as they sat through sermon after sermon, the womenfolk must have given heartfelt thanks that they no longer had to grind all the town’s flour by hand.
The dam is also a good example of early entrepreneurial capitalism. A miller was entitled to one sixteenth of the flour that he milled, and Saltonstall was obviously confident that this would pay off the huge capital investment in the dam and the mill. In fact, Saltonstall was too successful a capitalist: By the 1670s the townsfolk were complaining that he was exploiting his monopoly, so in 1681, the town granted permission for a Mr. Wade to establish a competing mill.
History tells us that Saltonstall’s crib dam (probably enlarged and reinforced – a logical but undocumented supposition) powered a variety of mills on both sides of the river for nearly 200 years. The mills have been documented, and have disappeared: There is almost no documentation of the dam but its remains are still here. We need archeology as well as history, and I got to pretend to be an archeologist for an afternoon! I enjoy the photograph at the top of this page: It shows the remains of our previously undiscovered 1637 dam running up to the nineteenth-century factory that its successor no longer powers. These factory buildings now house EBSCO, the largest electronic publisher in the country. Today, of course, it’s digital work that provides the grist to the mill.
After the drawdown: The remains of the presumed 1637 crib dam are newly exposed. On the right is the 1827 industrial dam.
September 2016 - Good Things
Lisa and I emerged into a meh sort of afternoon – into what the meteorologists call a “marine layer.” The temperature was OK, and there was a fine mist that you didn’t notice when walking but needed your wipers when you were in the car. The sort of summer day that’s not uncommon on the coast. Nothing to affect my mood one way or the other, yet I felt good, very good.
We’d just spent a couple of hours in the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester, Mass. It had just completed a major refurbishment: It was bright, clean and airy with not too many other people wandering around – perfect museum-going conditions.
The museum has a large collection of the painter Fitz Henry Lane (1804–1865), a Gloucester artist whom I vaguely knew by name and reputation, but to whom I’d never paid much attention. That changed immediately we walked into the first gallery, and the second, and the third…. Typically, Lane’s paintings had a meticulously detailed foreground beyond which were ships in harbor or close to the shore. And everything was suffused with a clear, bright light that somewhere on the canvas became truly luminous. Fascinating and very beautiful.
I’m a bit of a museum-rat: I love them. It’s partly that local museums give me glimpses of American life long before I was alive to witness it; other, more metropolitan, museums do the same for cultures that I could never have experienced. They put me in touch with the past or the distant – often both at the same time. In an age like ours when isolationism is in the air, that is a very necessary thing to do. Right here and right now, we can get pleasure from objects that were made by people who lived in different times or places. The objects connect us.
As we drove home both the wipers and my brain were on intermittent. I wasn’t exactly asking myself why I felt so good as Lisa and I stood on the sidewalk outside the museum, but it slowly dawned on me that the uplift to my spirits was the direct result of having spent a couple of hours surrounded by the good things human beings have done. Just at the moment I hardly dare turn on the TV or clip on a newspaper on my iPad – we seem to be swamped by really, really bad things that human beings have done and keep on doing. I know that good news doesn’t sell papers, so this is a negatively selective sample, but nonetheless…
A museum contradicts the media. A museum is a living affirmation that human beings can do really, really good things. No wonder I felt good.
Egos and communities
Let me change tack for a moment. Many museums are in poor shape financially. In New York, the Met is having to lay off 300 staff – despite its nearly 7,000,000 visitors a year (suggested entrance donation: $25). That’s not enough, so they rely on donations or membership dues from people like Lisa and me. But that’s not enough either. People like me are in the shrinking middle classes, and we’re neither numerous enough nor rich enough to keep the Met solvent.
But there’s a completely different set of donors from a completely different class – the superrich. Currently, the superrich are obsessed with contemporary art. In an attempt to snag them, the Met recently opened its own museum of contemporary art the multimillion dollar Met Breuer. By doing so, it added $17 million a year to the budget, despite estimates of a $10 million shortfall (NYT 7/22/16).
Unlike Lisa and me, the superrich don’t want to support the display of objects that uplift our spirits: Probably they’re in no need of uplift. What they want is their names in huge letters on the fronts of huge buildings. The brand new Broad Museum in Los Angeles was financed by Eli and Edythe Broad and is housed in a stunning building estimated to have cost $140 million. Above the entrance is the name by which it will be known, “The Broad.” In the NYT, art critic Ben Davis, has coined the term “ego-seums.”
When I pay my membership dues to a small local museum, like the one here in Ipswich, or to a national one like the Met in New York, I become part of a community of like-minded people for whom a nation without museums would not be a nation of human beings, but a vast corporation of economic entities – a nation where a person’s value is measured by his or her economic contribution.
In the museum world, the difference between the interests of wealthy individuals and the community of small members and visitors can have serious repercussions. Super donors are not interested in contributing to the running costs because there’s nowhere to put their name. Yet it is those running costs that enable people like me to be uplifted by my fellow human beings, wherever and whenever they lived. In fact, their new, self-branded buildings increase the running costs and so make it harder for museums to cater to people like me – and you, and you, and you…
The name-brand museums are naturally attracted to major metropolitan cities, because cities have the vast quantities of people, inhabitants and visitors, without whom a brand can’t brand. Smaller, local museums are dependent solely on smaller, local communities for their support, and they’re too small for a brand to work. Through our memberships, Lisa and I give the same amount of money to the Ipswich Museum as we do to the Met, and probably we should give more. The local is threatened, and those of you who read me regularly know how highly I value the local. But we get immeasurable pleasure from what is inside the Met, and that is where we focus our contributions, not on its expansive new buildings.
Allow me to rant for a moment. With MoMA and the Whitney as its flagships, New York already has superb museums of contemporary art, and I’m not at all sure that it needs another, particularly when the main purpose of the new one, the Met Breuer, is to compete with the others for donors – for donors, not for art! Give me a break.
Back to the local
OK, rant finished. Our local Cape Ann Museum did my spirits good. I truly connected with things that Fitz Henry Lane had done. The occasional painting of his does hang in a national museum, but only a local museum would hang a score of them. There’s something self-effacing about Fitz Henry Lane: He wants you to understand exactly what the figures in the foreground are doing, he wants you to empathize with their lives. He wants you to see how the ships connect their world to the much larger one, and he wants the luminosity in the sky to connect that world to a larger, more spiritual one. He doesn’t want you to think about Fitz Henry Lane – isn’t that refreshing!
Lane was a stickler for accuracy, as you’ll see in the painting here. He sailed on boats, he knew them inside out, and every cord and every spar in the rigging of every one of his ships is exactly as it is in real life. The man gutting the fish that he’d just landed from the dory pulled up behind him was doing in the painting exactly what he did in his life. And the customer (wholesaler?) was pointing with his cane in exactly the way he always did when he bought fish. Lane’s meticulous realism was designed to take the artist out of the picture and to entice the viewer to see and connect with the way of life that he had transferred to the canvas.
What an old-fashioned type of art! How incredibly boring and unimaginative! In contemporary art, all we are meant to connect with is the artist himself – look, that’s a Jackson Pollock, look that’s a Francis Bacon. It’s the big, brand-named individual artist who draws the attention and the money. Are you surprised to the slightest degree that the superrich, self-branded individuals are obsessed with the supersized, self-branded artists?
Actually I mustn’t do Fitz Henry Lane or the contemporary art market an injustice here. Lane is widely regarded as one of the most important marine artists of the nineteenth century. I’m far from untypical in admiring his work, and I assume that others are like me in seeing his work as a powerful antithesis to what’s currently going on in the art world. Certainly, a collector or institution valued him highly enough to pay $5.5 million for his Manchester Harbor in 2004 (a record for his work) at Skinner in Boston.
But he is still local. Walk a few steps down the hill from the Cape Ann Museum, and you’re at the Gloucester Harbor that he so frequently painted. Take a short drive and you’re at Manchester Harbor. The museum has such a stunning collection of Lane’s works not because he’s a nationally admired artist, but because he’s a local one. He takes himself out of the picture and fills it with local people and local settings, which is what his local customers wanted to see as they moved around their houses.
A century and a half later, I can see what they saw. I can share really, really good things with Lisa standing beside me in the gallery and with unknown people who lived generations before me. That’s why we need museums: Local, national and international. In the modern world, the media are necessary, but equally necessary are museums and collections of antiques and conserved landscapes: we really need the incontrovertible evidence that human beings can do really good things. That’s why I felt so good, standing on the damp sidewalk just outside the museum door.
In My Opinion
Bored beyond belief on the Massachusetts Turnpike, my mind wandered idly around things that had interested me recently. Three drifted up to the top: Nehemiah Bull’s desk (see our cover and p.34); our recent vacation in the Hebrides (See “In My Opinion,” July 2016); and Brexit (see everywhere and anywhere). It slowly dawned on me that, vastly different though they are, there’s a common theme running through all of them.
We live in an age of globalization, and many of us reap enormous benefits from it. But not all of us do, and not all of the time. Not by any means. Much of the appeal of Nehemiah’s desk is the way that it turned its back on the global influences of the day – no trace of the oriental, no trace of the baroque, no trace even of the Bostonian. In fact, no precedent. The desk was local. It was how a local artisan, using local traditions and local materials, met the needs of a local “card-carrying New England Puritan minister,” as Philip Zea called Nehemiah. The unidentified artisan probably lived in Springfield, Mass., he certainly worked within the traditional style of Springfield, and Nehemiah Bull was the minister of Westfield, a neighboring town. All very local. Actually, I’d go further than that: The desk distills the local down to its essence – the personal. The owner we know, the maker we don’t, or at least not his name, but I think we know him.
It’s a bit like the Harris Tweed cap that I told you about last month. I bought the cap on the Isle of Harris, it was made from cloth woven on the Isle of Harris, from sheep who lived on the Isle of Harris, by a weaver who also lived on the Isle of Harris, in patterns that were traditional to the Isle of Harris. The shopkeeper knew the maker, and I’m willing to bet that the maker knew the sheep!
What I’m getting at here is the idea that our ubiquitous globalization seems to spawn within it a counter movement, a movement back toward the local, because it’s only there that we can find a sense of who we are. Many of the Brits who voted out of Europe were looking to regain an English identity; they needed to feel that they could control what was English and what was not – they were fed up to the back teeth with the bureaucrats of Brussels telling them what they could and could not do. If these bureaucrats could regulate the curvature of bananas (as they can), I bet they’d have looked at Nehemiah’s desk and ruled that it failed to meet EU standards.
OK, the “Englishness” that the Brexiters were hoping to recover might not have been as local as the Springfield identity of the desk-maker, or as the Hebridean identity of the wool workers, to say nothing of the wool-producers, baaa. But it was the same sort of quest. And Europe is certainly not the same as the globe, but, in the eyes of many little Englanders, it worked in exactly the same way.
Now, Antiques Week in New Hampshire is primarily a celebration of the local, a celebration (and hopefully sale) of antiques made in New England. So those of you currently in Manchester, N.H. don’t need me to elaborate on the appeal of the local. But I must point out here that the desire for antiques of New England origin is not confined to New Englanders. It seems that New England antiques have a broader significance: They embody the history of the white settlement of America, so people from Denver, Michigan or California can relate equally well to their “local” features because they are not defined by geography alone, but historically and nationally. The global market place has no history, no geography and no nationality.
I don’t know if Nehemiah’s desk has an especial appeal to people who are from the Connecticut River Valley, but I suspect that a native-born Ohioan may feel for it just as viscerally. Specifically, the desk embodies its geographic identity, but more symbolically, though just as meaningfully, it embodies the spirit and values of the early settlements – making do with what you have, making the best of the resources locally available, and, more generally still, just simply working to make life better. There is nothing in the global market place that can do anything like this.
I’m looking forward to winter when I can flaunt my Harris Tweed cap, not because I have any direct connection with the Hebrides – though come to think of it, I am descended from Vikings and the Vikings occupied the Hebrides for a few hundred years – no, not that at all: It’s more that my cap is a product of a local identity and that is what I want to flaunt.
But I’m an old fart, and there’s no question that my age influences my values. Age was also visibly influential in the Brexit vote. A majority of young people wanted to remain in Europe and be part of the global, whereas a majority of older people wanted out so they could regain a local/national identity.
I read of one young man who had applied for Irish nationality because he wanted to remain part of Europe: “It doesn’t matter to me,” he said, “whether I’m English or Irish. I feel European and that’s what I want to be.” That rather shocked me, for my English roots and New England identity are central in how I feel about my relationship with the rest of the world. If you stepped into our living room you’d know exactly what I mean: It contains a number of early English antiques, a few things from not-quite-so-early Ipswich/New England and some modern seating. The modern seating is clearly there for comfort, not for identity, anyone can tell that, but the other antiques are pretty well bound up in my sense of Anglo-American identity. The room is a clear instance of the local, there’s nothing of the global – there are no products of global brand names, nothing designed in one country, made at the opposite end of the world, and sold everywhere on the planet – oh, sorry, my phone and my iPad!
That’s another reason why we found the Hebrides so attractive. There were not many stores there, but the ones that were all locally owned – no chains, no brand names, no sense that business on the islands was part of a global economy. If you wanted a meal, you ate in a single-owner restaurant, never in a franchised, branded one. When you stayed overnight, you stayed in a bed and breakfast with two or three rooms, never in a chain hotel that had been given a faux-local name – the Stornoway Marriott, no way!
But back to the young man who didn’t care if he were English or Irish because he was really European. For him, the local was not meaningful – it was the global that mattered. He had his global devices, he could live, work and study in any of the 27 European countries, he could mix socially with like-minded young Europeans who spoke a dozen different languages, he and they could wear nationless sports-fashion clothing – the list goes on and on. For him, the local was stifling: It restricted his life, it was something to move away from as rapidly as possible. No wonder he and his like voted “Remain.”
In the Hebrides we saw few young adults and heard the constant concern that young people were moving off the islands because there was nothing there for them. To the young, the limits of the local are often its most salient features: They need to be escaped.
Are you hearing any echoes of the antiques business? Do we see a similar trend here – if you’re young you look to the global but if you’re old the local means much more to you? If that is the case, and I’m not hearing many voices arguing against me, do we simply give up on the future of our business? Do we simply admit that global culture is the future and that the joy of the local is confined to old farts like me and will die when we do?
Actually, no. Brexit was, in part at least, a rejection of globalization. In our current presidential campaign I am hearing both sides articulate their doubts about buying too enthusiastically into a global economy, and more and more questions about ways in which it may have harmed the American economy. I’m hearing concerns, too, about how new technology, which by definition is global, is replacing real life workers with robots – an extreme form of depersonalization: Just imagine that Nehemiah’s desk was made by a robot. You can’t, and that’s my point.
The American antiques business has always served as a point of resistance to globalization, and perhaps today the pendulum is swinging back in our direction. So far the discussions have been largely confined to economics – trade agreements, exporting jobs, crossing borders to avoid local/national taxes etc… But while culture is not economics, the two spheres are never totally separate, either. The growing disillusionment with the global economy may give us an opportunity of emphasizing the Americanness of American antiques as something that is in sync with the movement of the times.
Now this is where the age question comes back to haunt us. Are the young globalists just because they are young? Or are they globalists because that is the future? Is the need for a local identity so deep-rooted in the human experience that the young will realize as they mature that globalization has deprived them of something that they really need? Will they recognize their need for something in their lives that addresses the uncertainty of “Who am I? Where am I from?”
Go to Historic Deerfield and contemplate Nehemiah’s desk. Take your time, and quietly ask it those questions. And pay close attention to how it answers.
July 2016 - Out There
Lisa and I have just returned from eight wonderful days in a string of places with no McDonald’s, no middle class history and no antiques. The Outer Hebrides lie off the northwest coast of Scotland, a three-hour ferry ride from Ullapool which is an umpteen hour drive from anywhere. They are the edge of the British Isles and feel like the edge of the world. The islanders have survived a harsh climate, a harsh geography and an even harsher history.
If I had to pick the sight that struck me most vividly, I’d unhesitatingly choose the indigenous “black house.” Black houses originated about 1,000 years ago, and were still being lived in until the 1970s (indeed, we saw one on Skye that looked as though it were inhabited today). They seemed ultra-meaningful to me, and got my little brain churning away. But before we get to my brain churn, let me describe a Hebridean black house.
The black house
Black houses are emphatically local to the Outer Hebrides (though there are related forms in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands). Black houses were long, low, narrow houses with thatched roofs. They had a door in the middle of one long side, but no windows. On one side of the door were one or two rooms where the family lived: On the other side was the byre for the cattle. If you were a human, you turned left when you entered the door, if you were a cow, you turned right. Often, a small barn was attached to the back.
The walls were between three and five feet thick: Their inner and outer faces were built of drystone and the space between them filled with earth, peat and ash. Certainly windproof! Building the roof was a big problem because the islands were treeless. Driftwood was one source of roof material, and another was shipwrecks, which were all too common before the advent of lighthouses in the nineteenth century. Crofters in a subsistence economy could not afford to import timber from the mainland. Black houses had to be narrow because the wood for the roofs was rare, short, thin and weak.
The rafters were stuck straight into the earth between the walls, thus obviating the need for a wooden beam running along the top of the wall (they also managed without a ridge board, as there was no timber of that length to be found). The water that ran down the roofs kept the earthen core from drying out and becoming dusty, and the top edges of the wall provided good footing when replacing the thatch, which had to be done every couple of years at least.
The roofs were covered with two layers of cereal straw and reeds and in between them was a layer of peat consisting of slabs overlapping like tiles. The outer layer of thatch was covered with old fishing nets or with ropes woven from local heather that were all weighted down with rocks to prevent the wind blowing the reeds and straw over the horizon.
Inside the human half of the house, a peat fire burned continuously in the middle of the stone-flagged floor. There was no chimney, so the smoke drifted around inside before finding its way out through the thatch. It was a hard life, but the crofters survived it, if barely, for 1,000 years.
(And then came the twentieth century, bringing with it, among other things, medical science. Doctors determined that having no chimneys and having animals under the same roof as people were both health hazards. So laws were passed and things were changed. The upshot? Frequent outbreaks of TB. It turned out that the ammonia in the animal urine was a natural antidote to TB, and peat smoke was an antidote to midges. The urine and the smoke together were a natural antidote to lung disease.)
Local and natural
When you come to think of it, it’s pretty astounding to find a form of housing that has lasted, basically unchanged, for 1,000 years – even more so when it’s in the western world. It is tempting, and partially accurate, to look to “nature” for a reason. The natural conditions, climate, geography, raw materials more or less dictated the form of dwelling that was best suited to cope with them. And if they didn’t change, why should the dwelling? Particularly when the lifestyle of the inhabitants was traditional subsistence farming that was determined by “nature” just as directly as the dwelling. It seems a perfect organic whole – nature, lifestyle, house: It seems, to use a current buzzword, the epitome of localism.
The culture of the Outer Hebrides is local to its core. And the emphatic localism of the Hebridean black house was another reason why it resonated so powerfully in my imagination. On the surface at least, the Hebrides appeared to have escaped the talons of global commerce and global culture. There were no McDonald’s, no chain stores, no brand names on billboards (no billboards, even). I bought a Harris Tweed cap from a local store on the island of Harris where the store owner could tell me the name of the person who had woven the tweed and made the cap. She didn’t actually know the name of the sheep who had grown the wool, but… (Incidentally, our menu one evening included the name of the man who had free dived for the scallops that morning.)
Sure, I paid more for my cap than if I’d gone to London and bought an American baseball cap made in China and distributed throughout Europe. I was happy to pay the extra, not just because it bought me a far higher quality product, but because I felt I was participating in a local economy of a sort that hardly exists these days. My credit card was the first “off-island” product to touch that cap from when it began life as a sheep. I don’t want local products to become globalized, whether they’re brand new or antique. I don’t want globalization to rule our planet; otherwise everything that makes us interesting as human beings will vanish. And I do want to flaunt my Harris Tweed cap along Market Street in Ipswich. Roll on next winter when I’ll be able to!
Yet another reason that I became so obsessed with the black house was its relationship to nature. The black house was the “closest to nature” of any house I had ever seen in the western world. It seemed to me, initially at least, that the black house embodied a relationship of human beings to nature that elsewhere has been stretched to breaking point and beyond. Nature has absolutely nothing to do with a high rise in Manhattan or with the smart phone in my pocket. Our high-tech world is so far divorced from the natural world that we actually need hurricanes and blizzards to remind us where we came from. More peacefully, of course, our cities need parks and riverwalks and trees to serve the same purpose. High rises demand parks at their feet.
The hole in the doughnut
As I followed this line of thought, I slowly realized I was barking up the wrong tree. The black house remained as close to nature as it did, not just because of nature, but because of economics. Hebridean crofters suffered from rapacious, absentee landlords whose aim was to extract every dime they could from the peasants and to use all the marginally legal means their lawyers could find to replace them with sheep wherever possible. The insatiable mills of industrial England made sheep far more profitable than people.
One major result of these economic strategies was the absence of the middle class. There were the wealthy, absentee landowners and the impoverished subsistence farmers, but nothing in between. This formed a huge hole in the social doughnut. The middle class is the source of innovation and change; the middle class provides the impetus for style and fashion; the middle class is the source of what we now call antiques. The middle class uses style and taste to express current identity and also, at the same time, innovation. The middle class is always looking for something new. All antiques were originally “something new,” which is why a society without a middle class is a society without antiques. (I’m not going to whine here about what the current decline of the middle class has done for the antiques business today!)
The unchanging form of the black house, I came to realize, was a symptom of the absence of a middle class. When a person moves from the peasant underclass to the middle class, one of the first things he wants is a house in which taste, fashion and style are all more influential than the demands of nature. Indeed, the less “natural” the house looks, the more solid his status as having “arrived.”
Today, of course, tourism is supporting a comparatively new middle class in the Hebrides. My Harris Tweed cap is a case in point. It’s the product of a local economy and it feels wonderfully “natural,” but it’s also the product of an incoming, innovative, middle class economy. It’s a market economy, not a subsistence one. Tourism is bringing new money into the islands; it is also bringing innovation and change – though I devoutly hope not too much. Besides buying a Harris Tweed cap, you can rent a black house (subtly modernized) as holiday cottage.
It’s the old, old dilemma. No one wants people to remain trapped in the poverty that has shackled them for 1,000 years; no one wants to condemn innovation and change, but I do so want places in the western world to maintain distinct local identities, to resist globalization and to keep the past centrally important to the present. I love a place where the most memorable structure is a black house and not a McDonald’s.
June 2016 - “The Old Order Changeth…”
I feel as if I’ve lived my life in two completely different worlds – and I don’t mean my whole life, I mean just the last third of it spent as an antiques dealer and commentator.
Our old world doesn’t seem all that long ago: We were doing more than 20 shows a year, and I was writing about how to pick good shows over the less good. Do you remember that common rule-of-thumb that we had to gross 10x booth rent for the show to be considered acceptable – not good, mind you, but acceptable? I’ve no idea what the acceptability threshold is today, but I hear more dealers talking about “making expenses” than about “making 10x a booth.”
I got myself into hot water back then when I proposed another measure by which to evaluate a show: The gate to dealer ratio. Looking into our books, we discovered that the shows that turned the best profit for us were those with about 50 dealers and a gate of about 2,500. These were mostly charity benefit shows held in prosperous suburbs and some of them still exist. They typically had an expensive preview party on Thursday evening and then three days of show.
This led me to propose that we should aim for shows with a 50:1 gate:dealer ratio. Fifty clients through the door for every dealer on the floor! Even in those days, I was quickly brought to my senses: Elitist, narrow-minded, pie-in-the-sky were some of the milder epithets hurled at me, mostly by show promoters. There was no way in the world, I was told, that a show with 200 – 250 dealers could attract a gate of 10,000 to 12,500, and by suggesting a gate:dealer ratio of 50:1 I was merely making dealers unhappy and more prone than ever to blame everything on the promoter. OK, OK: I backed off quickly.
Now all this was back in the days when antiquing was a hands-on experience: People took it for granted that the only way to buy an antique was to see it in person. So dealers crammed their vans to the doors, drove for hours and sometimes days, eating road food and sleeping in cheap motels.
Similarly, customers gave up a whole day, driving for hours (one survey showed that a show’s market radius was a three-hour drive) and spending hours on the show floor. Before buying anything, they picked it up, turned it over, weighed it in their hands and talked at length to the dealer.
Today, our customers do all that in their own home. They buy from online images and never get the item into their hands until it arrives on their doorstep – with full return privileges. It makes me feel that we have a foot, at least, in the new world.
Millions of Millennials
But one foot is hardly enough, as I realized when I read a survey result that was emailed to me a few days ago by Invaluable, which describes itself as “the world’s leading online marketplace for
fine art, antiques and collectibles.” The survey was explicitly about buying art, and we all know that extrapolating from the art market to the antiques market needs to be done with extreme caution. But let’s do so, and see if we might learn something.
One of the survey’s main findings was that more than a third of U.S. consumers earning over $150,000 and 26 percent of those earning $100,000 to $149,999, said they preferred to purchase art at an online marketplace or website.
Another was that almost half of young Millennials and one-third of older Millennials discover art through social media channels like Pinterest and Instagram, and not by visiting museums. (Take these numbers with a large pinch of salt: The survey was conducted online using Invaluable’s customers. Not exactly unbiased – but probably indicative, at least.)
Millennials, it seemed, responded better to art on a screen than art hanging on a museum or gallery wall. Actually visiting a museum or a gallery was an inferior or even impoverished, experience.
In 1936 the German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote an influential essay called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” By mechanical reproduction, of course, he meant photography on film and high gloss, four-color printing – part of the same pre-digital world as an antiques shop or a booth in a show. Benjamin’s main argument was that the original work of art had an “aura” that was impossible to reproduce, and therefore that any reproduction was always diminished from an original. So far, count me as closer to Benjamin than to the Millennials.
But then, a generation or so later, a French philosopher came on the scene. Jean Baudrillard put forward a very different argument, one that seems closer to the behavior of Millennials. He argued that the digital world had created a condition that he called “hyperreality,” an infinitely reproducible digital simulation of reality that had more effect on us than reality itself. Hyperreality was, in this digital world, more “real” than reality. Reality has disabling limitations: It can only be experienced by people who are physically present in both space and time. Hyperreality, on the other hand, is everywhere for everybody at every time: It knows no limits.
So if an image is online or on social media there are no limits to the effect it can have: Reality pales by comparison. I think that something similar is going on with social media “friends” and “likes” – they are hyperreal and thus matter more than our “real” friends whom we “really” like.
To those of us who have lived most of our lives in the pre-digital world, the hyperreal seems false, just images on a screen.
But to Millennials, who are digital to their fingertips (pun intended,) the exact opposite is the case: It’s the real world that is inferior and they do everything they can to escape it. Watch a Millennial walking down the street, ears cut off from real sounds by earbuds, eyes on the screen in his hand not the street he’s walking down and often talking loudly to someone who is present only in cyberspace. No wonder they prefer their art on the screens that never leave their hands. On Pinterest, for example, people collect images of antiques and art, and they can share their collection with an infinity of others. In my case, only those few who physically come into my house can share my collection because it is of “real” or earth-bound antiques. Very limited.
But I still think Benjamin beats Baudrillard – and that’s not just because I’m an old fart who can’t adapt to the contemporary world. An original antique really does have an “aura,” it really does, and no mechanical or digital reproduction can capture it. But how can I convince a Millennial it is worth entering the “real” world to experience that aura? Millennials want to live in the hyperreal: Their trajectory is always away from the real? The question is, is that trajectory reversible?
I think it may be, but not easily. I suspect, without any real evidence, that Millennialism is a youthful phenomenon, and that as Millennials mature, they will increasingly engage with the real world. Nothing like a mortgage and a baby vomiting down your shirt front to bring you smack into reality. As regular readers will know, I have long thought that those elusive “new buyers” will mostly be found in the 45 – 60 age bracket, and I doubt that that will change in the future. But I’m not one to sit and wait for the future to occur; I always want to hurry it up. I spend a lot of my time putting images online, where Millennials live, and some of my images have even ended up in Pinterest collections! Wow, fancy that!
If we all flooded social media and the online environment in general with hundreds of thousands of images of antiques, would we at least get the attention of Millennials? Could a Pinterest collection eventually mature into a real one? A saturation by hyperreal antiques might at least ensure that when these hyperrealists return to the real world, they’ll return to our bit of it. Can we insert antiques into the world that Millennials live in?
The great quality that antiques possess, of course, is the real presence they have in our room and how that presence is enhanced by the other world in which they originated and that remains an indelible part of their aura. What I’m asking is how we might overcome the limitations of one antique in one room and translate it into the language of the hyperreal, to make it Pinteresting to millions of Millennials? I want to reach out to them, and not wait for them to come to us – which they may never do. Anyone got any better ideas?
May 2016 - It’s No Longer 1984
What do Hulk Hogan, Erin Andrews and an antiques dealer on 1stdibs have in common? However much that sounds like the opening of a bad joke, it isn’t. They’ve all suffered from our lack of a common definition of privacy in the age of surveillance. Hogan and Andrews had “intimate” (to say the least) videos of themselves posted on the internet where they were seen by millions. The 1stdibs dealer has “private” conversations listened to and controlled by 1stdibs.
Hogan was awarded more than $100 million in damages, and Andrews more than $50 million. If the 1stdibs dealer went to court, he’d lose. The juries who awarded lottery-sized fortunes to the celebrities explained to TV viewers that keeping private life private was, in their eyes, a fundamental right and that they wanted to send a strong message about how important it was.
The 1stdibs issue is really small fry by comparison, not least because it occurs in the economic realm, not in everyday life. Basically, 1stdibs has ruled that all sales that are initiated in any way on its site have to be processed solely through that site so that 1stdibs can keep an eye on them and charge a commission (they already charge dealers an annual fee and a per-item listing fee). Big deal, I say: 1stdibs is a huge company vying to challenge Christies and Sotheby’s as the biggest, most efficient and most profitable sales platform for antiques. Neither Sotheby’s nor Christies have been shy about charging dealers the maximum they can get away with on each transaction. Why should 1stdibs be any different?
What caused the outrage among the dealers who met to discuss the new charge, however, was not the economics of the charge itself, but the way that 1stdibs had decided to enforce its ruling. The company has set up a dedicated phone system and an electronic message board that monitor all transactions between dealers and clients. Dealers have no choice but to use means of communication that were under the surveillance of 1stdibs. According to one New York dealer, “If I ask the buyer for their phone number, the site’s detectors will pick up those keywords and shut the communication down.” A London dealer called this an illegal restriction of trade.
The inference to be drawn from this is that 1stdibs considers that all interaction between a dealer and a customer is designed solely to strike a deal “off-site” and thus to avoid the ten percent commission (for some reason, 1stdibs prohibits its dealers from telling their customers about the commission or, indeed, from making the slightest mention that there are any fees involved at all in selling/buying on 1stdibs).
One can, I suppose, see 1stdibs’ point here. But one can also see why dealers feel that their right to a private conversation with their clients has been infringed. A New York 1stdibs dealer explained to the New York Times that the antiques business is based on relationships. “You don’t spend $60,000 on something without seeing it, talking to the dealer and getting a sense of who they are.” I’m sympathetic to this up to a point: In my small, non-1stdibs antiques business where nobody spends $60,000 on anything, my clients have got to know me, who I am, where I came from, how I got my expertise, and so on. Sometimes our conversations get friendly and personal. I hate the idea that those conversations might be monitored, not because there’s anything in them that needs to be hidden but simply because, as we used to say, “It’s none of your business.” How old-fashioned is that!
Whether those conversations take place in my shop, online or on the 1stdibs site, the old-schoolers among us will still feel strongly about maintaining the none-of-your-business principle. We will cling to the idea that Orwell got it right as far back as 1949 when he warned us about Big Brother in 1984. I’m sure that were he still alive in 2016, Orwell would side with the 1stdibs dealers, but he might not get the same consensus as in 1949: As the NYT put it, “The old-school way of selling rarified objects face to face is clashing with the culture of a tech company focused on growth.” And we know who’s going to win that clash. 1984 was a long time ago.
To be efficient, surveillance relies on norms. Surveillance gathers gazillions of garbage cans full of normal behavior that is useless and is never watched or listened to simply because it is normal. Nobody monitors it, nobody gives a damn about it (actually, I’m going to need to rethink that statement by the end of this column – stay tuned). As I write this, TV has been obsessed with surveillance images of three men in the Brussels airport pushing baggage carts – all perfectly normal, except that two of them were wearing black gloves on their left hands while their right hands were bare. Presumably, the detonators were in their left hands. If there had been a trigger to pick up that abnormality instantly, the world might have been spared another tragedy. But there wasn’t.
On 1stdibs however, there is such a trigger. Asking for a client’s phone number is considered abnormal, so it activates a trigger and the conversation is immediately shut down. Many years ago, when I was still teaching graduate school, a black student told me that he had to decide each morning, according to his mood, whether to dress “black” or “white.” Dressing black made an enormous difference to the way that people looked at him, from his myriad encounters as he made his way through the day, to the more explicit behavior of staff when he walked into a department store. But, he told me, the one thing he never did was to dress black when he flew. Airport surveillance systems had numerous triggers that identified a black man dressed black as out of the norm for passengers, and therefore a target of extra (abnormal) security measures. Memo to 1stdibs dealers: Learn the triggers and don’t trigger them.
If you conform to the norms, you are never surveilled. If you think those norms are reasonable and you conform to them comfortably, you will have no problems with a surveillance society except, perhaps, for a slightly uneasy feeling when you actually notice a camera monitoring you. But we also have assumptions about the places where this surveillance is OK. We assume, as Erin Andrews did, that when we step out of a hotel shower that we are not being monitored by a hidden camera, but a conversation with a client on 1stdibs who met you on 1stdibs? Hmmm.
In one respect, Orwell’s prescience about Big Brother still stands today. Surveillance is always one way: Big Brother watches us, but we can never watch him. In that sense, surveillance is fundamentally anti-democratic, because in a democracy the behavior of the political elite has to be monitored by the people who elected them. Democracy also takes for granted (or it used to) that there should be private space where freedom of speech prevails and where any ideas can be exchanged among the people in that space without being monitored. Democracy depends upon the consent of private citizens with private spaces.
Big businesses, however, are not democratic institutions. We have also come to accept that public spaces such as airports and city streets are no longer governed by democratic principles: I am sure that a generation ago we would have been horrified by the idea that our every step along a sidewalk or across an airport concourse was being recorded, but today most of us have come to accept that the benefit to the public good is worth the loss of privacy.
Privacy is a fluid concept that is currently on the retreat. There is very little space for privacy in big business. If you sign up for 1stdibs, you sign up for 1stdibs and you subject yourself to their rules and their monitoring of your behavior. That’s the way big business operates in a surveillance society – it’s fundamentally the same as a company monitoring the keystrokes its operatives make on their keyboards: Which, incidentally, is absolutely not the same as the government monitoring where you put your X in the voting booth.
I accept the surveillance society, I have no choice in the matter, but I am still Orwellian enough to feel uncomfortable in it, and I do all that I can to preserve tiny spaces in my life that are free of it. As a result, I don’t do social media, but I just have to use Google despite knowing that every search is monitored. I go onto eBay, and I know that everything I do there is surveilled. But on my mobile devices, I can at least keep my “location” turned off, until I (and not computers monitoring my movements) want to use it. Incidentally, I’ve been warned never to use a mobile device to photograph the antiques in my collection – bad guys will be able to hack into that data and see not just what my home is full of, but also exactly where my home is located. Luckily for me, bad guys have no interest in cumbersome seventeenth-century furniture, but I still take all my photos with a non-internet-enabled camera and hardwire it to my computer to transfer them.
But, despite my feeble efforts to minimize surveillance, I simply can’t avoid Big Data. And this is the exception that I mentioned earlier: Big Data does not throw normal behavior into the garbage can; it mines it for usable information. Big Data finds gold in the vast amounts of normal behavior that used to be ignored. From it, Big Data can extract patterns of behavior that it can turn to its own advantage and its own profit. It is ubiquitous, and, I believe, unavoidable. Most of it is probably harmless, some of it may even be good, but the rest of it? All we can do is throw our hands in the air and mutter “Oh well…” I’m sorry, you 1stdibs dealers, but all I can do is throw my hands in the air and mutter, “You’re not Hulk Hogan, you’re not Erin Andrews. Avoid the triggers and get used to it.” Oh dear!
April 2016 - Stemming the Arts
As soon as I read the press release from the Metropolitan Museum of Art announcing the special exhibition China:Through the Looking Glass, I knew two things. First that I wanted to see it, and second that I wanted to share it with our readers (see July 2015 for Jan Fiore’s account). I was not alone, far from it; in fact I was one of the 815,992 who went to see the exhibition. The Met’s two other exhibitions last summer attracted another 738,000 visitors making a total of more than 1.5 million who visited the Met for their special exhibitions between May 12 and Sept. 7, 2015. Using the standard metric, the Met calculates that the visitors to the three exhibitions spent $946 million in New York City. Culture can be good for the bottom line.
I was reminded of this when I read recently that Kansas legislators were proposing to join at least 15 other states to juggle their university funding in a way that made students pay higher tuition for liberal arts courses than for STEM courses (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) on the grounds that the liberal arts are a frivolous, personal luxury whereas STEM is a national necessity. If students are stupid enough to want to study the humanities, the reasoning goes, they must do so on their own dollar without any tax-payer support.
I’d love to take these Kansas legislators, shake them by the scruff of their necks, and yell at them, “One billion dollars generated in just five months by one museum – take note of this, knucklehead – whose ‘producers’ and ‘buyers’ are entirely from the liberal arts.”
Now please don’t take my anger at the denigration of the arts and humanities as an attack on STEM – I can’t go a couple of minutes without benefitting from something wonderful that stems from STEM. What angers me is the idea that the huge importance of STEM means that anything other than STEM is a frivolous luxury that is OK for rich kids to play around with but nothing more. Hey, no surprise at my attitude here, I’ve apparently wasted the whole of my life playing around with those frivolous liberal arts!
There are a number of reasons why human beings have become the dominant species on the planet, only one of which is our increasing (if unevenly distributed) ability to manipulate the material world to our own advantage (STEM). There is also another reason: There has never been a society in the history of the world that has not produced narratives, visual arts, music, religion and (I’ve saved the most important for last) language – in other words, culture.
Culture is the means by which humans make sense of their experience and of themselves. Culture is not a luxury: It is integral and essential to our identity as human beings. Without culture we are without sense.
The Met’s “China” exhibition showed how Chinese costume and other visual arts have inspired western designers for centuries, and thus how costume was part of a global exchange that involved money, understanding and sensibility. The other special exhibits in the summer showed the work of the contemporary French sculptor, Pierre Huyghe and of the Anglo-American artist John Singer Sargent. So for five months in New York the Met gave us examples of culture: Art from China, France, England, America: Art made yesterday and art made 350 years ago. One and a half million people wanted to see this art and spent nearly a billion dollars in the city to do so. Stick that in your STEM and water it!
Culture matters to us humans, and we are more than willing to spend time and money to experience it. Seventy-four percent of the visitors to the Met’s special exhibitions came from outside of the city. And it was the Met that brought them in. The estimated economic impact was $341 million for those who said the exhibitions were a “key motivation” to visit the city and another $511 million was spent by those who were “highly motivated” by them.
“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
I’m a member of the Ipswich Museum (OK, it’s not exactly the Met, but…) and I have recently curated a modest exhibition of the chairs that Ipswich townsfolk made and/or used between 1680 and about 1800. It’s proving somewhat popular, though we’ve some way to go yet to reach 815,992 visitors and umpteen hundred thousand dollars spent in the local pub.
When it’s been my turn to be the docent on duty, I’ve found it interesting to look at the people looking at the chairs. I produced an “item label” for each chair modeled on the labels I produce for things I’m trying to sell: Date, material, origin and the key points that make the chair interesting to a buyer or viewer. I also produced “wall labels” that gave the social context to a style of chairs – their history, why and how they evolved from the previous fashion, their relation to international influences and so on: Anything that showed how a chair embodied something much larger than itself, something that showed how it stood as a specific instance of a cultural force.
One chair, for instance, has cabriole legs with “Spanish” feet. I was able to tell how the cabriole leg came to Europe from China via the Dutch and English traders who were competing for the wealth of the “East India” trade. Somewhere in Europe, the leg picked up the Italian name “cabriole,” referring to the leg of a goat (a reference that still pertains to a particular leap in ballet). But often the English dropped the Chinese ball-and-claw feet (a pearl grasped in the talons of a dragon) in favor of the feet that we Americans usually call “Spanish” but the Brits often call “Braganza.” Catherine of Braganza was a Portuguese (not Spanish) noblewoman who married Charles II of England – Braganza feet were an English sign of respect for the new Queen. In Boston, however, they were nothing of the sort: They were a sign of the latest London fashion – Spanish, Portuguese, who cared? They were London fashion.
So, not long after 1700, Chinese legs with Portuguese feet came to Boston: A clear instance of global trade (China) impacting national fashion (London) impacting regional fashion (Boston). But when it reached Ipswich, this international flow of taste was then capped by our chair-maker, John Gaines III, who added a carved decoration to the ankle that has no precedent in China, London or Boston.
Uniquely Gaines, uniquely Ipswich. Local culture asserting itself at the intersection of the global, the national, and the regional. China, London, Boston – and then Ipswich. Hurrah!
Now that is history that’s interesting. I can’t imagine anyone who isn’t stimulated to think about the global flow of cultural taste and the fact that it never entirely erases the local imagination. That’s true, whether we’re thinking about early eighteenth-century Ipswich or the world we live in today.
One thing that I noticed about the visitors to our modest chair exhibition was that they paid more attention to the wall labels than to the item labels. They were interested to see the objects not just as objects, but as “stand-ins” of something larger. They wanted to see the invisible history within the visible object.
This leads me to be less worried than some about the decline of history teaching in our schools. I was bored stiff by history, at least as it was taught in England more than half a century ago. It was all out of books. It was later in life that I realized that history was in things as well as in books and it was that realization that turned me into a passionate historian. The 6.3 million visitors to the Met in 2015 attest to the fact that people are hungry for history, but it’s history in objects, not in books. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s best-selling book is called The History of the World in 1,000 Objects. OK, I know it’s a book, but it’s really an anthology of extended wall labels. The history that is written in artifacts is the history that works best for us today.
Both museums and antiques traders deal in history-in-objects. Museums generally do a fine job in telling history through objects. So do some antiques dealers, and so do the best auctioneers. But others don’t. Food for thought here?
March 2016 - Three in One
I went to all three of the Winter Shows in the Park Street Armory, and came away confused. The “Winter Antiques Show,” as it is generally called, actually contained three different, totally disconnected shows: One was a traditional antiques show with some of the best antiques you’ll see anywhere; the second was a contemporary art show; and the third was a modernist, decorative arts, metrosexual sort of a show. (“Metrosexual,” for those of you confused by the term, refers to a metropolitan person with a high disposable income who is fascinated by his own appearance and has a refined, upscale taste. The word normally refers to men, but I’m using it here to refer to both genders because I can’t find another word that does.) In the contemporary art show and the metrosexual show many of the exhibits were younger than my socks – i.e. they were made last year. How did that happen? The Winter Antiques Show had no cut-off date – for the first time ever.
Full disclosure: Just in case you hadn’t noticed my bias, let me put it in black and white: I am a traditional antiques person through and through; I also like contemporary art, but I don’t believe that something created in 2015 has a place in an antiques show in January 2016; metrosexual modernism is totally alien to me and I wish it were even more so.
In the abstract, I might agree that a show whose displays range from centuries BC to last year is an interesting idea in principle. There could be something appealing in wandering past three booths, for example, that gave glimpses into the visual culture of Ancient Egypt, Colonial America and contemporary Finland. But in practice, I’m not sure that it can be made to work, particularly in a show that calls itself an antiques show and thus sets up expectations that it cannot meet.
Would I have been less jaundiced if I had attended “The Winter Decorative Arts Show?” Actually, that’s a moot question, because if it had been called that, I probably wouldn’t have gone. And that may be a crucial point. Two of the dealers in the traditional antiques show told me, quite independently, that regular customers of theirs had expressed dismay at the new look of the Winter Show, and had said that they might not come back next year because there simply weren’t enough antiques to make it worth their while. If two-thirds of the booths in 2016 show had nothing to interest them, why make the effort to attend in 2017?
In its report on the show, the New York Times (Jan. 22) sat uneasily on the fence, calling the show “a short-lived galaxy of colliding worlds” and noting that “the collisions at this year’s show at the Park Avenue Armory are greater than ever because the cutoff date for material has been moved to the present.” Did it find the collisions stimulating or disturbing? Hard to tell, but not at all hard to know where it stood when it opined that “the new cutoff date alleviates some of the show’s traditional stuffiness.”
In the past I, too, have lamented that the show has seemed a tad too traditional, but I never imagined that the way to stop being too traditional was to invite exhibitors who brought, for example, huge vases made of plastic trash and foil, in 2015. Did they really “both parody and pay homage to ancient glass” which was the NYT’s rationalization for their inclusion?
One exhibitor who did turn the absence of a cut-off date to good effect was Elle Shushan. Alongside the portrait miniatures that she always brings to the show, she had included this year a series of portrait photographs, done in a similar style and size by the contemporary artist, Bettina von Zwehl. The juxtaposition of the new and the old (I wouldn’t call it a collision) made a worthwhile point: Portrait miniatures were the photographs of their day. Today, we marvel at the skill and artistry of the painter, but in their period they were probably judged by how well the artist had “captured” the sitter – a judgment that was at least as photographic as it was aesthetic.
Knowing and looking
Another huge difference between the three shows was, wait for it, the length of the labels. The traditional antiques had lengthy, informative labels. The dealers had researched each piece and assumed (correctly) that their customers wanted the fruits of their efforts, so these long, informative labels were prominently displayed in their booths. The more anyone knows about a real antique, the more pleasure and satisfaction they derive from it. Real antiques dealers sell knowledge as well as objects.
In the metrosexual show, however, there was often not a label to be seen, though there was a promise that a hidden folder with information was available for anyone who was uncool enough to request it. The implication was clear: What their clients wanted was the immediate look. Knowing something about the object was irrelevant, and acquiring that knowledge was unfruitfully time-consuming. If you could see all that you wanted in a flash, your eye was caught; if you couldn’t you passed quickly on to something more instant. The eye displaces the brain.
In the contemporary art show, the exhibits were labeled with at least the minimum information that would add value to the artwork – the name of the artist, the date the work was created and, sometimes, the city or nation where the artist worked. But not much more than that.
The intersection of knowing and looking defined not just the differences between the three shows, but, more importantly, between the mindsets of the different clienteles. I doubt very much that any of the metrosexuals wandered into, to take random examples, the booths of Barbara Israel, Peter Eaton or the Hubers, and stood still for the five minutes that it took to read and digest the information that accompanied each of their exhibits. I think it is equally unlikely that a customer looking for real antiques was seduced by the glitter to spend any time in a metrosexual booth.
But, and here comes the good news, perhaps the most surprising observation I made was that the bulk of the red dots were in the traditional antiques show. Perhaps because collectors were disappointed with the paucity of traditional antiques dealers they spent more freely among the few that remained. I went to the show on Monday 25th, its fourth full day. Saturday, you may remember was the day that New York was shut down by a 26-inch snowfall. All traffic was banned and residents were urged to stay indoors to leave the streets clear for the clearing crews and emergency services. But you can’t take New York out of a New Yorker.
They simply defied the ban, and the Saturday gate was, by all accounts, good. Many of the traditional dealers told me that they sold well on Saturday, though I don’t think the metrosexual show did as well as the traditional one.
One traditional dealer had sold 12 pieces of furniture by the time I got there when the gates opened on Monday. And all of them told me that they’d had a very good weekend, blizzard or not. As you might expect, the exhibitors whom I count as personal friends were all in the traditional antiques show, and it was with them that I spent most of my time, so it was their take on things that informed mine. Quite a few of them were of the opinion that the show for them was a three-day affair. The collectors came at the start of the show, snowstorm or not, and the retail/decorator buyers came later in the week: For them, competing for the unique special item that they would never see again was not how they did their shopping. If one piece of glitz had gone, there were plenty left for them to look at. Perhaps the metrosexual trade picked up in the final week: I don’t know. And I don’t really care.
Grunge and glitter
I’ve opined before on what I see as a widening split in the antiques business; the split between the shiny and the grungy, between the big city and the small town, between apartment dwellers and those who live in old houses. The major shows in the major East Coast cities, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, have shifted steadily away from traditional antiques and have replaced them with modern art and metropolitan modernism. Before I saw all those red dots in the traditional sector of the Winter Antiques Show, I was coming to the conclusion that the antiques business had to figure out how to bring these disparate sectors into a conversation with each other, and that including antiques and modernism in the same show might expose some people to antiques who would not otherwise see them, and that this exposure might, in time, translate into more antiques buyers.
My experience at the Winter Show has forced me to rethink that. The ravines between the three different shows within it were so wide and so deep as to be pretty well unbridgeable. It seems to me that these three-in-one shows will end up doing the antiques business more harm than good – witness the collectors who were doubtful about returning in 2017. Of course, promoters like the three-in-one model – they get three different groups of buyers for the price of one show. Traditional antiques collectors, however, do not get three-in-one; they get one-third-of-one. No wonder they feel short changed.
I shall return to the 2017 show with eager anticipation: Will I find the Winter Antiques Show, or will it be the Winter Visual Cultures Show? Stay tuned…
February 2016 - Aggregated Aggravation
I’m going to begin this month with someone else’s words. They come from Andrew Richmond of Garth’s Auctions, and they lit a bulb in my mind.
“As we write this, there are, at this very exact moment, more than 500 auctions on LiveAuctioneers. There are currently nearly 2,000 cupboards/armoires coming up for auction on Invaluable. There are in excess of 250 stoneware lots, just now, on BidSquare. There are, according to AuctionZip, roughly 100 auctions within 50 miles of our house in the next seven days. And, of course, on eBay there are a staggering 2,000,000 items currently listed in the antiques category. (Yes, yes, we know what passes for “antique” in eBay. Play along.)” Maine Antique Digest, January 2016, 3-E.
I sort of knew all this: I certainly knew that the Internet had radically changed the way we look for antiques, and I knew that aggregated auction sites were the latest manifestation of the internet in perpetual motion. But Andrew’s snapshot survey made me go “Wow!”
But once I got my breath back, I realized that “Wow!” could not be my only response. The little wheels that creak and grind inside my skull were already beginning to turn. Those numbers explained my reluctance to use these aggregated auction sites – there’s just too much stuff on them, and the lack of consistency in auctioneers’ descriptions makes searching them a hit and miss affair. I imagine searching for an English William and Mary gate-leg table. I’d try the obvious search words, but could come up with nothing, while what I was looking for was lurking there all the time under the description “Jacobean oak drop-leaf table.” “Table” was the only search word that might have turned it up – along with heaven knows how many other tables. After failing under “William and Mary” or “gate-leg,” I would probably have concluded that what I wanted was not available. But perhaps my job in the new world of aggregated auction sites is to keep on keeping on, regardless of how long it takes. Memo to clients: “We searched so you don’t have to!”
While we’re thinking about numbers, particularly large ones, let’s go back a bit and look at the numbers of the people who made and used the things that we call American antiques. In 1625, there were 2,000 of them. By 1688, they had multiplied a hundred-fold and they numbered 200,000. The next hundred years saw a twenty-fold increase – to 4,000,000 in 1790, and by 1890 there were 63,000,000 – no wonder there are far more nineteenth-century antiques than Colonial ones: There were nearly 16 times as many people making and using them. By 1990, we had jumped to just shy of 250,000,000, and we are now well north of 300,000,000.
Here I have to stop being statistical – thank heaven, I’m not a numbers guy, I’m far happier following my gut than a pie chart. And that’s where I’m going now. I have no idea how many of the cupboards made for the four million Colonial Americans in 1790 have survived, but I bet it’s a pretty small proportion. The same goes for the nineteenth-century.
What I’m thinking here is that for 2,000 antique cupboards to be on the market in any one week is mind-boggling. In fact, I’m willing to bet that in nineteenth-century America, there was never a single week in which 2,000 cupboards were made. Even allowing for the fact that some of those 2,000 cupboards will be English or Continental, there really seems to be little connection between the number made then and the number available now. I have to believe that 2,000 can only be reached if some of them are not genuine antiques.
If aggregated auction sites are assembling a confusing mass of antiques, where does that leave to humble dealer? Forgive me if I take our own antiques business as an example. We’re dealers who have a shop and do shows, but more than 80 percent of our business goes through our website. Now our website contains only a hundred or so items, so it never threatens an overwhelming choice. Notice, however, that to reach even this modest number, we have rejected far more antiques than we have bought.
Dealers have always functioned as filters: We filter out items that we think would not be appropriate for our clients, and thus present them with a targeted selection. This function seems even more important in the world of aggregated auctions
The point that Andrew Richmond is making, and with which I whole-heartedly agree, is that too much choice can be as big a negative as too little. How to choose one cupboard from 2,000 may be as big a problem as the pre-internet question of where to go to find the one cupboard that will meet all your requirements. And if dealers can help with that problem by filtering through the mass, they can provide a valuable service for retail buyers.
Another level of filtering is, obviously, for authenticity. Of those 2,000 cupboards, some will be offered by auctioneers who identify reproductions – no problem, but many auctioneers operate on the caveat emptor principle and reckon that it is the buyer’s responsibility to winnow out the real from the repro. That is much harder to do on the Internet than it is in person. Dealer needed!
A subtler filter is one that we might call “taste” or “eye.” When Lisa and I were still newbies in the antiques business, a dealer who was much more experienced and far further up the food chain said to me, “You know, John, what my clients are really buying is my eye.” I looked at the mouthwatering things in his booth with price tags that I didn’t dare read, and I knew what he meant. There was a coherence to his booth that ran through his furniture, his delftware and his drinking glasses. His eye had clearly selected both of the chests of drawers from the dozens of others that he must have seen: His eye had clearly selected every glass in his showcase and had rejected heaven knows how many others.
These were in pre-Internet days, of course, so he might only have rejected half a dozen corner cupboards before coming up with the one that he brought to the show. He never had to sort through hundreds, but the selection he made was still a valuable service to his clients. The value of his eye, and the selections it enabled him to make, would surely be even greater in these days when a hundred or more corner cupboards might be available at any one electronic instant. A true service that a dealer can offer is to develop an “eye” that his clients can see matches theirs.
Something else a dealer can provide in this frantic age of the Internet, is an old-fashioned buying experience. A client paid one of his semi-regular visits to our shop recently. I sat quietly in my comfortable reproduction armchair while he wandered around reading the labels and coming over to talk about the occasional thing that had caught his eye. He didn’t buy anything, not on this visit at any rate, but before he left he said, “You know, I love coming to your shop, it’s like antiquing used to be. I read all these auction accounts that boast of hundreds of bidders from 35 different countries and they scare me off. I like the old way. I don’t want to feel that I’m competing against people all around the world. When I buy an antique, I like the feeling that it’s between me, you and whatever it is I’m buying. I must be a dinosaur.”
I reassured him that he most certainly was not, because I recognized what he was getting at. For many people buying an antique is a very personal experience, and that that personal experience involves the person they’re buying from as well as their personal attraction to what they are buying.
We also have personal clients whom we have never met and probably never will, but they visit our website regularly, they pick up the phone now and again, and they email with us: Again, every once in a while, they buy something. One of the effects of the Internet world, I suppose, is that people have now become comfortable with forming personal relationships with someone they have never met in person.
Auctions offer a completely different buying experience: They are exciting. At them you win a trophy, you beat others to get it, and in doing so you get an adrenaline rush. I know I still experience that rush after many, many years of bidding in person, on the phone and online.
Now, there ain’t no adrenaline in our shop: There ain’t no adrenaline on our website. No sir! There’s contemplation, there’s discussion, and then there’s a gradual realization that “Yes, that one’s for me.” It’s a different way of buying and it suits a different sort of buyer.
I know that there are some dealers who feel that the auction business has killed the retail business: Others feel that the Internet has killed the bricks-and-mortar sales venues, particularly shops and shows. The Internet and the aggregated auction sites upon it have certainly brought something new into the antiques business. But thinking of the new as the enemy helps nobody. Adapting to what’s new is a far better strategy than fighting it. I know with a calm certainty that there are many buyers of antiques who find that “aggregated auctioneering” experience can be unproductive and unsatisfying. Those are the buyers who will provide a future for dealers, provided that dealers offer them antiques that they want, an experience that suits them, and a relationship that they can enjoy.
January 2016 - Write On
I mentioned to a friend that I was editing an article on antique typewriters. “Good heavens,” he exclaimed, “typewriters can’t be antique. I spent half my life using them.” He paused. “Actually,” he went on, “much more than half.” I could sympathize: I still have difficulty in getting my head around the notion that a lot of antiques are younger than I am.
Now of course, I’m not using the Customs and Excise definition of antique, which excludes anything that is not 100 years old. Does anyone in the business still use that definition? Surely not, or at least I hope not. It relies on the passing of years as the only way of defining an antique. So each year, as the ball drops in Times Square, a huge bunch of things that used to be old, suddenly become antique. Stuff and nonsense, as my grandmother used to say.
A more useful definition of antique would be something from an era that has passed and that has defining characteristics that distinguish it from our own. I used to think that an antique had to come from two periods before ours: Stuff from the period that has just passed is merely old-fashioned and out of date, but stuff from the period before that is different enough and distinct enough to qualify as antique. But change happens so fast these days that the intervening period is no longer necessary.
Some typewriters meet the Customs and Excise criterion of being more than 100 years old. But neither my friend nor I ever used one of them. But we did use typewriters right up till about 20 years ago. I can’t remember exactly when I got my first computer, but it was a Macintosh PowerBook and I think I got it in the late 1990s. Till then, I used a typewriter. Or better yet, I used a typing pool. Each department in the university had a small group of typists known as the typing pool, and we academics would put hand-scribbled pieces of paper in a basket and wait for a few hours for a nicely typed version to emerge.
Remember typing pools, or even secretaries? They’ve all gone, too: They were all from a period that was distinctly different from ours. Their machines live on as antiques, but their jobs remain only as fading memories. Now that everyone has a computer, we all have to do our own secretarial work. That’s what the digital revolution does – it collapses some jobs and expands others. Progress, we call it.
The digital revolution is certainly the fastest, and arguably the most important, cultural revolution in the history of the western world. You might argue that the invention of printing was more important, but you certainly can’t argue that it was faster. The first printed book was Gutenberg’s Forty-Two-Line Bible in 1455. But it took nearly 150 years for “bookseller” to become a trade – the sign that print had finally eclipsed manuscript.
You could also argue for the importance of the camera, the first mechanical means of producing images and, what’s more, images that were infinitely reproducible, and thus a definer of modern culture. But it still took half a century for photography to become widespread and to fulfill its potential.
The computer, however, seemed to arrive fully-fledged overnight. We woke up one morning and there we were, slap bang in the digital age.
That’s progress, warp-speed progress. But not everyone would agree that we think of this as “progress.” Richard Polk, who is a professor of philosophy and who wrote our article on typewriters (p.46) certainly wouldn’t. You’ll have heard me argue before that one of the things antiques do is remind us that progress is not an unalloyed good. By bringing the past into the present, they show us that we’ve left some really good things behind us as we progress into the equally, but differently, good things of today. Many people, particularly young people, seem content to live only with what contemporary society offers them. This inevitably leads to homogenized, monochromatic lifestyles, in which the only differences are those designed into similar products – you can have any sneaker you want as long as it fits the Nike swoosh. In other words, any differences are superficial or cosmetic, and do not in any way challenge the dominant homogeneity. They do not carry the traces of a different way of living.
Richard Polk goes further than most antiques collectors: He claims that collecting and using typewriters does more than bring the past into the present; it does more than remind us of the price we have paid to move so wholeheartedly into the digital world. It actually challenges that digital world. Polk has a 1955 Optima that he has repainted revolutionary red and that he places on top of his (necessary) digital devices as a silent, consistent, visual argument against them. Polk argues that the typewriter (any typewriter, not just his insurgent Optima) actually criticizes some of the bad things that the digital has brought us. A typewriter is the most vociferous of antiques. By calling typewriters “insurgent,” he invents a new category of antiques.
The insurgent antique
Polk’s Typewriter Manifesto (see Online Exclusive) includes the claim that typewriters (by which he means both the machines and the people who use them) “…assert our right to rebel against the Information Regime, to escape the Data Stream.” They “strike a blow for self-reliance, privacy and coherence against dependency, surveillance and disintegration…”
Some of Polk’s concepts may seem a bit philosophical (he is, after all, a philosopher) but some are downright practical. We know, if we care to think about it, that every keystroke we make on our computer is recorded and available for monitoring by someone, somewhere. We know that every consumer item we look at on our monitors, every word we search for, every decision we make while typing – we know that all these miniscule moments of our lives are recorded and entered into the Data Stream. This may not be in itself a bad thing, it may not be in itself a good thing, but it does make some of us feel a bit creepy. I read recently of a young woman who was informed by Target that she was pregnant at just about the same time as she learnt it herself: Her online and in-store behaviors had been entered into Big Data which instantly deduced her condition, and offered her all sorts of good things that it knew pregnant women wanted. It knew this, of course, because it had recorded and analyzed all the behavior of newly pregnant women. By knowing what she wanted before she did, Big Data was merely making her shopping “better.” Or was it…
The whole scenario makes me feel somewhat creeped out, so I’m pleased that a typewriter can remind me in no uncertain terms that there is another way of writing. Typewriting is private; our writings are shared only with the readers we want to reach. Big Data cannot get hold of them; the Information Regime cannot use them in its social monitoring. (For many, antiques from the pre-digital world always criticize their digital equivalents, they always insist that the pre-digital was better – I’m thinking here of vinyl records, film cameras and paper books, all of which are staging comebacks.)
Of course we all know that we live in a surveillance society, and for most of the time, most of the people think that that is a good thing. The unimaginably vast surveillance of everything that is done on computers and smart phones can identify enemies and it can and does keep us safer (as well as telling us that we’re pregnant). Good thing or bad thing? Many years ago, I heard a proponent of surveillance make the point that if you live in a contemporary big city and want it to run smoothly you have two choices: You either have your streets lined with video cameras or you have armed police at every intersection. There was no alternative and no doubt which he preferred. When he put it like that, I had to agree with him.
I seem to have surveillance bobbing around in my mind this month: In “Yours Sincerely” I recount an example of seventeenth-century surveillance in New Haven that was performed by gossipy neighbors and nosy servants. At least the results of that non-tech surveillance were confined to the community, and were openly discussed in the community.
But surveillance always works on that fraught boundary between the private and the public, between the rights of the individual and the rights of society. Should my thoughts, opinions and preferences stay within the realm of my privacy where I have total control over whom I share them with? Or does society have a right to know what I am thinking in case my thoughts might constitute a threat. In which case, I (may) have less right to keep them to myself. The big problem here of course, is deciding what is, and what is not, a threat. In the case of the New Haven women described in “Yours Sincerely,” disagreeing with a sermon was seen as a clear threat to the social order.
Did Target’s Big Data threaten the privacy of the newly pregnant woman? Do you care if all your computer behavior is monitored and available for uses of which you have no knowledge and over which you have no control?
There’s something to be said for antiques that ask critical questions like these about the way we live now. I can’t imagine living in a world without this degree of surveillance, yet I can’t quieten the discomfort that it raises within me.
Perhaps I should have written this on a typewriter – or perhaps at the very least, I should perch a typewriter on my desk top to remind me that I have the option.
“In My Opinion’ Archives 2015
December 2015 - Life in the middle
Here’s a rule of thumb from Robert Young, the leading UK folk art dealer: “Mix rough with fine. A rough tavern table, for example, should have a polished bowl on top. Similarly, a modern polished table demands a rough dairy bowl or a rushlight on a painted wood base for contrast.” Now, I don’t have decorative bone in my body, I’m a dinosaur when it comes to mixing antique and modern, rough with fine and so on, so when I come across design hints from someone who deals in “real” antiques, I pay extra attention in the hope that I might learn something.
The best and the rest
Highlighting another difference between Robert and me is this quote, “It’s not about collecting,” he says, “but about texture and form. What we do is incredibly subjective: The objects need to be different or a bit quirky. Normally this is about texture or eccentricity.” Vital to his aesthetic is “strength of image,” something that stands out, something that you can “read” from a distance, something that demands your eye.
In an odd way, this all resonates with another topic that has been on my mind lately: What can we do, if anything, to rejuvenate the middle market. In October I wrote about the value of collecting more, rather than only the “best you can afford.” In November I suggested that antiques that have been modified to meet the changing lifestyles of their households should not be thoughtlessly pushed to one side as too compromised to consider. Both these topics involved less expensive, middle-market antiques.
Lower-priced, mid-range antiques are wonderful things to own, not least because you can actually afford to own them. Currently, the antiques market is sharply divided between “the best” and then, a long way behind, “the rest.” NEAJ is one of the few publications that devotes more of its attention to “the rest” than to “the best.” We respect the non-wealthy collector: Our attitude is that a collector who has $5,000 in the bank and who spends $750 on a mid-range antique is actually making a bigger purchase than one who has $1,000,000 in the bank and who drops $30,000 of it on something of the “best.” The $750 antique from the ranks of the rest carries just as much of our heritage, and is every bit as important in maintaining the material culture of the past, as is the supreme, and supremely expensive, object that is “the best you can afford.” The mid-range collector, the decorator who can use mid-range antiques in an up-to-the-minute fashionable scheme, deserves our full respect and support.
Which brings me back to Robert Young. He makes his annual visit to the US to exhibit at the Winter Show, and he always has a stimulating booth. His prices may seem high to many of us, but I bet his expenses are around $75,000, and you can’t recoup that with sales of $1,000 with a 50 percent mark-up. But, nonetheless, his prices are among the most down-to-earth in the rarified atmosphere of the Winter Show.
So Robert’s design criteria are achievable with mid-range antiques. When he says that what he does is “incredibly subjective,” he actually means that he can spot value where others might miss it. Everyone can see that a masterpiece Philadelphia tea-table is just that, a masterpiece (though Robert might be the only one to put a rough rushlight holder on it!). But not everyone will go to a country auction and agree that a rough tavern table has “strength of image;” perhaps only one discerning eye will pick it out, and the owner of that eye may well go home with a bargain in the trunk of his car. “The rest” is full of objects that have “strength of image” – it is the eye that discerns them that matters, not the depth of the wallet.
“Texture and form:” These are Robert’s criteria for buying. “Texture” translates into “surface,” and what Robert desires above all else is a historic surface that “…needs to have retained original color, the layers of old paint and polish that we describe as patina, that document its wear and faults through use and time.”
What Robert values in texture is partly the history that it tells, but mainly its difference from other textures. In the design end of his business he educates his clients in what we might call “the aesthetics of contrast.” In this, he is very different from traditional dealers, dinosaurs like me: We expect our antiques to end up in a “period” room – we expect them to fit in, not stand out. This has traditionally been the aesthetic of serious buyers – they furnished rooms with Federal furniture and mirrors, with Colonial Americana, with American country…
Now, I love a historic textured surface just as much as Robert does, but when I see it, I don’t immediately envision it in a relationship of contrast. I don’t immediately “see” that Native American bowl on the shiny, black, plastic surface of a mid-century coffee table; I don’t “see” that mellow treen trencher on a mantle shelf with an ivory Indian elephant and a pottery plate by Picasso. A rough-hewn pine farmhouse table is a thing of beauty in its own right, but I don’t immediately “see” it surrounded by six molded, clear plastic, Italian dining chairs.
In a room full of American country, a mid-range wallpaper box might pass almost unnoticed, but on a polished granite table top it might look like Michelangelo’s David – well, maybe not quite, but you get my point. At the very least, it might achieve Robert Young’s “strength of image” – and for a modest outlay. But when you buy the box, you have to be able to see the two together, working off each other in an aesthetic of contrast. I need to train myself to do that.
Robert appears to “see” each object in the room of a potential client. His furniture, mostly in the UK category of “oak and country,” is almost always support furniture (chairs, tables, stands and stools), not case furniture. As he says, “Free-standing furniture one can walk around – such as cricket tables and tavern tables – work better than case furniture which has to be placed against the walls.”
Value over investment
Robert has a dynamic vision of his antiques. He always sees them “working” in the room, he sees his clients moving around looking at his objects from different angles: What he never does is present them as singular investment pieces. He could never imagine one in an Art Warehouse in Delaware.
These warehouses, which take advantage of Delaware’s corporate tax laws, are built to store art that has been bought for investment. But they do more than store art, they are places where art can be bought and sold, passed from one owner to the next, all without ever seeing the light of day. Am I the only one who shudders at the thought? I’m sure Robert would.
There was a time, perhaps a decade ago, when the price of antiques (the rest as well as the best) was rising steadily, and over the longer term the antiques market did actually outperform the stock market. In those days it seemed sensible to tout antiques as a good investment, and I raise my hand to admit to having done just that. Today, I look back on that advice with unabashed embarrassment. I vow never again to use the words “antiques” and “investment” in the same sentence.
What I will do, however, is talk about “value” and “antiques.” The word “value” sets antiques alongside other commodities, whereas “investment” classifies them with stocks, bonds and shares. When you take a new table out of the shop, it immediately becomes second-hand and its value drops – which is emphatically not the case when you take an antique table out of an antique shop: It holds its value. Today, the mid-range table will hold its value every bit as well as one at the top of the range. We should no longer imply to our clients that when they come to sell the antique they are about to buy, that they will get their money back: They may, or they may not, or they may even make a profit – we just can’t tell. But what we can tell them is that an antique is better value than any other commodity: It will never lose value simply because they bought it.
So what Robert Young has taught me is to search the mid-range for things that are not mediocre, to spot value in the currently undervalued. He shows me that we do not need bottomless wallets to acquire strength of image, and that a good eye can always find bargains that will sell on, if we can learn how to sell them. And perhaps most importantly, he tells me never to see an antique in isolation, basking in its own glory, but always to see it in juxtaposition, and to build contrast into any juxtaposition that we envision. After listening to him, I feel strangely optimistic.
My thanks go to the UK magazine Antique Collecting, September and October, 2015, for giving me much to think about, www.antiquecollecting.co.uk.
November 2015 - Keep me updated
As regular readers will know, I’m pretty passionate about history. But history is a fickle lady, and like all fickle ladies she can give her lovers a lot of problems. You think you’ve got the best way to handle her, and then, lo and behold, the situation changes and so does she.
Three small groups of us on the commission that oversees the town’s Architectural Preservation District have been charged with producing a set of design guidelines for use when house owners wish to restore, remodel or extend a historic house in the district. My group is looking at first and second period houses, roughly 1635 – 1775. I thought that my experience with furniture of the same period would be helpful. After all, antiques and the houses they lived in must surely have similar histories. Right? Wrong.
The one thing they do have in common is that they are both made of wood. In comparison to the materials that other antiques are made of – metals, glass, ceramics – wood is soft and liable to deteriorate, especially if exposed to damp, but it is also malleable; it can be worked and reworked, altered and modified. Probably more furniture has been restored than any other category of antiques. But at least we dealers and collectors know how to think about restoration – it’s a negative, and we want as little as possible. Our object of desire is a piece of furniture “in original condition.”
But even though they are made of wood, houses are a different matter altogether. Ipswich has either 59 first period houses or zero, depending on how you think about remodeling and updating. I say “zero” because there is not a single first period house that has not had significant changes to it. Even the Whipple House, which has been restored back to (nearly) its “original” form, shows two major modifications from when it was first built in 1677. One we don’t have to apologize for at all, the other – maybe.
Like many, possibly most, first period houses, the Whipple house was built as a half-house; two rooms high and one room deep with a door, chimney and staircase on one end. Half-houses were intended as “starter homes” and were planned to make it easy for the owner to add two more rooms on the other side of the door and chimney, thus producing a “full” house that was two rooms long and two high with a central door and chimney.
John Whipple added his other “half” about ten years after he’d built the first. By then, we believe in about 1687, we assume that he had prospered, his family had grown, and the new, full house that had been planned for in 1677 had now become a necessity. His new “half” was somewhat larger than the original, so his “completed” house had the asymmetrical façade that is typical of many first period houses. Extensions that transformed a half into a full house are considered “original” (even though technically they are not) and nobody would even think about “restoring” such a “completed” house back to its original form. There is, by the way, no comparable case anywhere in the world of antiques.
The other modification to the Whipple House is slightly more of a problem. Like most houses of the period, the Whipple house had a long, lean-to room (an “ell”) added to the rear. It provided work room and storage – particularly for the dairy, which had to be kept colder than any room in the main house. Structural details show that it was built after, or when, John Whipple extended his original half-house. So far, so good. Today, we consider the added ell to be so typical of the period that we might as well think of it as “original.”
But then, at some later period, the ell was raised to become two stories, and its roofline was changed to become continuous with the roof of the main house, a modification that, in some cases, required a change to that original roof, making it less steep so that it could extend conveniently over the newly raised ell. Often, this modification to the roofline is still visible.
Is this still part of the “original” house? Personally, I think not. I think it should be recognized as an alteration. Perhaps I’m being too purist in my opinion here – the modification was organic to the house, it made it more convenient to live in and the new continuous roof was probably more efficient – it must have been less likely to leak than the roof of a lean-to built against a vertical wall.
In my own mind, I have concluded that alterations made within the first period (i.e. prior to c. 1725) should be treated as “original” even though they are not.
But houses are not just private structures to live in – they are public as well. The public face of a street is the composite of the private houses that line it. The Ipswich folk of the Georgian period had become more conscious of their public faces, of both their houses and themselves. Social life became more sophisticated, and the early preachers’ diatribes against fashionable dress and hairstyles disappeared from public discourse. If you were a house or a person, it was fashionable to be in fashion.
So first period houses were updated, or “Georgianized,” as we might call it. The two most common methods of updating were the replacement of small casement windows with larger sash windows and the replacement of planked doors in simple frames with paneled doors in fancier frames.
Georgian windows took advantage of advances in glass technology that made larger panes increasingly affordable as the century wore on. People have always wanted more light in their homes, and now they could have it at an affordable cost. Indeed, the history of windows shows a steady increase in the ratio of glass to wood. Small panes and thick muntins (or glazing bars) became larger panes with thinner muntins. Panes became fewer as they became larger, Victorian windows often had only four, sometimes just two, and in the twentieth century of course, the plate glass, single-paned window became possible and popular.
The timber frames of these early houses, of course, allowed window openings to be enlarged without weakening the structure of the house. All first period houses with casement windows have been updated with second period, Georgian sash windows, which were both more efficient and more fashionable.
The same was true of front doors, except that efficiency didn’t come into it. The planked doors in plain boarded frames of the first period were perfectly efficient ways of entering the houses. The paneled doors and elaborate frames of the second period were no more efficient, but they were a lot more fashionable. Doorways made a public statement. They were fitted with lights on either side or on top, their frames became larger and more ornate as time passed, and for the first time in the history of wooden houses, we saw curved elements, usually above the door. Very few first period houses retain their first period door: Almost all doors have been Georgianized.
Federal doorways, of course, were even larger and more elaborate than Georgian, so many doorways were updated yet again.
This process of updating to conform to the latest fashion is absolutely normal with houses: The public face of a house makes updating a virtual necessity, and thus part of its authentic history. Perhaps because antique furniture was more private, updating was less common and is much less acceptable. Some William and Mary chests of drawers have been “Georgianized” by having their bun feet replaced with bracket feet, and very often their drawer fronts have been updated with Chippendale brasses. Occasionally an early desk has been updated: The slant front that was originally hinged at the top has been re-hinged at the bottom and lopers have been fitted to support it when open. This made it more convenient for writing as well as more fashionable. Some seventeenth-century coffers have been converted into liquor cabinets by having their panels made into hinged doors and their lids screwed down. Georgian linen presses and Victorian wardrobes have often been converted to entertainment centers, not so much to make them more fashionable, but because their original uses have become obsolete, and new possible uses have arisen. A more extreme example of that sort of updating is the conversion of sideboards used for formal dining into vanities for the bathroom.
I can hear you antiques collectors shuddering at the thought of updating antiques. After all, we all value originality and are constantly on the hunt for antiques that have had nothing, or as little as possible, done to them.
And if we are faced with the problem of restoration, we never have to struggle with the problem that is standard for house owners: What period do we restore back to? If a first period house has been updated with nineteenth-century, four-paned windows, and they all need replacing, what period style do you replace them with? Twenty-paned early Georgian, fourteen-paned later Georgian? Or would you even go back to replicating the diamond-paned, small casement windows that it originally had?
As a dealer in early furniture, my decision is never that difficult; if I have a William and Mary chest of drawers that has been Georgianized with bracket feet, I leave them alone if they are sound, but if they need restoration, I would always restore them back to the bun feet that they replaced. If later Chippendale brasses have not scarred early drawer fronts too badly, I will usually replace them with replicas of the drop handles they originally had.
Lisa and I replaced the nineteenth- or twentieth-century paneled door on our first period half-house with a planked door in a plain boarded frame, thus bypassing the Georgian door that it had probably had for much of its life. But if that Georgian door had still been present, we would probably have left it. I suspect that our decision to go back to the original form was influenced by our experience as antiques dealers, and we wouldn’t have expected everyone to make it.
History is fickle; she changes things in different ways. In a house we readily accept her changes; but in an antique, less so. Perhaps we’re as fickle as the history we love.
October 2015 - More or Less
Some 50 years ago (bear with me, please) the French cultural sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, studied different cultural tastes and different styles of interior décor in France. He found, very broadly, that there were four social groupings, of which each had a distinctive taste in the decorative arts. The groupings were: The cultured wealthy; the uncultured wealthy and then the cultured and the uncultured among the less well off, i.e. the rest of us. The “uncultured,” he claimed were driven primarily by money and the need to amass economic capital. But the “cultured” had the need to amass what he called “cultural capital”: A knowledge and appreciation of the arts and history. Economic capital could be exchanged for goods and services, and cultural capital could be exchanged for the satisfactions and pleasures of the humanities.
Now, pause for a moment and place one person you know into each of Bourdieu’s four categories. Got it? Fess up, now, how many of you picked Donald Trump and where did you place him?
Bourdieu went on to demonstrate that there was a taste in décor that went with each category. (He also found that you can learn more about someone from the contents of their record collection than from any other indicator – try that one out on yourself and a few close friends, if, of course, you can find anyone who still has a record collection.) Now obviously it’s the two “cultured” social groups that interest us, both the rich and the rest of us. One major difference that Bourdieu found between the wealthy cultured and the less well-off lay in their attitudes to “art objects” in their homes.
The wealthy confined themselves to a few, special, high-end art objects with plenty of empty space between them; they also preferred muted, pastel colors in the rest of the room as a better background for the art objects. The ability to afford lots of space and to leave it largely empty was, for Bourdieu, a clear marker of the wealthy cultured group.
Cultured people with less money, on the other hand, wanted more objects, often as many as possible, with a minimum of empty space between them. They also liked colors that gave pleasure in their own right instead of serving merely as a neutral backdrop. It would seem that if you don’t have many bucks, you want maximum bang for the bucks that you do have. And that “bang” is more likely to be achieved by high-quantity/low-price than low-quantity/high-price. A major difference, when you come to think of it.
For some time now I’ve found myself growing tired of the mantra of the antiques business, “Buy the best you can afford,” or “You’ll never regret spending more than you’d planned on a great antique.” Hold your horses, I want to say, are you sure that that’s good advice in all cases?
I think of a friend who has a large collection of Bakelite napkin rings. Now a Bakelite napkin ring is, to me at least, about as boring an object as I’ll ever see. But she has them well displayed, en masse, and, as a collection, I love them. I have no idea what a single masterpiece of Bakelite napkin rings would look like, but I do know that it couldn’t possibly show the range of color tones and striations that our friend’s collection does. The objects in it may be pretty ordinary, but the collection itself is visually striking and fascinating.
I was in another collector’s home recently, and she has a huge collection of blue and white Staffordshire crammed onto the shelves of a large Dutch cupboard. I couldn’t believe how many plates she has managed to squeeze in there, but she told me that if she finds another that she likes, she’ll always make room for it somewhere. Don’t talk to her about the cultural capital of empty space.
In these cases, the collection bestows value upon each object within it: The many enhances the one. A collection such as this may make as satisfying a statement as any single, great, one-of-a-kind object. Lisa and I have a corner cupboard filled with mid-range, hand-blown drinking glasses, accumulated over the years as budget and opportunity allowed. Not one of them is special, but a cupboard full of them is. It is a collection, not a Collection, if you see what I mean, because that’s what we could afford, and it’s none the worse for that.
This is where collecting bangs heads with interior design. Designers love the idea of a single “accent” piece, but collectors hate the idea of a single anything: They always want other examples. There’s a deep cultural dichotomy here, a dichotomy between designer and collector, between few-objects/empty-space and many-objects/filled-space. I’m very leery of saying that one is better than the other. In our own home, besides the crammed corner cupboard, we also have a large coffer on which are three very special carvings with plenty of space between them so that you can appreciate each in its own right. I have no interest at all in choosing the coffer over the cupboard or vice-versa: I want both.
This all makes me wonder why on earth all the advice coming from antiques professionals to buyers is so incessantly placed on one side of the dichotomy – “Buy the best you can afford” – particularly as so many buyers and collectors tend toward the other side and buy the most they can afford. And as dealers, do we really prefer the customer who is one-and-done (however costly that “one” is) to the customer who keeps returning because his or her collection is never complete? I’m far from convinced that “Buy the best you can afford” is always the best advice – either for collectors or dealers.
A huge number of antiques were made to be workaday items in the households of the middling classes. They were not made to be the best. They were not made to be surrounded by empty space and admired for the “statements” they make, statements about their owners just as much as about themselves. Antiques were, in general, made to perform a necessary function as efficiently as possible. Because most of them were made in an age when people took pride in their work, they were also made to perform that function as beautifully as possible while remaining within the constraints of the wallets of their purchasers. Many antiques lend themselves better to “small-c” collections of multiple everyday objects than to “capital-C” Collections of few, special objects. And collections (as opposed to Collections) benefit from quantity, they look best en masse.
Collection or clutter?
Now all this reminds me of a column I wrote some time ago in which I praised the appeal of clutter and criticized the current fashion for minimalism in interior design. It seems to have struck a chord – it received as much positive feedback as any column I have written. Not long after writing it I came across a passionately expressed opposition to the current fashion for de-cluttering, the constant advice to divest ourselves of things, because doing so will make our lives simpler, better and more satisfying.
No it won’t, said Dominique Browning in the New York Times (5/20/15), “Why on earth would we get rid of our wonderful things?” she asked, and went on to argue, “It is time to celebrate the gentle art of clutter. We live, and we pick up things along the way: the detritus of adventure; the vessels of mealtimes; the books and music of a life of the mind; the pleasures of our daily romps through the senses. In accumulating we honor the art of the potter, sitting at a wheel; we appreciate the art of the writer, sitting at a desk; we cherish the art of the painter, standing in front of an easel.”
I’m with you, Dominique, even though you’re not talking specifically about antiques. Those who see things as mere objects cluttering up our lives are totally blind to their origin and therefore what they mean to us: Instead of seeing them as things they signify, the de-clutterers see them merely as things that take up space.
Producing things is deeply human. As soon as nomadic peoples settled down and became agrarian, they began to produce more and more things. Often their things are the only traces we have of them – an Anglo-Saxon brooch, a pre-Columbian pottery bowl, an Egyptian amulet. Things are incorrigibly human, both producing them and collecting them. A life without things is a life denuded of humanity. When ISIS destroys things that are 3,000 years old, it is destroying a part of our common humanity.
Now, of course I’m not saying that a cupboard full of mid-range glass is as important to humanity as a sculpture in Palmyra – but stop, perhaps I am. Humanity is humanity, and the things it produces are human things. If we are too insistent on ranking them by quality and rarity, we run the risk of implying that lower quality things carry less of our common humanity, and I don’t think I want to do that. Equally, I can’t see that empty space is in and of itself human, though perhaps it enhances the human qualities of the things that it surrounds. I need to think about that. What I do not need to think about, however, because my mind is already made up, is that “few” is necessarily and always superior to “many,” and that buy the best you can afford is always and necessarily better advice than buy the most you can afford.
There’s as much humanity, as much pleasure and satisfaction, and as much history in our cupboard full of $100-glasses as there would be if it contained one single $10,000-glass with lots of empty space around it. Actually, there’s more. Drop by one evening and I’ll pour some wine into a couple of them, and you’ll see exactly what I’m getting at.
September 2015 - Phone in
I haven’t written much about the web recently, but a report in the Bee got me thinking about it again. The New York dealer Carswell Rush Berlin told the Bee that he was withdrawing from the Winter Show in order to strengthen his online presence: “The people who will form our market over the next ten to 20 years will be shopping online, so we had better be there.” The marine antiques dealer, Hyland Granby, also withdrew from the show, saying, “…the public’s buying habits are changing…We are doing a lot of advertising and we have completely redone our website.” (Antiques and The Arts Weekly, 7/24/15).
Like Hyland Granby, we (i.e. Fiske & Freeman) advertise and we have refreshed (not completely redone) our website. In doing this, most of our effort went on making our site work better on mobile devices. We wanted to catch the trend: The last five years or more have seen a steady move toward shopping online, and in the last two years the greatest surge has been in “mobile” shopping.
To my (old-fashioned) eyes, our stuff does not show as well on a phone as it does on the monitor of a desktop, but then, it doesn’t show as well on a monitor as it does in our shop. But, I remind myself, my preferences don’t matter a jot: What matters is customer preference, and that’s pretty clear.
So what sort of customer preferences will shape our online businesses in the future? I think it boils down to two or three basic principles. But before I get to them, let me sweep one misconception out the door and in so doing arrive at one, absolutely fundamental principle. Changes in buying behavior will not be driven by advances in technology; that’s a widely believed myth, and it’s wrong. Engineers are great at designing new gadgets but lousy at matching new gadgets to customer desires. The Google glass is a recent case in point, and I’ve yet to see anyone wearing an Apple watch – but maybe that’s because I live in a comfortable little town that’s not on the cutting edge of anything. We’ll wait and see…
The fundamental principle is that changes in technology-related behavior are people-driven, not technology-driven. And in what direction today are people driving technology? That’s easy: In the direction in which they always have. Ever since the dawn of the electronic age, people have adopted technology that gives them increased mobility, increased convergence and increased control over their time. That’s what people want.
Mobility may be what people want most from their technology. I remember, way back when, that my first transistor radio was shaped like a small suitcase – a clear sign that I could carry it anywhere, and I did. Next, do you remember seeing young people on the street carrying a boom box on one shoulder? Then came the Sony Walkman that was tiny in comparison to the boom box – but not in comparison to the iPod that followed it and wiped it off the market place. And now the smart phone has all but swept away the iPod, but I’ll come back to the smart phone later.
People want to take their media with them wherever they go, so the media device they will adopt is the one that offers them maximum portability. Now that the smart phone and the tablet have given them the taste of easy mobility, people are becoming increasingly resistant to being tied to a desk in front of a computer or to a couch in front of TV. Whatever technological changes will come about in the future, the desire for easier mobility will be a key driver. You can bet the farm on it.
Mobility goes hand in hand with convergence. Convergence is the result of peoples’ desire to perform as many functions as possible on as few devices as possible. Not too long ago, an up-to-date home would have had a TV, a HiFi system, a desktop computer (and a laptop if they wanted more mobility,) and a telephone. Some even had a Super-8 projector and a slide projector. Oh yes, and a camera – perhaps a movie camera as well – and maybe even a tape recorder, for heaven’s sake. Today, all the media functions performed by these separate devices have converged onto the phone. And I’ve not even mentioned the GPS! Or a calculator! And then I wonder if the Phablet will be the successful convergence of the tablet and the smartphone?
Actually, of course, we shouldn’t call it a phone, because phoning is one of its least used functions (unless it’s the driver in front of me!). It’s a mobile computer. The smartphone is the inevitable technology of today: Mobile and convergent.
Mobility and convergence are two sides of the same coin. Having your website work well on a desktop but less well on a mobile device just won’t cut it for today’s younger people. If you expect them to leave their smart phone and go to a desk top, you’ll lose them instantly. Going from one device to another is divergence, not convergence, and people won’t do it. So the desk top is already going the way of the cassette recorder and the landline. Look at what’s showing up at antiques shows: Radios, early TVs, early computers, film cameras, dial-up telephones – all the gadgets whose functions have converged onto the smart phone. They’re not very old, most of them not as old as I am, but they’re antiques.
The French philosopher Michel Foucault has argued that efficient, modern life began with the invention of the timetable. As soon as there was a mechanism that coordinated the time when people did things and the places they had to be in to do them, then modern institutions became exponentially more efficient. Factories, offices, schools, hospitals, the military – all the institutions that organize collective life, all of them depend upon a timetable; they all depend upon everyone being in a specific place at a specific time.
Electronic devices have steadily chipped away at the tyranny of the timetable. And people like that, and want more of it. So Netflix frees us from the schedule of a movie theater; online university courses can be done in our own time in our own home; telecommuting allows office workers to work to their own time, not to the institution’s timetable; and online shopping allows customers to buy whenever they want, wherever they are, not between the opening and closing hours. I would not be editor of this magazine if I couldn’t do the job electronically, in my own time, in my own place.
Obviously, this control over time can occur only in the electronic world. In the world of bricks and mortar, we still go to a movie, a concert or a football game at their preset time. If we want to go to a physical antiques shop or a show we have to go when they have decided to be open. But fitting into a schedule that someone else has set is becoming steadily less attractive, unless the physical experience provides something that its online equivalent cannot.
Browsing or hunting
So movies have gone to huge screens full of fast moving bits (mostly killing each other) submerged in deafening sound: “There, you puny little phone,” they seem to say, “Beat that!” People go to bricks and mortar antiques shops and shows because they offer something better than a website: Browsing. What they say is “Come and browse all sorts of antiques, you’ll never know what’ll catch your eye.” That, to toot our own horn for a moment, is what we aim at in columns like “Auction Spotlight” and “Show Stoppers.”
The web is better suited to targeted hunting than random browsing. So the single-dealer shop has proved more vulnerable to it than group shops and shows: Many have closed, cut back or shifted their energy to their websites.
The browsing that bricks and mortar shows and group shops offer means that they will always remain part of the antiques business, but they’ll cater more to furnishers and decorators and less to collectors. They are perfect for those who don’t know what they want till they see it. They’re perfect for those who want to browse contentedly, and buy or not according to what they find. (The exceptions, of course, are shows with a history of being good for focused collectors – such as those you went to last month in New Hampshire.)
Carswell Rush Berlin said at the beginning of this column that he expects most of his customers in the future will shop online. So he’s developing his website. But having a website isn’t enough these days: A website has to be accessible by the technology that customers want to use – currently the mobile computer. The same is true, of course, for group shops and shows, but in their physical world, the technology of choice is the car. It won’t work to locate a show near a railroad station or a bus stop. And similarly, it won’t work to design a website that is best accessible from a desktop. Our future lies, literally, in the hands of our customers.
August 2015 - Hands On
The “Mystery of the Red Hand” sounds like the title of a Sherlock Holmes story, but it isn’t. This hand is somewhat older than Conan Doyle, a mere 26,000 years older to be precise. And in some ways it’s not even a mystery, but a piece of startling clarity. The hand is silhouetted on a rock wall in the Grotte de Pech Merle in southwestern France and it has really stuck in my memory since I saw it a couple of weeks ago.
There’s a lot that intrigues me about this hand of a Cro-Magnon woman. The first is that a woman’s hand actually pressed on this rock 26,000 years ago five feet from where I’m standing today. She stood within two or three feet of me. The silhouette of her hand was produced by what the guide book calls “a technique of delicate spitting.” (Never in my life have I heard the words “delicate” and “spitting” put together, but what a wonderful image the phrase conjures up!) Was she herself the delicate spitter, or was she “posing” for another artist? Is this one of the earliest works of a female artist? It would be nice to think that it was, but we’ll never know.
But in one sense, this hand isn’t actually art. On a nearby rock is a line drawing of a running horse, virtually life-size. By any standards, it’s a masterpiece. In my view, only Picasso’s line drawings can catch so much of life in so sparse an outline. This horse is unquestionably art. An artist held a tool and captured in a continuous, fluid black line something he or she had seen and experienced in the outside world. The act of drawing transformed a natural horse into man-made art. (And it’s well worth noting in these days when the arts and humanities are being de-funded in our schools that all that has survived of our Cro-Magnon ancestors is quite a lot of their art – and a few of their skeletons. Nothing else.)
Art matters. Every human society has created art, and it is in their art that we, from a society that may be thousands of years or thousands of miles distant from theirs, can experience the connections between them and us. If art is one thing that humanity has in common, then it’s one place where we might expect to find our common humanity. Oh, and I suppose in skeletons as well, but I prefer looking at art.
I said that in one sense this hand isn’t really art. This was not because of any doubts about whether spitting at your hand is, or is not, a practice of artistic creativity. No, what I meant was that it isn’t a work of art that represents something absent like the horse: Instead it is a material record of the material presence of a woman. It enables me to experience a direct physical connection to her that I do not, and cannot, to the horse. I admire the artistry of the horse, which is far higher than that of the hand, though the hand is, in its own way, very beautiful. Its beauty touches me for sure, but what really moves me is the immediacy of her presence. We are 26,000 years apart, but we are present in the same place. I live with antiques, so that common presence matters a lot to me.
The art in the Pech Merle caves may not be as great or as plentiful as that in the more famous caves of Lascaux that lie not too far to the north. But Pech Merle offers something that Lascaux does not. And to me, at least, that something is supremely important. There are so many people who want to see the prehistoric paintings of Lascaux that the French government has had to create a perfect replica of the caves. The very presence of people degrades the art they have come to admire, their breath and their body heat changes the environment for the worse, and so does the light that they need to see by. A replica is necessary to preserve the original. Reportedly the replica Lascaux is so perfect that people are unaware that they are not seeing the real thing.
So they line up in their thousands to experience the replica.
In Pech Merle we see the real thing. The groups of visitors are carefully regulated in size and frequency to keep the environmental effects below the threshold that might damage the art. Would I have felt the same about the red hand in the replica Lascaux as in the real Pech Merle? No way. Not on your life. In Pech Merle I experienced the thing itself.
The thing itself
There is a rumor among art conspiracy theorists that the Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre is a perfect replica, and that the original is stored elsewhere, safe from degradation, damage or theft. If you don’t know and can’t tell that it’s a replica, does it matter? Does it matter if you don’t know and can’t tell that a leg on a highboy has been restored? Or even if the highboy itself is as perfect a replica as the faux Lascaux caves? Does it matter if a cave painting of a horse is the one that the hand of a Cro-Magnon person actually painted, that his hand really held the stick that transferred the paint from the pot to the rock, and that we are seeing exactly the same paint that he put there? If you love antiques, as you do if you are reading this, I don’t need to ask what your answer is. You want authenticity.
A replica allows us to see, admire and evaluate the skill and even the imagination that went into the original. But it is still not the original: It does not have a presence that we and the maker can share. It is this common presence that crosses the boundaries of place and time that we call “authenticity.” For me then, authenticity is not just a quality of the art-object itself – it includes our experience of that artwork. To be satisfied, we need an authentic experience.
The reproduction of the red hand at the top of this column can’t possibly give you the authentic experience of the hand itself. Obviously not. The best it can do is give you a distant sense of what the hand looked like. Before I climbed down into the Pech Merle caves I had admired and been moved by reproductions of cave paintings – that was one of the key reasons why I wanted to see the thing itself. Even though I had expected that seeing the real paintings would be much more powerful than seeing their reproductions, I was taken aback by how vastly different the two experiences were. One was authentic – it connected me directly with another human being who was just about as far removed from me as it was possible to be – and the other was not.
In the world of reproductions, the replica caves of Lascaux may be as perfect as possible, but they are still not, and never can be, authentic. I don’t want to be too judgmental here: If the quest for authenticity destroys the authentic object, we need replicas. Similarly, if no authentic original has survived (e.g. the Alexander Knight House, see p. 36) then a replica can get us as close as possible to it. The experience a replica offers is valuable in itself. Trying to imagine the presence of the real thing from looking at a replica is a wonderful ability to develop – if it weren’t, all history of art courses would be useless. If we know that authenticity is missing, we can imagine what it might be like if it were present; we can, up to a point, compensate imaginatively for its absence.
If I was moved more by the hand than the horse – as I was – it was because its presence seemed more immediate, less mediated; the painting stick imposed a certain distance between the hand of the artist and the artwork. Of course, the horse was undeniably authentic, and it is merely a personal quirk of mine that leads me to prefer the hand.
A couple of years ago a disputed Rembrandt was authenticated when conservators found a faint fingerprint of his in the paint that they were able to match with another in an undisputed painting. That same quirk would make me look first for the fingerprint if I was looking at the painting. Rembrandt’s fingerprint and the Cro-Magnon woman’s hand both have the sort of physical immediacy that turns me on.
This is why I get so much out of Rob Tarule’s work on seventeenth-century furniture. Because he is a woodworker himself, he can identify the fingerprints of tools. In an article in NEAJ (August, 2013) he showed how a cupboard sold at Sotheby’s had been misattributed by them. He was able to trace toolprints on it that were identical to the toolprints on two seventeenth-century chests. The toolprints showed that all three pieces had been made by the same joiner, and research had told us that his shop was in Plymouth, Mass.
Similarly, Tarule has shown that the Thomas Dennis chest in our own Whipple House in Ipswich has what he calls a “V-V-Ogee” molding that appears only on Dennis’ work and therefore that all the pieces on which it appears must all have been made by the same molding plane (or scratch-molding blade) that was unique to his shop in Ipswich. Actually, the same molding is also found on furniture made in Exeter, England, which is where Dennis was apprenticed. It is likely, therefore, that the tool was part of the set that the master gave to an apprentice when he “graduated,” and that Dennis brought it with him when he immigrated. The molding tool was an extension of Dennis’ hand. The Cro- Magnon hand, Rembrandt’s fingerprint, Dennis’ toolprint… You see what I’m getting at?
I love that red hand, but I could never hang a reproduction of it on my wall: It would only remind me constantly that it was not the real thing. I might, however, use it as wallpaper on my computer where I don’t expect anything to be real. Similarly, I would not want to live with Rob Tarule’s precise replica of the Dennis chest in the Whipple House – except perhaps as a sign of my connection with Rob. Authenticity matters so much to antiques collectors because it is unique in forging a bond between the original maker and the current owner, between the time in which it was made and the present day.
The visual and tactile appeal of an antique is undeniable, but authenticity works in the realm of knowledge, not in that of the senses. I really need to know whether that Mona Lisa I’m looking at is, or is not, authentic: I can’t tell just by looking.
Skip the caves of Lascaux and go to Pech Merle instead.
July 2015 - Fish Forks and Elephants
All over New England antiques dealers have been fighting a slew of attempts to ban the sale of ivory. Now, in my opinion at least, the environmental and ecological groups that are proposing these bans are, in almost all their work, totally admirable. But in this case, they’re stupid and ignorant. They may well understand nature, particularly elephants, but they have a skewed perception of who sells and who buys ivory. No one (I hope) would argue against banning the sale of fresh-killed ivory, which is a large and despicable part of the market. But, as we antiques aficionados know full well, it is far from the whole of the market.
The ivory-ban proponents have decided that their best strategy is to impose the bans on a state by state basis, not federally, which is why there are state-based battles going on all over New England. It reminds me a bit of the situation a few years ago when dealers all over New England were fighting local ordinances aimed at regulating (read “restricting”) the sale of second-hand goods, which of course included antiques. Under these ordinances, dealers would have to keep any new acquisition off the market for 30 days, they’d have to ID (sometimes photo ID) everyone they bought from, and they’d have to file monthly purchase and sales reports with their local cop shop.
The ivory bans and the second-hand goods restrictions have one thing in common: They assume that antiques dealers are bad guys – they put them in the same category as ivory poachers or burglars. That annoys me and worries me. But what worries me even more is that no one outside the antiques business seems to care, or even to notice. Why is it that otherwise sensible people (let’s assume for the moment that we’re including state legislators here) can un-problematically put elephant poachers with machine guns into the same category as a guy selling ivory-handled fish forks?
Are the similarities really more significant than the differences? Really? If so, we have a huge image problem, particularly if our legislators and law enforcement agencies treat that image as though it were reality.
The contrast may be starker in ivory sales than in the case of treating fencing stolen goods and selling antiques as fundamentally the same activity, but at heart there’s no difference.
A matter of knowledge
Today, image is everything. Huge corporations spend huge sums on images that they think will help them sell their products. What does the antiques business do? Nothing. What can the antiques business do? Almost nothing. We simply do not have the resources to create a nation-wide image as Nike does. We ply our trade in an image vacuum: There is no clear cut image of an antiques dealer to set against the image of a poacher with an AK-47, or even of a cocky kid fencing a laptop snatched from a Starbucks. So antiques’ dealing is easily subsumed, in the minds of some legislators at least, into slaughtering elephants or fencing laptops.
Now obviously, just like poachers or thieves, antiques dealers do sell things – or try to. But that is not all we do. If we allow ourselves to be seen simply as sellers, we’re making it easier to be lumped in with sellers of stolen goods – whether stolen from an elephant or my grandmother.
Besides selling antiques, we sell knowledge. Besides working in the retail economy, we work in the knowledge economy – which is big business these days.
In general, however, we are less than effective at presenting ourselves as purveyors of knowledge. We are more even than that: We are also preservationists and conservationists. We preserve the nation’s past and thus its identity; we conserve objects from that past so that they will be available in the future. This is all the knowledge economy in practice, and I’d like to see us show greater pride of our work in it. Can the guy selling Victorian fish forks present himself as a purveyor of knowledge? Can he show that fish forks carry the story of the Victorian industrial consciousness?
Wow, what a mouthful that is! But it makes sense, and “meaning” can be distributed just like any other commodity. The Victorians were proud of the degree to which they had fulfilled the potential of industrialization. They were able to make a gadget for every human activity, and thus to make human life easier, more civilized and more advanced. Look at a Victorian dinner table. Each place setting has three or four different glasses, three or four different forks, spoons and knives – for bread, soup, fish, meat, dessert — whatever was eaten or drunk had a gadget to eat it or drink it with. And if some gadgets had ivory handles, that was a sign of the proliferation of consumer choice – yet another result of the perfection of industrial processes.
It was all a genuine source of pride that played a leading role in the Victorian consciousness. A gadget for every need, prolific consumer choice – that’s what Victorian fish forks “mean.” Come to think of it, that’s a bit like my smartphone – an app for every conceivable need, an infinity of consumer choice. Now, I happen to be as baffled by most of my phone as I would be in front of a Victorian table setting – but that’s neither here nor there. Fish forks were to a mechanical age what my smartphone is to a digital one.
That’s the sort of thing I have in mind when I think of an antiques dealer as a knowledge worker, which is one of the categories of labor that is actually growing in the digital age. There’s nothing strained about this idea. Antiques dealers have always sold knowledge, and collectors have always bought knowledge from them along with objects. Indeed, if we strip the knowledge factor from an antique we change its very nature – it stops being an antique and changes into just an old thing. And that highlights the ignorance of unthinking legislators: They take it for granted that all we do is sell things. They take it for granted that our activity is the same as a poacher or a fence.
I think we can change this dangerous misperception – not just among politicians and cops, but also among members of the public who happen to share it.
As I have said, I see no possibility of creating a widely recognizable “brand image” for antiques: We do not have the scale or the resources of a centralized structure to produce one. We are nothing like a large corporation, nor a large organized industry such as milk production (“Got Milk” anyone?). But I do see the chance, at the grass roots level, of cultivating an image, if not of creating one. We are a large business, we are widely dispersed all over the country, in small towns and big cities, in places where people live and where they visit on vacation. We sell a huge diversity of objects at prices to suit every pocket, from one dollar to a million. But the one thing that we sell that is common to every transaction is knowledge: All dealers and all the objects they sell tell stories.
The stories told by antiques and the dealers who sell them are stories about the past, stories about the people who made them and the people who used them. They are also stories about us, about who we are today as well as who we used to be. The stories give us a sense of what it was like to live in ways that are different from, but still connected with, the ways in which we live today. They are stories about people who were like us, but who lived in a different time or place.
There is no reason to buy a Victorian fish fork if all you want to do is to eat fish. You eat fish with a fish fork because it can tell you an interesting story that a plastic fork or one made from a shiny unidentifiable alloy cannot – though, incidentally, faint echoes of what a fish fork “means” can be heard when we call the things we use today “silverware”! The more that the dealer knows and tells about the fish fork, the richer it becomes. People are hungry for knowledge: The main reason they go on the Internet is to find out.
And typically, the best way to pass on knowledge is one-on-one. This is where being such a widely dispersed business, instead of a centralized one, becomes an advantage. I like to think of the antiques business as tens of thousands of dealers talking to tens of thousands of customers in every corner of the country. Talking, sharing knowledge. The more time we spend talking to customers the better. Now I know that not everyone who steps into my show booth wants to hear me rattle on about a rushnip or a splint holder. But there are some who do, and some of those may quite possibly buy a splint holder because of the story it tells them, the story about how people in northern climates tried to bring light into their homes as cheaply as possible. They’ll walk out of my booth not just with an intriguing object, but also with knowledge that they’d never had before. And that makes them feel good. It’s impossible to tell which gives them the greater satisfaction, object or knowledge. In an antique, object and knowledge are so intimately intertwined that we cannot separate them; like love and marriage, “you can’t have one without the o-other!”
What we do need to divorce from each other is the antiques business and the rest of the retail business. We are different. Other retail sectors sell things in fashion, things to project oneself – and they’re good at doing this, so they’re in little danger of being lumped in with poachers and burglars. We sell antiques, and antiques are things to think with.
Eventually, if enough people come to recognize antiques as “thinking things,” then that image of our business may eventually percolate through to the legislators who do, after all, rely on our customers to keep electing them. It might even help them see the difference between an antique fish fork and a freshly killed tusk. Wouldn’t that be nice?
June 2015 - Think Local
I need local history, both because it’s history and because it’s local. But that makes me feel a tad isolated: The need for “the local” is an offbeat need today. Millennials can have no sense of the local when they move every two years (as I just read). As long as each move is further away from me, I suppose I shouldn’t complain. But I do worry that we’re losing the way that the local, a real and unique place, can infuse our sense of identity and sense of belonging. Perhaps I’m over-aware of this because I’ve moved around a lot in my life – England, Wales, Western Australia, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Vermont and now Massachusetts. Gosh, you could almost mistake me for a Millennial!
My mere seven years in 375-year-old Ipswich make me irredeemably a newcomer, not a local. But nonetheless I feel remarkably “Ipswich.” The true, multi-general Ipswich townsfolk listened to me respectfully at Town Meeting when I presented the case for an Architectural Preservation District and enough voted on our side for the town to establish it.
One of the first things I did on arriving in Ipswich was to join the Ipswich Museum, and one of the first things I did there was to lead the effort to acquire a chest made in Ipswich, c. 1700, by a son of our most famous joiner, Thomas Dennis.
The history of the town engaged me from the start, and I engaged with it. I hope my efforts on behalf of its local history have helped the town: Certainly the history of the town has helped me. I have to wonder if my (new) local history is so important to me because I have moved so often, as well as the obvious fact that there is an affinity between me and the history of the town. I think there must be: The world today is mobile and globalized (as I have been) which is why, perhaps, local history and identity have come to mean so much to me.
The local history that works powerfully for me is the one that’s written in and by our Colonial houses. When the early settlers first arrived, Ipswich was surrounded by meadows, marshes and seemingly endless woodlands. So felling trees was of double benefit: It provided building material and cleared the land for grazing and planting.
For nearly 200 years, Ipswich houses were framed houses, houses whose structural core consisted of box-frames made of posts and beams joined by mortise-and-tenon joints. This pre-set the dimensions of the houses: A beam of a reasonable cross-section could span 12 to 16 feet easily, but larger spans required larger beams, which were both uneconomic in the use of timber and were too heavy for a housewright and his apprentice to handle comfortably.
Longer logs were also difficult to haul out of the woods and into the town – quite a few miles as the forests were cut steadily further and further from the town. A ceiling height of about seven feet or slightly more was also comfortable for humans and economic in timber.
So all our first and second period houses were built around box-frames of roughly seven feet by 12 to 16 feet, which is why they are so comfortably human-scaled. Our period streetscapes, therefore, have a pleasing harmony, a harmony based on the nature of wood and the nature of the human body. As a result, our local house design was a happy blend of cultural tradition (drawn from English villages) and nature itself. No wonder our houses fit together so naturally.
This is not to say that all the houses were the same size – some were half-houses (one box-frame on top of another with a door and staircase to the side) and some were “full” houses (two box-frames on top of two box-frames with the door and staircase in the center, see the blue and the red houses in the photo) and some had more box-frames added to make them larger still. But their core skeleton is the same – the human-scaled box-frame.
This means that McMansions were unthinkable. Unlike England, Ipswich has no colonial houses that were built to show off their owners’ exceptional wealth: There are no houses built to be “better” than their neighbors. (The gables in the front of the Whipple House were one of the very few flashy architectural features in town.) These early houses of Ipswich were the houses of a community, not of a society based on class difference or on competitive individualism: They were the houses of people who wanted to fit in, not stand out.
It may be worth noting here that timber-framed houses did not survive the industrial revolution, but were superseded by “balloon” or “stick” built homes. In these, the basic structure consisted of studs set in frames that could be any size or shape, and could even be curved – an impossibility with timber-framed houses. So the Victorian era began to see explicitly ostentatious design: Ipswich, of course, has its historic mansions, but they were all built after the colonial period. Social values and industrial technology changed in tandem: Balloon construction needed fast circular saws, introduced in the 1830s, to do all the milling necessary for the hundreds if not thousands of studs required for a large house. The posts and beams of a Colonial house were, of course, cut by mill saws that replicated the (much slower) work of two men and a saw pit.
Our timber-frame houses, then, are documents of a period built around communal values, the values of those who immigrated to build a new community, not just to get rich, as with the plantations of Virginia. These people wanted to be part of a growing, thriving community, not to stand out from or above it. These values are written in paper documents as well as wooden ones. In the journals of men, in the correspondence between fathers and sons (sorry, ladies, but this was a very patriarchal society) two of the recurrent themes that resonate with me also resonate with the houses of the time. They are “securing a competence,” and the desire to be “serviceable.”
A “competence” was an income sufficient for a man to provide comfort and security for his family. Time and again we read of sons struggling to “secure a competence,” and of fathers advising sons to work to achieve one. We do not find sons expressing their ambition to become stinking rich, to earn more than anyone around them. A Colonial, timber-framed house is the perfect house for the man who has secured his competence.
Being “serviceable” meant that one’s daily life and work should help the community thrive and strengthen. It meant being of service, not in today’s sense of performing “community service” as a separate, finite activity, but as a way of living that gave value to the community as well as oneself. For an artisan being serviceable meant making whatever it was he made as well as he possibly could. A joiner would not be satisfied with making a chest that that was merely adequate for storing things: To be serviceable, he would make one that would store things for 300 years, and store them beautifully. The same with houses, which is why so many have survived. The community benefitted from having well made houses, barrels, ships and furniture.
There was no concept of retirement then. As people got older, their work changed and reduced, but they never sat back and wondered what to do when they woke up. There are no first period golf courses. Those who became too infirm to be productive lamented that they were no longer serviceable, no longer of value to the community: Consequently they felt diminished.
Serviceableness, then, was the communal side of what people made or did, and without it, things were not worth doing. Our timber-framed houses were made by and for people for whom serviceableness mattered. You’ll find plenty of them in Ipswich, but not in Manhattan.
To be serviceable and to live within a competence – those are desires that build a community and they are deeply engraved in our local history. And the Millennials haven’t got a clue about them.
In a world built on the twin poles of the individual and the global, the local is clearly at risk — it lies in the neglected middle. It makes me think of the difference between an antique and a selfie. Antiques are, for the most part, local products: The locality (and period) in which they were made is an important part of their identity and of their interest for the collector. The selfie, on the other hand, (am I the only person in the world who has never taken one?) is individualism in extremis, look at me, here I am, look I can see me, look at me looking at me. And then, of course, the secondary reason for a selfie to exist is to be uploaded, when, of course, it immediately becomes global, an image in cyberspace.
There is no starker contrast to a selfie and cyber-space than a timber-framed house. A timber-framed house is irredeemably local: It was made of local timber by a local carpenter for a local man and his household. Nothing more, nothing less.
Narcissistic individualism and cyber-manic globalism may be the twin poles of contemporary life. If that really is the case, what a thin, shallow, unsatisfying way of life we have developed. But, actually, that is not the case. There are plenty of us who still want to feel rooted, anchored. And we can only cast an anchor locally – the global offers no anchorages. Even some of those bi-polar Millennials will eventually come to realize what they are missing. We “localists,” to coin a word, may be out of fashion but we’re not out of life. I have no idea how many of us there are, but I see signs of us everywhere – locavores, local museums, conservation and preservation programs, and yes, antiques collecting. Localists may be swimming against the tide, but we’re not being swept away: we’re working in that neglected middle, and we are preserving the concept of “the local.” And one day, the Millennials will thank us.
May 2015 - The Necessity of the Random
Now, I’m not normally a violent man, but it was all I could do to stop myself from hurling a shelter magazine violently across the room. The only thing that stopped me was the fear of hitting one of little, old things that give me so much pleasure as I look at them from the comfort of my (modern) easy chair.
But back to that infuriating magazine, our regional glossy that arrives every month in our mailbox. It is about what I think you call “lifestyle,” everything from interior décor to fussy little accessories to private schools. Just occasionally, an antique appears, looking as out of place as a cow in a cornfield. Mostly, I flip through it with feelings ranging from mild interest to mild irritation.
I don’t know why this particular illustration nearly pushed me over the edge. But it did. It showed a large wall unit of 18-inch cubes, each of which held a decorative object precisely centered. Some objects were repeated, carefully “scattered” among the cubes, others were one-offs, and all matched the powder-blue of the wall unit perfectly. The whole thing was so darned designed that it was all principal and no personality – it obeyed every contemporary design principal to perfection – if that’s the word you want to use.
In retrospect, I think that my surge of frustration was caused by the way that it left no room for the random, no space for the serendipitous. If the design principal preached that it shouldn’t be there, then it shouldn’t be. Randomness and serendipity have become the eighth deadly sin – they corrupt our carefully designed lives.
But the old things that prevented me hurling the magazine across the room are, every one of them, the result of a serendipitous find, a random act of acquisition: In one way or another they celebrate the surprise of the unexpected. I don’t know about you, but for me a life without the unexpected would be a life at half-cock. And a great antique is always, of course, unexpected.
Now that doesn’t mean that I’m against order or careful arrangement altogether, but the order/arrangement comes after the serendipitous purchase, it does not guide it, as it did with those things that fitted so well in the wall unit. Each one was purchased for the precise spot that it occupied.
No designer would have allowed me to buy our killick. A killick is an anchor made of a pointed slab of fieldstone held in a wooden frame: Killicks were used up and down the coast of seventeenth-century New England when cast iron anchors were hard to come by. I had no idea that such a thing even existed when, out of the blue, I came across this one and just had to buy it. Talk about the joy of the random! It’s given Lisa and me a whole pile of pleasure ever since.
The killick sits on an old pine sea chest that belonged to Lisa’s grandmother and next to it is an early eighteenth-century Irish side table on which are three pieces of sixteenth-century brass, two seventeenth-century wooden carvings and a small modern stone sculpture. Everything was bought individually without the slightest thought of the ensemble in which it would end up. Lisa’s got a good eye, and the whole arrangement works perfectly, but it’s an arrangement of random objects whose randomness preceded the arrangement, and still takes precedence over it. The pleasure we both derive from it comes finally from the interplay between the opposing principals of order and randomness.
Many Americans spend their working lives in organizations that are designed to be maximally efficient. Every person and every moment is designed to fit seamlessly with every other moment and every other person. We’re talking cogs in a machine here, and when the machine works well, everything all works like clockwork. But machines eliminate randomness, because randomness is inefficient. Randomness disrupts efficiency, and efficiency is the goddess of modern life. I get that.
But what I don’t get is the desire to come home to a room that embodies the same principles: Make everything fit together and eliminate the random. Design your home with a visual smoothness that echoes the smooth running machine of the work place. Allow nothing to interrupt its visual smoothness and efficiency. I just don’t get it.
Interior design and living with antiques sit on opposite ends of the spectrum. Design emphasizes the overall look over the individual objects that constitute it. The antiques collector, on the other hand, gives full priority to the object and fitting it into a design is a secondary matter. Interior design may use antiques, and antiques collectors design their interiors, but their priorities are different.
Design, furnishing and collecting
More centrally placed on the spectrum are those whom Lisa and I refer to as “furnishers.” They enjoy furnishing their home with antiques, but their buying is driven by the function the antique will perform and the space it will occupy. They are certainly interested in the authenticity and history of the object, but this interest is never the primary factor in their buying.
A couple of years ago I helped a customer carry a cupboard upstairs. The stairs were narrow and steep, they had two 90-degree turns, and the cupboard was oak. It was a huff-puff-take-a-rest sort of an operation but we managed it. In the bedroom, my customer had pushed other pieces together so that they were almost touching, but he’d created a gap into which we could just squeeze the cupboard. He sat on the bed looking at it, and I’ve rarely seen a happier face. A collector, not a furnisher. No question.
Furniture sales have been pretty slow over the past few years, and for us, the “furnishers” have just about gone away, while the collectors are still buying, albeit cautiously. More “decorator-savvy” dealers are often doing better: Design is healthier than collecting. This brings me back to an observation that I’ve made before: I believe the antiques business is polarizing: Interior décor and metropolitan shows at one end, and collecting and smaller city shows on the other. I’m also beginning to think that the market for collecting is contracting to the North East of the country, roughly from DC and Pennsylvania up to Maine.
So my frustration with the powder-blue, totally designed wall unit is probably fueled by the sense that I’m losing and that darned thing is winning. No, I shall not use the word “losing”: I may be swimming against the tide, but darn it, I’m still swimming and I’m swimming hard.
Further evidence of the tide came across my desk last week: The 35-year old Nantucket Antiques Show has been “rebranded” (note the mass-market origin of the term) as the Decorative and Fine Art Show, Nantucket. Decorative has replaced antiques – you’ll surely be able to fill the powder-blue cubes of your wall unit there. The Ellis Memorial Antiques Show, Boston, was once one of the three most venerable and venerated antiques shows in the country. It died and was revived as the Ellis Boston Antiques Show (at which we exhibited) but that died, and has been brought back to life as the Boston Home Décor Show, a show that is “tailored to the changing tastes and demographics of collectors in Boston and its environs.”
The Nantucket show was aimed mainly at furnishers, and the Ellis Show was a metropolitan show that was losing its appeal to collectors of traditional antiques – which may be what is currently happening to the Philadelphia show. My bet is that the Boston Home Décor Show will thrive.
Now I’m certainly not criticizing the promoters here: Just the opposite, they’re doing exactly what good promoters should do in order to keep shows alive. The Boston Home Décor Show will have antiques in it, and, despite everything I’ve written so far, I’m strongly in favor of showing how antiques can be part of décor for people who are not antiques collectors. But an antique chosen to “make a statement” (heard that phrase before?) in a carefully designed interior is not the same as a clutter of antique objects that have been brought together happily but, to an extent, randomly.
Sometimes (but not often), I wish I could be as market-responsive as a good show promoter. But I can’t: I’m handcuffed by my passion. My choice of antiques to deal in derives from a passion for early English oak that is deeply personal, and this passion keeps me alert for any opportunity to increase my knowledge and sharpen my expertise. I can’t suddenly change it to what the market is doing today. I just can’t. And I’m absolutely typical here – many dealers wear the same handcuffs.
While the market for “collector” antiques has been shrinking, it has also been consolidating and I doubt if it’s going to shrink much further. At shows in smaller cities such as Hartford, we have sold to collectors from Boston, New York City and Philadelphia. They come to these shows in preference to their “neighborhood” metropolitan show, because they know that they are the venues where they are more likely to find that special antique: Not one that fills a 34 ½-inch space between a door and a window, but one that hits them between the eyes, one they cannot go home without. The random, the unexpected.
There will always be collectors for whom the smooth surface of design is unsatisfying; there will always be collectors for whom the smooth efficiency of the workplace is something to leave behind, not come home to. Their personalities are often a bit like the antiques they collect: They have random quirks that are uniquely theirs. What is more, praise be, they maintain their quirks against the efficiency of organizational culture, in spite of the “perfection” of the designed interior.
For many of us, the best bits of life are the random, unexpected and unique. That’s why we love antiques.
April 2015 - Girls and “Jappan”
A train of thought led me to an unusual place earlier this week. Mentally, that is. It made me ask a question about young girls and their education that had never before seemed an issue to me. Let me take you along the track that led me there.
I was writing a short essay for the newsletter we send to our clients every couple of months or so. We had just acquired a “Japanned” box from around 1700 and I thought our readers might be interested in learning a bit more about Japanning and, in particular, how it became a fashionable accomplishment for young women of the period.
I started with a quote from a letter written by Edward Verney to his daughter in 1685: “I find you have a desire to learn Jappan, as you call it, and I approve of it, and so I shall of anything that is Good and Virtuous, therefore learn in God’s name all the Good Things, & I will willingly be at the Charge so farr as I am able – though they come from Japan & never so farr & Looke of an Indian Hue and Odour, for I admire all accomplishments that will render you considerable and lovely in the sight of God and man.”
“Japanning,” by the way, was the name given to English (and American) attempts to imitate oriental lacquer. In England (though less so in America) it quickly caught on as an accomplishment for young ladies.
One comment I made on the letter was that I was pretty sure that Verney set a higher priority on “rendering” his daughter “considerable and lovely” in the sight of man, i.e. a future husband, than in the sight of God – for which, hopefully, the payoff would be long delayed.
The young girl who had Japanned our box was clearly of a similar mind. To show how fashionable she was, she included a tripod table with a tea pot and handleless cups that had been imported from China. Tripod tables and stands were not common in seventeenth-century England, but they existed: What was new and trendy about this one were the cabriole legs, which, like the tea pot, came to England from China. She was planning to be an admirably modern wife, well equipped to be hostess at one of the newly fashionable (and expensive) tea parties.
Verney may have been a tad suspicious about things that “come from Japan & never so farr & Looke of an Indian Hue and Odour,” but he did want his daughter to be fashionable and thus marriageable. “India” – the portmanteau word for everything east of the Mediterranean – may have seemed “never so farr” to a traditional Englishman, but its china, its silks and its tea were indispensible to the high life of the day. Japanning was the first sign of the global economy (in which England was heavily invested) to reach the culture of young girls.
(Japanning, if you’re interested, involved using three or more coats of black, red or green varnish as background, and then laying the raised design in a gesso-like paste which was painted and then finished with more coats of varnish. The technique was thoroughly described in a popular book by Stalker and Parker, Treatise of Japaning and Varnishing: being a compleat Discovery of those Arts…together with above an hundred distinct patterns for japan-work…(1688) that was used by both amateurs and professionals, though the authors scorned those who taught amateurs like Verney’s daughter: “…those whiffling, impotent fellows, who pretend to teach young Ladies that Art in which they themselves need to be instructed.”)
To keep the essay short, I decided not to digress into needlework, even though it was the most important of girls’ “accomplishments” for some 300 years. The needle arts were thoroughly domestic, with none of the exoticism of Japanning, thought some exotic animals did show up as occasional motifs. I could have gone further, pointing out that many of the subjects of early needle art were drawn from the Old Testament, which had been fully assimilated into the secular, Protestant, English culture (by contrast, the Catholic countries turned more to the New Testament for their iconography).
None of that was my point: I wanted to focus on the artistic, creative side of girl culture. The sheer skill of these girls, particularly in needlework, though less so in our Japanned box, was so highly developed that it still takes our breath away; we are constantly grateful to them for leaving us such beautiful objects.
I planned to end the essay with the lament that the culture of young women today is digital, not material: It’s all on electronic devices and social media. Consequently, there’s nothing for them to leave for future generations to enjoy; they leave no footprints from their passage through life. What impact will they have on Americans 300 years from now? None. What material trace will they have left of their existence in 2015? None. I felt quite pleased with myself for this resonant conclusion, and even toyed with the idea of ramming it home by exclaiming, “And they don’t give a damn!”
Training for life
It was that exclamation that pulled me up short. I seemed to be painting the culture of young women in earlier periods as almost idyllic, and that it had been all downhill from there. I was implicitly comparing the skill and perseverance involved in producing a needlework of the judgment of Solomon with the speed of a pair of thumbs over a tiny keyboard, and finding it infinitely and inherently superior. Which of course it is. Or is it, I wondered?
The skills I was valuing so highly in these girls were actually designed to funnel them into narrow, restricted lives. Their handiwork was the measure of their worth: It indicated the level of housewifery that a “good” husband required and expected. And we note that this highly developed handiwork was all copied. Motifs were published in handbooks (and in treatises on Japanning) and the development of engraving that could be printed allowed these motifs to be distributed everywhere and to every girl. There was no opportunity, let alone encouragement, for a girl to use her imagination to create an image that nobody had ever seen before, an image that was uniquely hers. That ability was certainly not on the wish-list of a “good” husband.
I suspect that teen-girl culture today is just as conformist and non-original (though I may be off-base here – I only read about it from adults who belittle it: I certainly don’t dip into it myself – ugh!) The end result may well be much the same – young girls doing what other young girls are doing.
The big difference between then and now is, of course, the education system. Then, education was designed to give girls narrow horizons and to developed limited skills that could be applied within them. Today, education is designed to give girls the broadest horizons possible: The conformist culture of young girls is their own product, their own choice and it is certainly not validated by teachers, parents and schools. No one today would encourage their daughter or student to render herself “considerable” by a potential husband by displaying high skill in a handicraft.
But I still can’t talk myself out of loving the needleworks, the samplers, the mourning pictures and even the Japan-work produced by teenage girls of earlier periods. Part of it, of course, is my breathless admiration of their skill (and I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that great skill is necessary to great art – you’ll never find conceptual art in my living spaces). This allows the best of schoolgirl art to achieve an aesthetic quality and an individuality that transcends its restrictive, conventional framework. Conventions are social; art is individual. The conventions that shaped the needle arts in different eras are the products of their particular society.
What young girls made of them is the product of their imaginations and ultimately of their individuality. Any art involves a tension between conventions, which are always restrictive, and originality, which always bucks against those conventions, or at least, pushes their limits.
In these schoolgirl arts, conventions may seem to exert undue force. All the more credit then to those girls who transcended them or stretched them, while working within them. In fact, the more powerful and narrower the convention, the more admirable is the ability to transcend it, or at least to create personal space within it.
I can’t see any great artistic ability in our Japanned box, but what I can see (and love) is personality. There’s a jauntiness in the way the figures are set in relation to each other, she is in charge and he’s pleading with her, and there’s an exuberance in the way that the curves of the table are (almost) out-of-control. The young girl artist was, I am sure, self-confidently jaunty and not as easy to keep under control as her father would have wished. I like her.
And I can’t tell you how delighted I am that her Japanning has given me a glimpse of her even though I’m living 300 years after she did. I also feel kinda sorry that Americans living 300 years after me won’t be able to experience the enjoyment that her Japanning on that box has given me.
March 2015 - “Thinginess”
I’ve had a couple of prompts this month to revisit a topic I’ve touched on before. In “Yours Sincerely” (p.62) I tell about our efforts (successful, I’m pleased to say) to bring a spoon owned by Mary Whipple back to the Whipple House where she once used it. I comment on the imaginative satisfaction of history in place, and why history in things works upon us differently than history in words. Then there is a letter from Alan Tongret (thank you, Alan) agreeing with my October 2014 “In My Opinion” on the “Fecundity of Clutter.”
Both these pieces touch on something that is very important to me – the resonance of things, particularly things that are wrapped in layers of history. This material presence of a thing, its “thinginess,” we might say, needs reasserting in a world in which virtual reality, i.e. reality without things, has become the ubiquitous place to which everyone turns to satisfy their imaginations. This pleasure may be “real,” despite its existence only in the virtual world, but it is not adequate. Screens are useful, enjoyable and even necessary, but they are insufficient: The human spirit needs more than they can deliver. We need things.
Places are things, too. A place has the same material presence as a thing, and as our body. We all live in a material world that virtual reality skates over the top of. (In the concept of “place,” I want to include “time,” particularly times past for, as L. P. Hartley has said, “the past is another country, they do things differently there.”) When we see the Whipple spoon in the Whipple House we have a material experience of us+thing+place that vividly highlights what screens can never bring us.
Now this, of course, brings me to the Elgin marbles and the Lascaux caves. The Elgin marbles are in the British Museum in London: The Parthenon, which is their “place,” is on the Acropolis in Athens. This would seem a clear case for a “Whipple spoon” maneuver to put these magnificent things back in their magnificent place. It may be on a far larger scale than a spoon, but the principle is the same.
Now, I’m sympathetic to the fear that replacing them on the Parthenon would subject them to damaging atmospheric pollution, but Greece has prepared an environmentally controlled display space just at the foot of the Acropolis — as close as possible to their original place. It’s a compromise, but an unavoidable one. A thing nearly in its place is nearly as good as a thing really in its place.
An apparently similar com-promise has been reached at the Lascaux caves: The breath and sweat and warmth of thousands of bodies looking at the cave paintings would degrade and eventually destroy the things those bodies have come to experience. So the public now goes down into an exact replica of the caves and sees exact replicas of the paintings. Apparently, you can’t tell the difference. In the slightly-out-of-place Elgin Marbles, you wouldn’t need to tell the difference because you’d be experiencing the real thing, which makes me OK with the Elgin Marbles example, but more uncomfortable with the faux Lascaux.
Also in play here is the argument that that the Elgin Marbles in London will be seen by millions of people who could not get to Athens to see them. This may be a pretty weak argument in these days of cheap travel, but it does make a valid point. Every object in every museum is, by definition, an object-out-of-place (with the exception of some historic house museums like the Whipple House). I love going to a museum and seeing things from another place, another time, which I could never see were they not out-of-place.
In an increasingly intercon-nected world, it is increasingly important to be able to stand next to things made by other people in other places at other times. We share a common humanity, and can often best experience that commonality through things that have come from their place to ours. Museums do that well, which in today’s fractured world is no bad thing. Things-out-of-place may work differently from things-in-their-place, but the work they do is equally important.
Things out of place
A collection of antiques is like a museum collection in that it consists of things-out-of-place. But collectors go to great lengths to preserve as much as they can of that connection between thing and place. They want to know just where and when an antique was made, and the more precisely they can identify its place the happier they are. The antique may be out of its place, but its place is in the antique: what we have to do is uncover it.
The example of experiencing the Whipple spoon in the Whipple House is a perfect storm of us+thing+place that can only rarely be achieved. Where most collectors and most museums have to compromise is on the connection between thing and place. What cannot be compromised, however, is the connection between us and thing. We and the thing have to be physically together for a moment that is unique to us. It’s the direct opposite of an experience with a screen, which is of no place, no precise time and is shared with countless, unknowable others. It is the connection between body and thing that we are in danger of losing, and it’s a connection that really matters.
This is what makes me a tad uncomfortable with faux Lascaux caves in a way that I’m not with the Elgin Marbles at the foot of the Acropolis instead of at its highest point. I see all the arguments in favor of the faux Lascaux, but yet…
Eating dinner in one of the oldest houses in Ipswich faces me with a similar sense of unease. The dining room of the Hart House Restaurant is a replica of the room that was built in 1640. The original room is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, no longer in its place in the 1640 House in Ipswich. The room is the first thing that visitors see when they enter the American wing. Now the Met has 7,000,000 visitors a year from all over the world, and I’m genuinely proud that a room from my small town is seen by 7,000,000 people as the thing that embodies the settlement of early New England. But there’s still a part of me that wishes I could eat my dinner in the original room in its original place, even though only 25 others could share the experience with me. Put 7,000,000 people against 25 people and it’s hard to argue against the displacement of the room, but yet…
OK, it’s almost inescapable that many things are detached from their place, but they are still things, things to which we can relate materially. Imagine going to the Met and seeing our 1640 room on a screen – life-size, high resolution, every technical bell and whistle you can think of, but still a screen. Then ask yourself how different that would be from experiencing the thing itself. The screen has no “thinginess” and so it could offer only an impoverished experience – a virtual experience not a material one. In the world of screens, all connections are virtual, person to person, person to thing, person to thing to place. There’s no materiality about screens, yet we human beings have material bodies and we live in a material world.
Human beings need things, not just because things are functional, but because they are material, like us. We can hold things in our hands, throw them over our shoulders, do stuff with them that we could never do without them. We fill our places with things: There’s a “Whipple spoon” in every house. Wherever there are humans, there are things.
Equally, all human beings need history. Every society, every culture, tells stories about its past and its beginnings. To not have history is to not be human. When history and things come together, as in antique, we have something that is not merely special, but deeply human.
As I sit here at the beginning of the digital revolution, I find some reassuring parallels with the beginning of the industrial revolution. People then were so excited by what the new industries could do and the seemingly limitless promises they offered that they blinded themselves to any downside. Today, the new digital world seems so enchanting in what it can do and so limitless in what it can promise that we, too, can blind ourselves to its downside. It is almost heresy to point out its inadequacies: It offers so much that we mislead ourselves into believing it offers everything.
It doesn’t. We need thinginess. Our bodies are things that relate to things and that want to live in places alongside things, and if we’re antiques collectors, the more things the better. Antiques remind us that human beings make things because things matter to us: a screen makes images – that’s all. Our new and oh-so-exciting digital world pushes things-that-matter to the margins of our social life. But that’s only because we’re besotted with a new love. Sooner or later we’ll come to our senses, reality will kick in and the world of things will regain a secure place alongside the world of screens. When it does, the world of things will be able to perform its new and proper function, which is to challenge the world of screens, to offer experiences that are richer, fuller and ultimately, more human. Before too long, I’ll bet the farm on it, things will put screens in their place.