When I became a dealer, older dealers showed us newbies the art of hands-on inspection. This investigative work uses 4 of the 5 senses.
Recently, while examining a unique cabinet by a well known Italian maker at an auction preview, I became uncomfortable. An interior bank of drawers looked fishy. I seemed to smell.. solvent or stain? What really made me uncomfortable was the underside of the top. On all fours, head inside the case, looking up, I saw…particle board, and not old particle board..but brand spanking new particle board, totally inconsistent with what should have been there. That lot sold for $20,000.00 and upon inspection was obviously doctored.
In the last two years Florian Papp, Newell Antiques, Karl Kemp, De Lorenzo, Louis Bofferding, Mallett and H.M. Luther have shuttered street level shops, in favor of consolidation, interior spaces and warehouses. High rents, the growth of online marketing and customers increasingly buying from images alone have played a role. Face to face inspections and the development of relationships between sellers and buyers are becoming passe’.
As some online market places limit direct communication, critical relationships between sellers and buyers are lost. Developing longstanding relationships where we can teach and learn from each other suffers as brick and mortar is phased out.
Less knowledgeable buyers are becoming increasingly reliant upon websites. All of this is having a deleterious effect on the historic checks and balances in the antiques industry. Often the size of and glamour of these websites lulls us into believing that what we see is what we’ll get .
The same people who wouldn’t buy stocks or do a film without doing their due diligence are buying expensive furniture without seeing it in the flesh. It’s a little like the Madoff scandal. His fund, beloved by the big shots became the place to be. Yet the people who did their due diligence and examined his methods never put their money into his fund. They were knowledgeable and what he was selling didn’t make sense.
I asked my friend and colleague Carl Lana to send me his thoughts about the importance of seeing things in the flesh. Here is what he said.
For years before the age of the internet, one went on excursions to shop for objects, antiques, both quirky and special. I would travel to London twice a year to bring back lots of smalls to compliment my interiors. Throughout the process, I was able to engage in informative and engaging conversations about many things but in particular the objects I was purchasing. Some had a story associated with them, others had correlations to historical periods. But more than these amusements, I became educated in what to look for when attempting to buy the real deal. Fakes and “in the style of” objects and furniture abound in all time periods. There’s nothing wrong with this but, it’s imperative that as a professional designer I be knowledgeable enough not to be misled.
In short, on most of my shopping excursions, both abroad and local, I have taken the opportunity to engage with and learn from experienced dealers. Through this process, I was able to differentiate between the dealers who had true knowledge and those that didn’t. When purchasing on behalf of a design client, I would always turn to those dealers whom I trusted to know and to validate for us the real value of any given piece.
With antique shopping, we must educate our eye and use our hands to feel and grasp the significance of a real antique. I’ve had much success over the years purchasing later period furnishings via the internet, but when it comes to the earlier period, one of a kind, or handmade piece to capture the artistry and merit of it, you need to experience it first hand.
Today, many have lost sight of the perks of going out into the marketplace: to discover, to be educated, and appreciate. In many ways, the current disfavor of 18th and 19th century traditional furniture has been fueled by the internet phenomenon. It’s much easier for us to purchase something known. A Saarinen chair with the Knoll sticker firmly attached is a readily identified icon.
But if we’re only shopping on the internet, both diversity and extending our skills as a designer or collector are lost. There’s scant knowledge or history exchanged. It’s a transaction and not much else.