Journal

28 March 2014

"HOW COULD I KNOW OR UNDERSTAND IF I HAD A GOOD EYE ?"

We work in an industry rich in oral tradition, we learn from each other, from our peers and predecessors and we all need some kind of support or help at various times.

Jim Kiddell must have been in his late 70s and already a legend in the Art and Antiques world, when I had the luck to meet and chat to him socially, entirely by chance.

Mr Kiddell, as I knew him, had spent his professional life at Sotheby’s and apart from being highly regarded, was also passionate, articulate, modest and generous.

At the time I was a junior trainee at Sotheby’s and unknown to him. I was an uninformed 21 year old, ambitious, enthusiastic and addicted. I was in awe of several junior cataloguers, only a year or so senior to me who seemed already to have spectacular specialist expertise and I aspired not only to develop my own, but to harness such knowledge with energy and ambition to create a life working for myself as an independent dealer.

I asked Mr Kiddell for his advice about this and how I might set about following such a dream. He spoke to me for a long time and as though there was nothing else that mattered to him. He asked me questions about how and where and with what I was planning to start this business enterprise, (none of which I honestly had any clear idea about), but he was patient, interested and considerate.

He chatted freely and informatively, but in summary he said that he would basically advise against such an initiative because there were too many hurdles in a profession where the rewards were generally small, the work demands total dedication, the competition is fierce and few succeed.

But he added that if it was something that I felt I “really needed to do, rather than wanted to do; if my passion to do it overrode such realities; and I was prepared for the setbacks and hurdles I would inevitably encounter”, then neither Sotheby’s, he or anyone else would probably be able to stop me. In which case he said I would “need to work harder and longer than the others, to study, look, and look again, remember what I had looked at and look again” and I would also “need luck and most importantly a “good eye”, the vital ingredient”, he said, “and the one that can’t be taught or learnt”.

How could I know or understand if I had a “good eye”? I enquired hastily and earnestly. “Ahh that’s just it”, he said, “You can’t, it‘s only others who can judge that”. It was hard, but sound advice.

The Director of the training scheme at Sotheby’s at that time was Derek Shrub, he was difficult, demanding, acerbic, charismatic and canny. I hated him for months, but as the curtains opened and the world of analytical observation he was introducing to me gradually came into some kind of focus, suddenly I found that I knew and could asses things about objects I had never seen before. I warmed to him greatly, and remain hugely indebted to him. He was a support and friend to Josyane and I in our early years. He built my foundations for me. One of the most helpful things he ever told me was “always go with your initial instinct when judging something, don’t be tempted to talk yourself round it, your gut will invariably be right”.

Frank Berendt was the founder of Alexander and Berendt. This was a firm of international repute with a gallery in Davies Street opposite Mallets at Bourdon House. They were the world’s leading specialists in the finest French Court Furniture of the C17th and C18th, they dealt with leading collectors and institutions and virtually the whole collection of this material at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles was sourced and supplied by A&B.

Before joining Sotheby’s as a trainee, I knocked on the door of Berendt’s armed with a vague family introduction, spoke with Mr Berendt and was taken on to dust the furniture and fill the humidifiers, along with any other menial tasks that arose. As time passed, occasionally the great man would invite me to sit at his bureau plat with him for a “tutorial”. I was enraptured. Again his breadth of knowledge and confident connoisseurship was awe inspiring and we developed a close bond at these tea time sessions. He was and continued to be supportive and encouraging to me, indeed it was he who shoe-horned me into Sotheby’s because, “you know nothing and there you will see and handle a lot of things and broaden your vision”. Then you can come back here when you can be some help to me”.


One day I asked him what “rules” were helpful when buying, how did he know where to invest his capital and hope to see a worthwhile return. He smiled a little indulgently and said that there were no “rules”, there was just a feeling that informed his decisions combined with the certainty that he knew what he was looking at. But he said “it may be helpful to consider the following, in this order, just to make sure that you tick all the boxes before following your heart”. His list read as follows;

“Rarity, Quality, Condition, Provenance and Price” in that order.

There was no internet, no Twitter, Pinterest, mobile phones, fax machines. There was no telephone bidding or Antiques Trade Gazette, only a very few illustrated catalogues, it was honestly a different world. But I would have loved to have been involved in an initiative like the Antiques Young Guns. This is an initiative that grew on social media, a world where young people, enthused by old things share stories, information and ideas. It has a positive energy and represents at least something of the future of the Art and Antiques Trade in Britain and wider.

This world is a long way from Jim Kiddell, Derek Shrub and Frank Berendt, but some within the Antiques Young Guns community I believe may be driven by the same passion and enthusiasm that guided them to the very top of their profession and I am delighted to support it and hope to be able to pass on some of the encouragement they gave me.

I am not yet sure what responsibilities or qualities are required of an Antiques Trade Heavy Artillery mentor or what contribution I will be able to make, but I applaud their energy and ambition and am happy they invited me to become a part of it.

 

20 March 2014

Busy times in our local "Battersea Design District" this week.

It certainly feels as though interest and demand in our field are as strong or stronger than at any time in our working lives. Great Folk Art and Vernacular pieces are of course increasingly hard to source and when they come on to the market are competitively contested.

In these circumstances, we have been feeling excited as we put together the Catalogue for our forthcoming Exhibition of Antique Folk Art. It is exciting putting the collection together for our show and this year is made extra special by the forthcoming Tate Britain Exhibition of British Folk Art. This week we have been scuttling about all over the place tying up loose ends, arranging logistics, photography and all the fiddly things involved. Next week we have the major catalogue meeting when all will be finally agreed and put to bed. Then we just wait while it is printed, until we install the exhibition over the first weekend of May ready for the opening on Thurs 8th May.

The Royal College of Art opposite us have been hosting their annual exhibition “RCA Secret” for the past couple of weeks, showing post card sized original works on various media. The anonymous works are shown in a large floor to ceiling grid, equally spaced and identifiable only by a number beside each one. After the exhibition the works are sold either to the few who queue or by ballot at £50 each. Currently there is a little settlement of tents outside the RCA for the hardy enthusiasts who are determined to get the first chance to back their judgement and buy a small work by a big name.

Street gossip has it that the old Buchan’s restaurant site, just down the pavement from us, has finally been sold and new tenants are due in soon. Luckily since the closure of Buchan’s, talented French restaurateur Franck Raymond has opened up the delightful new Augustine Kitchen just over the road, serving well balanced, authentic French food without any pomp or ceremony. We lunch there sometimes and have always had delicious tuck. The other day Josyane, Ilse, Jen and I popped over and had a scrummy meal, the girls all had a green salad and his home made ravioli with lobster sauce, (see image on left), and I enjoyed a succulent piece of veal with a richly flavoured reduction sauce, served with sautéed spuds and tasty little grilled lardons. All from the Daily Menu for under a tenner each.

News of high attendance and significant sales is filtering back from the TEFAF Fair in Maastricht, as the BADA fair opened its doors yesterday. We benefit here, from visitors who have been or are going to the BADA show, many of whom have been impressed by the number of visitors and report evidence of demand and good sales. Michael Cohen, the newly elected Chairman of BADA is moving things forward with this venerable Association and helping to adapt it to today’s market. The BADA Fair this year is a little sharper and more focused and it looks as though things are moving in the right direction. BADA members have each been individually elected for their recognised expertise and integrity, which has helped to make it the most respected professional National Association in the industry, so it is exciting to see that these qualities are now being harnessed with a vision for the future and an innovative approach to marketing.

So in the meantime our attention will turn to our preparations for Masterpiece London, now comfortably less than 100 days away ..... ouch! I sense just a little urgency ....

 

 

 

12 March 2014

British Folk Art ..... now it’s suddenly “Sexy”

Sometimes we stumble upon extraordinary examples of otherwise ordinary pieces. These are not “important”, just works that have something special about them, some kind of inanimate genius quality. We all recognise it when we see it, although we never knew it existed before that moment and such pieces take on an iconic quality in our visual reference library.

Recently we found two such things, neither is hugely valuable, but they both raise the bar for their type and help remind us why we do what we do.

The 2014 Art/Antique “Season” is well under way now, with TEFAF opening in Maastricht this week and the BADA Fair, opening up the road from us here in London, next week. Our shop has also been unusually busy with visitors from both the UK and abroad, there is something in the air!

Last week Sotheby’s held a unique and colourful auction interestingly titled “1000 Ways of Seeing”, the last in a series of sales offering works from the private collections of Stanley Seeger and his long time partner Christopher Cone. It was a multidisciplinary collection spanning continents, centuries and cultures. However, at the viewing it was immediately apparent that these pieces had been selected by a discerning and confident eye. Over the years they had found a few things with us and we had witnessed their genuine enthusiasm and appetite for collecting works that excited their eye, at first hand.

This led them to buy some great and extraordinary Masterpieces and today’s market enthusiastically endorsed their selections, though they were well ahead of their time and somewhat “off piste” when they originally bought some of them. There were several pieces that fell into the general category of Folk Art which were all strongly competed for and established some remarkable prices. There was for example the iconic work “The Naming of the Animals” by the well documented British Naive artist John Miles of Northleach, which made just on £100,000. Also a curious hybrid Dug Out Armchair with the classic hollowed tree trunk back with a joined frame creating the seat, front legs and spectacular broad arms. The tree trunk back was split and the boarded seat a little time worn and ropey, but it benefitted from being a unique model, with exceptional colour, surface and character. English and dating from the late C17th this unique example made just shy of £50,000. There was also a small group of trade signs, generally rather youthful examples, but with scale, colour or drama, all of which made multiples of their estimates. Most, in their individual ways, had something special about them.

None of these pieces were originally bought “for investment”, but the owners had been guided by their instinct, their passion and motivated by the joy of finding and living with them.

There are odd little landmark moments in our professional careers where an Exhibition or a Private Collection at auction changes perception and somehow alters the landscape. I believe that we as Folk Art specialists are witnessing such a moment in 2014. At a time when we are told that antiques are unfashionable and the market sluggish, extraordinary demand and appetite for the best and most magical pieces of Folk Art has led to a dramatic growth in interest and perceived value.

This year alone I have had four interviews with art/antiques related publications and periodicals and been asked to write an article on British Folk Art for the longest established and most respected antiques periodical in the USA. We have two regular new, (and encouragingly young), visitors to the shop who are excitingly enthusiastic about the material and starting to build collections. Another contemporary art collector who wants some accent pieces of British Folk Art “of museum quality” to compliment his art. It is also curious to note that several general antique dealers are now promoting Folk Art among their interests and specialities.

How does all this happen at once? Why has perception changed and what has made the rhythm we have been banging on this drum for nearly forty years suddenly become “sexy” ? Who knows?

What we do know is that we are still focused and ridiculously excited when we find extraordinary examples, particularly when they are up there amongst the best we have handled. However humble they may be as objects, if they have that indefinable, yet instantly recognisable “genius” quality, they can take their place at our high table and be celebrated.

 

 

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