The (hot) summer of 2010 is upon us in New York City, but telling the temperature in the art and antiques business is a bit more problematic. After the universal effects of “The Great Recession”, are things improving, getting worse, or still evolving from its traumatic consequences? Change in this industry is more than necessary; its best days will be when the total public, not just collectors, interior designer, or museums appreciate more than just the aesthetic qualities or the financial cost, but the total value of the asset investment.
To figure out how the art and antiques industry will evolve, its past offers no roadmap. However, going back into the early history of “the trade” in New York, one finds an individual like Duveen, who dominated the highest end of the art trade. However, in the antiques business, the firm of Sypher and Company was actually a company listed in the New York Stock Exchange’s 1886 volume of leading merchants, manufacturers and businesses in New York City. The narrative on the firm and size of their inventory as described in the volume seem staggering by today’s standards. Sypher and Co. must have been doing something right to be that successful.
Sypher evolved from a prior company started in 1821, before the American Civil War and later became French and Company, which maintained the same reputation of quantity and quality well into the 20th Century. What’s interesting is that the auction world was confined to European estate sales of Royal homes and castles. American dealers had all the pickings they wanted to supply this country’s vast demand for European style. Today, what “style” is in demand?
Thinking you know the next trend or lack of one at all, is a speculator’s game. If you had put all your chips on mid-20th Century modern furniture design 20 or even 10 years ago, you’ve got to be ahead of making the same bet on classical English or French periods. Hindsight is clearly 20/20, and a dealer puts his money on the line. Auctions don’t (and should be barred from secretly tilting the playing field). Auctions, and specifically the Sotheby’s/Christie’s imposition of a buyer’s premium in the mid 1970s, unalterably changed the way dealers could operate. Other factors like changes in taste, wealth, and costs of operating a business were dynamics that numbered the days of the “big dealer”. Will there ever be a Sypher and Company in the decorative arts world again; is it possible for this type of company to ever be listed on the New York Stock Exchange, like Sotheby’s?
I’ve always been an advocate for dealers to work together to attain an openness to change how things work in this industry. Starting with auctioneer’s practices of deceptions, fraud, and conflicts of interest, to dealers openly disclosing their prices, the list of issues needing exposure and remedies is clearly identifiable. Dealers have the opportunity and need to work together to attain goals that enhance and benefit the public’s perception of our industry and its resources.
In the context of the past meeting the present and therefore the future, I found an interesting object described in that New York Stock Exchange summary of Sypher’s inventory. They mention an item “previously belonging to the (Napolean) Bonaparte family, including a wrought iron balcony that was purchased by Mr. Sypher from the French Government last year  at the great sale on the grounds of the Tuilleries”. Now I know where that fantastic railing came from that has been resting on my second floor for as long as I can remember. I had always heard about a Bonaparte connection, perhaps also Sypher too.