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Happy Hunting Antiques Today

The New & Exciting World of Collecting Antiques & Art in the 21st Century

The New & Exciting World of Collecting Antiques & Art in the 21st Century

 

I am definitely an artifact of another time left to make my own way in this twenty-first Millennium.

I have learned much and been surprised less.

Something unexpected has occurred as of late though and something I didn’t anticipate. It’s quite exciting.

There is a rapidly growing, knowledgeable, and, focused group of young collectors out there.

I saw these young buyers first in the contemporary art market where serious acquisitions were made with highly knowledgeable independent specialists. The specialists were there to protect them from the usual pitfalls of copies, and, improved, and altered originals.

In this current market good original artwork has been a great choice.

Mostly it has gone up in value and you get to enjoy it for a lifetime. 

These several months of working from home have given me a chance to think about what this group of collectors is looking for and how they choose to live.

I suspect the age of the mail order/online catalog filled with mediocre furniture has its own shelf life, and it’s now expired.

This more young and knowledgeable group is not looking for furniture that has to be replaced in a couple of years. They are interested in vintage and earlier pieces made with quality that was used to be common but now is the exception in newer pieces/stores.

I notice young collectors interested in acquiring artifacts, antiquities, and, interesting & beautiful art & furniture, both antique and vintage, also collectible books.

The monochromatic grey interior seems to be receding.

What is a wonderful surprise is this group loves old and ancient surfaces.

Many moons ago when I started working in this field the fashion was decidedly French & formal. These pieces were made to look as new as possible. Often now I am told not to polish an old surface.

This particular practice finds its roots in American collecting traditions and some English preferences for less formal pieces. Wonderful old patinas tell stories and I believe add texture and richness.

The most important lesson for me is that these collectors are pleasing themselves. It is worth noting that they often know exactly what they want and have managed to educate themselves fairly well.

Happy hunting and here is to the road less traveled and pleasant surprises.

Howard @aaxsf.com

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17th or 18th Century Statue of the Goddess Flora

17th or 18th Century Statue of the Goddess Flora

I first saw this beauty about 18 years ago. At that point the statue was not for sale. It had sat nicely outside Thomas Church’s breakfast room in his secret garden. Church was Olmsted’s favorite student. Olmsted designed Central park. Ultimately Church designed landscapes for many leading 20th century industrialists and was extremely influential in West Coast design, playing an important role at Sunset Magazine. This statue was purchased in Florence in 1957 for roughly the price of a new Cadillac. The statue’s subject is Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, spring and fertility. She was married to the god of wind, Zephyr and lover to Hercules. The top section dates back to the 17th or 18th century, while the base is an early 20th century restoration. This explains the variation in color between sections. The statue was attributed to a student of Giambologna named Franca Villa. This piece is meant to sit on an elevated pedestal in a formal garden. If she is not raised, the perspective is incorrect. She is a truly amazing and very rare piece. 

Happy Hunting!

Howard @ aaxsf.com

 

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Learn How to Find Real Antiques

Learn How to Find Real Antiques

From the moment I first started collecting antiques, I wanted to know how to tell if something was old or not. Most dealers are not willing to share trade secrets so their answers tended to be vague at best. A knowledgeable dealer shared this important information.

An old and wonderful object will have a rich and varied surface.

This information has been very helpful as a collector and dealer. Great and valuable pieces have been reproduced for centuries. Keith and I work hard to make certain that a piece is authentic and properly described.

Time works magic on most things, subtly altering color and surface. While a recently made piece of wooden furniture might have a couple of variations in color, a 200 year old piece of furniture will have hundreds of subtle variations. A new piece of porcelain will have little sign of age and use, an old piece will show variation of color, craftsmanship and consistent patterns of wear. The signs of age are subtle and require trained eyes to identify. Authentic wear will be predictable but also random. While an old painting will have the gentle and subtle varied pattern of small and large pattern of lines created by the varnish coat expanding with heat and shrinking with cool, a new painting, or copy will have either no cracking or cracking so uniform it defies belief. A piece of furniture made by hand will show the tool marks consistent with the period. Irregular saw marks, hand planed surface, dove tail, variations in color and the irregularity that vanished once pieces were made by machines. Time and the quality of an object made by hand will create a “lively surface” that simply cannot be well or cheaply imitated.

Happy Hunting!

Howard @ aaxsf.com

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Enjoy the Hunt!

Enjoy the Hunt!

Don’t know exactly how it happened but I am not so young. In this age of disruption and globalization I thought I might pass on some information to collectors and potential collectors that they might find useful.

The market for rare art and objects has exploded into some kind of a wild west garage sale. Early disrupters have morphed into dealers, Auction houses have abandoned many traditional markets. Markets have collapsed generally with usually one exception. The Best sells Best and at times record Markets. Your chances of buying something good to great are better then they have been for a long time. How do you make sure that your money is well spent?

The most important question is do you understand the structure of the deal. Where are the obvious and hidden incentives?

1. It was unlikely that rich uninformed buyers would return from their various hunts empty handed. Reproductions made to deceive are not unusual. The old painting with the new signature. The remade “antique” with just enough original parts to look plausible. The original Dickens Christmas Carol with a faint smudge where the small printed 5th edition used to be. The old master painting that literally fell out a window and was patched back together but is so damaged that its value simply can not be anything like an un smashed version.

2. Really good things are hard to find. The Antiques Road Show will comb through thousands of candidates to come up with 8 stories for an episode. A piece with a few hundred years of use will have honest wear and probably some acceptable repairs. Occasionally you might find the blessed original that had an unusually fortunate life but they are very rare and require expert authentication.

3. In 30 years I have had the pleasure of getting to know a few experts. Not one would offer an opinion based on a photograph. Many reproductions are antique. I recently handled a Renaissance carving of a Roman god. It is worth noting, many master sculptors started their career making ancient Carvings. Easy to sell if you could make it attractive enough.

4. A local appraiser has given up their license, quietly, and works almost exclusively with one dealer. The clients are creamed three times. When they buy, when they consult to sell, and, when they sell at suggested prices.

5. Auction houses traditionally have been dumping grounds for pieces with “issues”. Read the auction houses terms and conditions. They are not liable for much. Only statements in bold. They do not make many. For a while the top dogs have not assumed responsibility for works by non living artists. I have handled a lot of Chinese material. Some of the best dealers I know are in this field. What is amazing is that often they can’t decide easily. About 20 years ago a famous museum director told me the Universities in China were involved in making very good fakes. Old clay pits were being opened. Pigments made in the ancient manner with materials coming from ancient sources.

6. How to find a good dealer. Everyone is happy to take your money and is probably charming as well. Generally a good indication of what you can expect is how much pressure they put on you. Will they let you take the piece on approval with deposit? If you move or for some reason no longer need the piece will they sell it for you or are you on your own. Generally dealers are glad to have back a good piece.

7. Auction houses are their own universe. I have little to say. Understand what the description of the object means. Assume nothing. A condition report noting restoration and repair might be helpful if available. Fees including sales tax might be around 30%, Shipping and delivery is generally expensive. It is no accident that often the galleries are lit poorly. Faults are hard to spot and even harder to spot in low light. The smartest people I know still make mistakes at auction. We all hope for a find and the speed of the sale causes something like auction fever.

8. Get the best advice you can and buy the highest quality that you can. This is where you might see some spectacular returns over time. Buy what you love and avoid dealers that will not allow you to try a piece in your home before completing the purchase. You should see the object in the morning light, daylight, and, evening. A good painting is like a friend. Over time you should enjoy it more as you get to know it better. Don’t fall into the trap of buying a work just because it is supposed to be by a famous artist. You should like it first and foremost.

9. Find dealers or experts you like and work with them. They should be happy to explain what makes a piece exceptional. Over time your eye will sharpen. This is the best time to collect antique objects since the great depression. If you are interested it is worth the trouble. Often a new piece will cost more than the old original. Scarcity and quality eventually will become important again.

Happy Hunting! Howard @ aaxsf.com

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Hunting for Great Art

Hunting for Great Art

Few things will add more to your life than a great partner, a great pet, and, a great piece of art.

Early in my career I bought attractive and relatively inexpensive art. Price is not a good measure of quality however it is reasonable to say that it is unlikely that you will find an amazing piece for a low price.

I have found that Art Collectors usually are aware of any remarkable artwork they have in their collection. One of my earliest purchases was Picasso’s “Dove of Peace” complete with a certificate of authenticity for about $150.00. I was so pleased I couldn’t see straight!

Kind and polite dealers pointed me in the right direction. Still it was hard to sort out what I had bought. It was not in the Bloch book that held records and images of Picasso lithographs. The signature looked good and the image kept turning up with vague descriptions. I sold it to a friend for a modest amount and moved on believing I had bought a fairly common fake.

A few years later I learned the work was first a drawing by Picasso chosen as the emblem for the First International Peace Conference in Paris in 1949.The lithograph was made by someone else, and the signature probably a fake. The last one I saw for sale was $5000!

Not a bad price for Picasso but a very ambitious price for a copy.

A good friend was trying to sell his collections to support him through an illness. The artwork was and is still important.

It seems as though quite a few originals are being printed, now signed with an estate stamp as the artist passed away decades ago. The auction houses have several years of pieces worth to offer and the private market is either informed or wary. What was it is worth? He certainly paid handsomely for it but was unable to sell it at any high price during his lifetime.

We live in interesting times.

Clients of ours recently sold an Andy Warhol portrait and made out fairly well. The painting was acquired directly from the artist with documentation! This is essential!

Provenance is extremely important.

Not long ago I had a good work by a local artist that is now deceased.

His gallery sells his work for serious money and was willing to take one on consignment. Auction records were almost non-existent. I finally sold the painting to a friend for a fair price. He could take his time selling it and was glad to have it. I was pleased to.

Figure out what you like and what you can afford. Take your time and avoid the Wild West of the Internet at least at the beginning.

Find a dealer you like and learn as much as you can about the artist and their work.

A great piece lasts a lifetime.

My advice is:

1. Important artist generally have catalogue raisonné where all their known work is published.

2. Artists tend to work in predictable formats and sizes. Is the image the correct size? Is the paper the artists GoTo? Is the work the right age and most important can you put down a security deposit and take the work to hang in the office or your home for a few days? If the answer to this one is no then something may be up. You probably dodged a bullet.

3. Paintings should be examined under black light. The original work will be one color while the improvements will reflect another color. This will usually expose restoration or an added signature.

4. While most dealers will be happy to share all information they know about a piece, avoid running a dealer through their paces if you are simply curious.

Happy Hunting! Howard @ aaxsf.com

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The Age of the Magnificent Fake

The Age of the Magnificent Fake

I thought you might enjoy a peak behind the curtain about this mysterious and weird part of the fine art and antiques business. Where there is great money there is usually a fair amount of funny business or misdirection. I use misdirection to help you understand how this process is perceived by many of the practitioners. If they can fool you they are smart.

Several important 19th century artists started their careers making fake ancient carvings. They were relatively easy to sell. I have handled an “ancient” & beautiful carving of a Roman god in sienna marble. The scholars we spoke with believed it was probably made in the 15th or 16th century when interest in art, scholarship, and, design blossomed into the Renaissance. Collectors far exceeded the supply. Most classical Roman statues were often copies of Greek originals. A tip is that a local scholar explained the Greek original works are generally leaner than the Roman statues.

the two cultures had different thoughts about expressions of power and beauty. John Ruskin, a Victorian art critic and arbiter of taste believed the older an object was the purer and more beautiful it was. For him the high water mark was 4th century BC Greece. From then on downhill. Today the market for these beautiful objects is complicated by well meaning laws that don’t seem to understand what the market actually looks like mountains of insignificant objects, or how to achieve the result they seek. I believe they seek the return to the country of origin of important works. Presently I rather doubt the existence of many great antiquities forgers. The material when real is hard to sell and the majority of collectors seek good independent advice as they have no wish to be left holding the “bag”. Authenticity is established by aesthetic grounds using a well educated and trained authority. Much the same as fine and rare paintings.

Today the wizardry is concentrated on Chinese objects, particularly porcelain. Objects that used to sell for hundreds or a few thousand can on a good day bring 7 figures. A little known fact is that often enough these pieces are never paid for. You read about the amazing sale. You almost never read about it going unpaid for. I love furniture but do not consider myself expert enough for oriental objects, particularly the rare ones. I have happily consulted acknowledged experts for most of my career. I am a true generalist. An avalanche of ancient Chinese burial material started hitting the market in the early 90’s. Things that were unobtainable started showing up all over. Clarence Shangraw, the retired Asian Art Museum director helped us authenticate the pieces. In about 1998 he came back from Asia and was alarmed. The short story is that the universities were involved in helping create convincing reproductions. Ancient bricks were remade into rare, at times unique objects. They would pass thermoluminescence a test that established an approximate time frame for the objects kiln firing. Later we would see pieces that were literally marked for where the test sample should be taken from. Tests were created to detect the use of binding agents but ultimately the entire market was crippled by this fraud. Today Chinese porcelain is where the money is. The copyists have opened old original porcelain clay pits. source and manufacture glazes in the ancient manner with original sources for pigments used in glazes. Scientific tests involve destroying a sample and porcelain is not a good candidate for collecting samples. Today a good number of the signs that a piece is original have been overcome so even the best experts in the world spend great amounts of time trying to decide if a piece is real or one of these best quality fakes. My advisor told me to concentrate on provenance and to only buy from older collections. I recently saw a great collection of Blue and white porcelain from an old collection. My current expert did not bother looking twice at the 70 plus pieces. Even if there was something real the market had soured. I looked again and noticed the quality was simply ok. The mountain of fakes had killed the market. For extraordinary pieces mostly made for the Emperor’s household the market is still strong. For average or much faked material you are out of luck.

The classical Chinese furniture market took off like a rocket. Particularly for pieces made of rare hardwoods. I can’t remember exactly when this happened but I can remember well the fall out. For furniture dealers wear and tool marks are how to discern if construction is consistent with style and age. A very clever man used hardwood found in Vietnam believed to be extinct. Primitive saws mounted on shaking tables created convincing illusions. Some auction houses abandoned this field. Others withdrew their guarantees. After a fair amount of upset the market continued again increasingly relying on the history of a piece. Current law limits most hardwood sales for export, another wrinkle. The belief that by commercially damaging an object will somehow restore nature even if the tree was harvested centuries ago. In a way they hope to unring the bell with admittedly comical results. We see this thought ripple through the trade and living in California puts us on the front edge of most of these experiments. To date no animal has been revived or stands of ancient trees recreated. There is no question poaching is a huge problem but for political reasons it is unlikely action will be taken in time.

The auction-house role in nonsense. The old joke goes that people working auctions are hardly paid, so they find other ways to secure financial advantage. If they own an object they might over optimistically catalog the piece. It is fair to say that odd things happen to very good pieces. One trick is the fast hammer, opened and closed in the same breath. Another trick is to substitute or lose the consignment. The original owner is paid the reserve less fees and the piece moves on to another distant venue with correct descriptions and new owners. In the old days the wise guys acted as a ring. Technically illegal but nearly impossible to prove. The message was simple. If something was good to great they would do all they could to avoid private parties from being successful bidders. At times the auctioneer would participate. A private sale was held after the auction. The parties that participated avoided open competition. The proceeds of the insiders were split. It was possible to be paid and buy nothing. As usual, no end to nonsense.

I recommend you avoid high pressure sales and take with a large grain of salt the opinions of dealers about things that they won’t profit from. With thoughtful and careful collecting you can enrich the quality of your life. 

Happy Hunting!

Howard @ aaxsf.com

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