Monday, March 19, 2018

What is the Future of the Past?

My copy of the Center Table in the White House

I remember very clearly watching on television (in black and white) as Jackie Kennedy gave a tour of the White House.  She walked slowly and elegantly from room to room, saying "This is the Blue Room" and "This is the Red Room".  However, on my television it was up to my imagination which was which.

As she stood in the center of the Blue Room and discussed the mahogany center table with white marble top I fell in love with antiques.  Love at first sight.  They spoke to me.  Not as something "dated" or "out of fashion" but instead I had the insight that they were "new" and "modern" when Dolly Madison stood in the same room.

The period of American history between Madison (and the burning of the White House by the British) and Monroe is rich with great design, and artists and craftsmen produced objects as fine as anything in Europe.  America was guided by the strong impression that it was the New World and appropriated design elements from Egypt, Greece and Rome, as they were transmitted to our shores from Italy, France and England by way of Napoleon.  In fact, I contend that the Napoleonic era produced the first purely politically engineered international design: Empire.  In the centuries before Napoleon the designs are always associated with the King (Louis XIV, XV, Queen Anne, etc.) or the designer (Chippendale, Hepplewhite, etc.)

It was Napoleon who dreamed of World Conquest and his love of the ancient world powers and their influence drove him to export the first truly International Style.  It was under his direction that expeditions were sent to Egypt to return with new designs,  as well as incorporating the symbols of Rome (stars, eagles, lions, etc) and Greece (acanthus, classic proportions, etc.)

All of this influence was found in the New World, culminating with President Monroe issuing the famous Monroe Doctrine during his term.  He was saying that America was powerful and would protect the entire hemisphere from any "foreign" influence.  Imagine a young country, in its first generation of existence, declaring that it would stand up to nations which had existed for many centuries.

All of this bravado and new money was reflected in the furnishings of that time.  Ship loads of ancient Cuban mahogany were delivered in all the Eastern seaports, from Charleston to Portsmouth and worked by skilled furniture makers into elegant designs where no expense was spared.  Carving was everywhere, rich veneers were carefully selected and highly polished, imported French gilt bronze mounts were added, all in the fashionable Empire taste, but with an American flavor.

I have been collecting and researching objects from this period for 50 years.  I have watched the market rise and fall, depending on the whims of fancy.  I collect because I want to understand the culture and society which created these forms and lived with them every day.  I have whale oil Argand lamps, candelabra with gilt bronze frames, girandole convex mirrors, coin silver service, klismos chairs, Recamier sofas, console tables with marble statuary,  and polished mahogany everywhere.  That's just in the living room.  In the bedroom my wife and I sleep in a mahogany bedstead with Doric columns and a silk canopy that nearly touches the ceiling at 10 feet tall.  The mattress is so far off the floor we use bed steps to climb in at night.

During the 1960's, when I started collecting antiques, they were often found in thrift stores.  The market for antiques was not well developed, and the true antique stores were run by educated dealers who focused on Old Masters, and furniture made before the Empire period.  Wallace Nutting, who wrote Furniture Treasury in the 1920's was a great influence on these dealers, and often said he believed that the furniture made after 1800 was "degraded" and "inferior" to what had been made earlier.

Mr. Dupont, who furnished over 100 rooms in his house at Winterthur, had the same belief.  He wanted nothing to do with Empire furniture, and it is only after his death that objects from this period were acquired by the museum.  I can take pride in the fact that I had a Quervelle sideboard in my dining room years before Winterthur acquired theirs.  (And mine is better!)

As nearly everyone in the business knows, the market for antiques has suffered since 2008.  It is now at rock bottom.  I have had several collectors in recent years just give me antiques, rather than toss them out.  Just this past week I was given an 18th century marquetry French commode with original marble top.  The marble top alone is worth thousands of dollars (in a good market).

What has caused this and where do we go from here?

The New York Times (March 8) had a full page article, "How Low Will the Market Go?" discussing recent trends in collecting.  It mentions that "prices for average pieces are now '80 percent off'" from 15 years ago.  This is in fact true.  It is certainly a buyer's market, just like it was in the 1960's when I started collecting.

In general, the antiques market is funded by real estate equity.  As home values rise and people move up in the market, they spend money on interior furnishings, like carpets, kitchens, and furniture.  For the same reasons that buying real estate was a good idea, buying high quality antiques was understood as a good investment.

Several factors convened after the crash to change this attitude.  Many home owners were upside down in equity and forced to abandon their homes or sell at a significant loss.  Selling antiques is not always easy in a good market, but in a bad market it is nearly impossible, as high quality furnishings are usually purchased with discretionary money.

Nearly all antique dealers keep surplus inventory in a storage unit, waiting to be put on the floor as merchandise moves.  Rather than put a "50% off Sale" banner in the window, these dealers kept the retail prices as long as possible and dumped large quantities of good inventory into auction houses directly from their storage units.  This flooded the market at a time when there were no buyers, plunging the values across the board.

Investors who held large collections began to sell off their antiques into this market, and began to get new appraisals of their market value to determine a price.  Since appraisers are required to include the most recent "comps" the values indicated by the current auction sales were dramatically low, compared to what the same pieces were appraised at 20 years earlier.

Due to the falling value of antiques there was little incentive for any collector to keep collecting.

There are also other factors, less obvious, which contributed to the lack of interest in antiques.  Most importantly the dealers themselves ruined the market.  There are no real qualifications to be an antique dealer, and many dealers were either ignorant of what they were selling or (even worse) happy to fraudulently represent their inventory as something else to close the sale.  Fakes were easy to make and made up a large portion of the market.

The gradual transformation of the business from a dealer owned store (with his valued reputation on the line) to that of the "Antique Mall" store also made it easier to sell fakes and junk, since there was no individual "dealer" to account for selling merchandise that is damaged, modified or fake. In fact, the "Antique Mall" format, with one person managing the booths, became a real alternative to sellers keeping their inventory in storage lockers.  Rather than pay for a storage locker, it was cheaper to store their "vintage" inventory in a booth at the Mall.

Nothing is more depressing to a knowledgeable antique collector than walking through one of these Malls, looking for the jewel in the junk.

Another factor in the demise of the market is the failure of the workers in the furniture restoration business to do the right thing.  Again, there are no real requirements for a person to call himself a "restorer" and too many workers use sheet rock screws, nails, epoxy, modern glues and finishes and Bondo to get the job done.

I have two prices for work brought into my shop.  One is for the damage which has not been previously repaired.  The other is for the damage which was done by an amateur and requires me to undo his damage before I can address the original problem.

Don't get me started on Gorilla Glue!

Patrice Lejeune Conserving Boulle Table Top

A good example of how poor conservation can affect value is with Boulle.  Boulle work is made of metals and tortoise shell and other non wood surface decoration which is glued to a solid wood substrate.  The only glue which is properly used in Boulle work is fish glue.  Fish glue allows for the expected expansion and contraction of the substrate to occur over time, but keeps the marquetry in place.  When lifting happens, as it always does, most repair men reach for epoxy or even small nails to make the repair.  In fact, by fixing spots of the surface to the substrate with nails or epoxy, the situation is made worse, as new areas will therefore life during subsequent wood movement.

There are very few qualified conservators in America who can properly restore Boulle work and thus the market suffers.

To compound this problem, C.I.T.I.E.S. regulations have made buying and selling antiques which contain tortoise shell, rosewood, Cuban mahogany, ivory, and hundreds of other endangered materials complicated.  The rules are not complete and not clear as to what is legal and what is not. To protect themselves, many sellers who list online are presenting ivory as "bone" and tortoise shell as "horn".  It is very easy to list rosewood as "walnut."  This situation makes it difficult for buyers to actually know what they are getting.

Another question which is universal in this business is "What is the legal definition of an Antique?"
When the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act was passed in 1930 it did two things: it was partially responsible for the Great Depression, and it defined Antiques (for duty free importation) as "made before 1830.  This was the original concept which I followed when I started collecting.  1830 represented a general date for the "end" of hand work and the "start" of the Industrial Revolution.

By 1966 the antiques industry was lobbying Congress to revise the act, and Lyndon Johnson signed legislation which changed the definition from "before 1830" to "100 years old."  Instantly all the Victorian furniture made between 1830 and 1866 became "antique."  This created a rush to collect mid 19th century stuff and the excitement of antiques lasted well past the BiCentennial.

Now the date is changing again.  According to the NYT article: "Even New York's prestigious Antiques Show has changed its rules.  Founded in 1955, the show once required that exhibited pieces be at least 100 years old.  In 2009, the organizers and dealer committee changed the cutoff date to 1969 to include mid century objects.  In 2016, they removed the date restriction entirely, paving the way for contemporary design."

 This evolution of the concept of "antique" has completely changed the market.  According to the article, "Custom made pieces by living designer-artisans have 'become 70 to 80 percent of our business'...Indeed, a recent survey 1stdibs commissioned found that professional interior designers used about 65 percent contemporary products in their projects last year, and only 35 percent vintage."

I have been aware of this trend during my career.  In addition to antique furniture conservation, I make and sell museum quality copies of historic pieces.  I have had no difficulty finding a market, at very good prices, for my creations.  I am a living artisan and my work will stand the test of time.

Louis Philippe Tilt Tables Made by Living Artisan

Not so much for those who experiment with modern materials to make their furniture.  Just like Jackson Pollack's paintings are decomposing after 50 years, much of the contemporary furniture is failing to stand up over the years.  In the same section the NYT has another article, "When Furniture Fails the Test of Time."  The opening paragraph states: "One famous designer chair is oozing goop.  Another has exploded into puffs of foam.  A bookcase's shelves bubbled as gases formed within.  The culprits?  Plastic.  And time."

Modern furniture is often toxic, and unstable.  And not easily repairable.  Long after the foam rots and the plastic melts and the catalyzed finish cracks, the Cuban mahogany table with its protein glue and shellac finish will still stand proud and handsome.

Finally, I would like to explain, from my perspective, the current fashion for mid century furniture.  In fact, I am "mid century" being born in 1948 and grew up with this stuff.  Most of my education in the field of antiques was gained from books and travel.  Today, much of the information is gathered from videos, movies and the internet.  What is the material you see most often?  Stuff from the last 50 years.  Young people associate with recent events and have a nostalgia for the culture of the last half century.

Therefore, I have changed my "pitch" about antiques when approached by a new collector.  Antiques are "green" and have no carbon footprint.  The raw material was harvested from ancient forests by human and animal power, transported across oceans by wind power,  sawn into rough lumber by water power and worked into the final form by human hands.  All the materials used were organic and non toxic.  To conserve them and restore them is the ultimate form of recycling.

On the other hand, much of modern furnishings use toxic materials and industrial power and have a huge carbon footprint as a result of transportation by truck or cargo ship.  In addition, modern furniture has, by its very nature, a very limited shelf life and will need to be replaced frequently.

I "retired" from my early career in Nuclear Physics when I realized that nuclear waste will endanger our existence on this planet.  I choose to restore antiques as a personal mission to save something important from the past.

I want to thank Jackie Kennedy for pointing me in the right direction.

Jackie Kennedy White House Tour


  1. Hi Patrick,
    I've followed your blog for some time now and just want you to know that I really value and appreciate all the energy your put into your posts, in particular those relating to upholstery, clocks, marquetry....... I have learnt so much from them and if you ever write a book (you really should) I'll be the first to buy it.

    Can I ask you a question : If you were starting out again today, having to make a decision about your future career, with your knowledge of the current and likely future of the antique trade would and could you still commit your career to it? I ask because I'm in a similar position and have to make decisions but I've read and listened to alot of experienced antique dealers, conservators etc and the general synopsis undoubtedly seems to be that trying to earn a living in this business is only going to get more precarious in the future? I would really appreciate your thoughts.
    Many thanks

  2. This is a very good question. When I left physics and decided to spend my time restoring antiques it was not considered a recognized career path. My father said many times "When are you going to get a real job?" I just wanted to make a living doing something that gave me pleasure and woodworking is not that difficult to learn.

    As I pointed out in this post, the antiques market is at the bottom and can only go up from here. Exactly like the period when I started collecting. Antiques will be around long after we are gone and there will always be a demand for skilled conservators, as well as those who can create objects using traditional methods.

    My success over time is having several diverse income streams. Many furniture makers focus on one activity and as the market fluctuates they go from boom to bust. I manufacture Old Brown Glue, I make antique high end copies, I conserve and restore (including upholstery, carving, veneering, finishing, caning, hardware, gold leaf, etc.), I consult and lecture, write articles and provide expert witness in court. From time to time I even sell antiques which I have collected. I also was involved in several television shows, and was nominated for two Emmys in the past.

    Do not let the outside world influence you as to a career. Do what you love and if you are serious then you will be successful.

    Be a teacher. Change a life. Have courage.

  3. Patrick,
    In case you or anyone else wants to relive history here's a YouTube link to the video of Jackie Kennedy doing the White House tour. Hard to imagine anyone nowadays doing a tour like that or being so elegant while doing it.

  4. Thank you, Craig, for finding that video. It was very interesting seeing it now after so much time has passed. In fact, I guess I was wrong in which table I saw. She talks about a center table by Lannuier, and I thought it was a more simple table...I will have to think about making the Lannuier table now...

    I particularly appreciated her response to the question "Why does the government support the arts?" She just said that Americans are very talented and the White House should collect and display the best of their work to showcase it to visitors from the world.

    It was that thought that made me want to be creative and do something artistic with my life.

  5. You're welcome Patrick, I watched the whole video and didn't see your table either. I did think you'd like the Lannuier table, it would be an interesting project. It's nice to know the video had that much influence on your life's work.