The New York Times lead article in the Friday 5/23/08) Arts section profiled the alleged deception by the English dealers John and Carlton Hobbs on the authenticity of the items they sold. Dealers of high end antiques know that it is rare to find any item in perfect condition, with absolutely no restoration or repair. For that matter, go to any museum and look at the expertly restored items on view. Years of use does invite wear and tear.
Dealers are now on the ropes for many reasons and the image of a “used car salesman” isn’t very far off. With the help of decorators who need to sell their eager clients expensive decorative antiques, dealers have always found them to be willing buyers for creatively restored items that offer a defining, edgy, and upscale appearance. If it doesn’t past the visual acceptability test, then any attribution is pretty meaningless. However, is it any different for an auctioneer to offer the same items? Somehow they aren’t at fault; it’s their consigners who take that fall.
The antiques trade over the last decade has been eroded buy style changes and auction dominance. The Hobbs form of dealership has become a dying breed with these changes. Look no further than all of the dealers of that type that have liquidated at auction in that period and the total inability for new ones to form and stock such grand inventories. The cost of capital and the overhead of operating trump any expertise and knowledge of the product (which is another issue).
Auctions are exempt from the capital requirement unless they want to impose their conflict of interest in selling items where they have an ownership interest. Even then it’s a short term investment until it is sold at their auction. Their bloated expenses are from the overhead of financing an image. No one does it better than the Sotheby’s/Christie’s duopoly.
The Hobbs fiasco is one of many symptomatic issues that plague the trade. With the lack of an unambiguous voice and clearly defined goals to both reform their image and confront the auctions, dealers as a group will continue to be maligned and mistrusted. Unfortunately with the fragmented nature of dealer’s relations and the economic disincentive to be one, this incident becomes the newest PR problem for an already devastated profession.