A New Year for the Decorative Arts

It’s nice that we get to turn the page of time with a New Year.  For the world of antiques and decorative arts the passage of time holds no limitation. When you are an object from the 20th, 18th, 16th Century, or 2000 BC, it’s all about the item’s style, craftsmanship, and being representative of the period that it was made.  While great fine art was created for the canvas, I’m a decorative art’s guy.  Looking around my warehouse today made me think that my world of furniture and object d’art required a long overdue check-up.

Going through aisle after aisle of all kinds and forms of the decorative arts made me realize that many great styles and designs are so out of fashion and taste.  Great Victorian hall tables and dramatic French 18th Century armoires, English hutches, Biedermeier and American whatever.  BUT, then there are those items that knock you over; and there are more of those items out there than ever before.  The availability of such great quality and forms of all periods for me as dealer, has never been so fabulous (well, maybe not since my grandfather was devouring Europe’s Post War liquidation in the 1950-60’s).

As a dealer, I have learned to have a long term perspective, and as the last 15 years will attest, many of my trade have headed for the exits or simply couldn’t maintain their operations in an ever changing marketplace.  The Internet for sure has shaped the industry in an unimaginable manner, but the effects of the change in style and fashion has had a more devastating consequence on what presents a good investment.  Like in any investment portfolio, a good diversification can even out the ups and downs.  That being our practice, today, I saw a lot of ups.

Going into 2015 is a lot different than 2000 for the decorative arts, and it may be totally different in 2030.  While I am not a betting man by nature, I try to place my wagers on what I think I know and understand.  Real estate, stock picking, interest rate direction are not my fields expertise and for me offer not better odds than rolling dice.  My challenge is find an item that I can buy and sell to someone else, and maybe even rent to a TV show or movie to cover overhead.  It also doesn’t have to be Mid-century modern.

Stylish, tasteful, and quality pieces have always been made since mankind developed the ability and skills to create items of form and function.  An Egyptian style chair has been replicated in different designs for centuries.  The timeliness of Neo-classic forms is ever present in all periods just as creative adaptations are part of artistic interpretation.  It all comes down to the eye and appreciation by the person who might covet the work.  Walking around our warehouse today excited me as to what is available to any potential customer. The incredible diversification of antiques and the decorative arts offer unparalleled possibilities; to a discerning mind of a new generation of consumers it might offer savvy buyers’ great opportunities.   

The Decorative Arts Today, Free of the Duopoly

It is nice to be in a business that the Sotheby’s/Christie’s Duopoly does not particularly care about and even discourages having to deal in it.  Their thoughts on the decorative arts as it relates to antique furniture and accessories has clearly been exhibited by their lack of catalog sales, failure to promote the sector, onerous 2% surcharge for low-balling estimates to sell on behalf of a seller, and a profit taking 25% buyer’s premium on the price level of these goods. In an effort to go retail they have successfully destroyed the secondary dealer market in this segment of the industry, which had given a floor to pricing. What have they to gain now that they seemed to have a weak or limited market for their goods?

I don’t really want to give them some advice as to how they can be my direct dealer competitor with Private Treaty contracts, but then again, they seem to be focused on making the internet do all the heavy lifting in this area.  Sotheby’s is going after the eBay market to resolve their decorative arts conundrum, and Christie’s believes it can develop its own methods of online high end consumer purchasers. Good luck gentlemen; go your own ways but you’ll always keep your eye on the fine arts big money.

With the 800 pound gorillas essentially out of this market, it makes the industry a bit more competitive and free of practices and methods that now offer more market based decisions for dealers, the rest of the auctioneers, as well as buyers and sellers.  In other words, when you do not have the manipulation of both buyers and sellers, free competition for goods and their ultimate pricing becomes more realistic.  It sounds almost like the old days (sans buyer’s premium).  And as far as the buyer’s premium is concerned, since when have dealers had to add that kind of cost of operations to justify such an enormous revenue production.  

The dynamics of the decorative arts market seem to be shifting constantly.  From new trends in fashion, style, and sophistication, these items offer unique diversity and functionality that lends itself to personalize taste.  Perhaps the high end isn’t as compelling in this part of the industry, but the gamut running from chocolate molds to Chinese Chippendale cover a lot of areas of collecting and price points.  Maybe it’s just too much for the big two, but what opportunities must exist.  Ebay, 1stdibs, and other online marketplaces seem to thrive in the decorative arts world, with a functioning and strong secondary dealer market making it all possible.  

So let me be the first to recognize that I appreciate not having to compete in a marketplace that has fundamental flaws created by 2 controlling interests.  Things appear to be quite efficient in how pricing and demand are now functioning. With both duopoly firms now in the throes of looking for a new executive leader to develop even greater profitability for ownership, the pressure to revisit the decorative arts areas might come back on their radar.  Unfortunately for them, that train left.

Christie’s, My New Best Friend

Just as business started to improve, one my two old nemeses, Christie’s, threw a softball to every decorative arts dealer who wants to claim the “middle market.”  I don’t think it is really a big secret that the duopoly abhors the process and logistics of selling the vast quantities of decorative arts out there, all for the taking.  Their problem is they don’t know how to make this segment of the industry profitable, short of giving inventory away or strangling consignors (they do it quite nicely to the buyer already).

First, I have to explain what Christie’s is doing, as reported in this week’s Antiques Trade Gazette. Their new 2% fee comes as an added expense for those consignors lucky enough to get them to sell their merchandise.  If during an auction sale, a consigned item hits or beats the high estimate, Christie’s (and they are the experts) will tack on an additional 2% commission “to incentivize and reward high performance that exceeds consignors’ expectations.” Only in this industry can such unconscionable actions be a generally accepted way of doing business.  The duopoly reinvent ways to fleece a buyer or seller, even as secret reserves and other deceptive practices still openly function.

Enough with my ramblings about the felons, the exciting thing about this move away from the middle market is that the middle market has the most potential for development as the biggest market in the industry. No one can deny that there exists a tremendous glut of quality, middle market inventory that is suffering from the market dominance of Mid-20th Century decorative arts and modern design.  Today, the efficiency needed to managing a large inventory is not so easy, for either an auctioneer or dealer.  It requires storage, damages, and movement in and out, which are structural operating necessities.

The fact that Christie’s is sending this message puts additional pressure on other auctioneers to impose the additional fee, or at least think about it.  However, Christie’s in the end knows that the 2% fee is chump change in the grand scheme of their operations.  The message is clear, we want you to go somewhere else or you will pay dearly.  Of course it will be buried in the fine print; but will each item that it affects be disclosed to the buyer? Probably not.  However, shouldn’t the buyer be rewarded by not having to pay the additional fee on the buyer’s premium?  I guess there are limits as to how much that should be, although I am always in favor of raising the buyer’s premium, as fast and as high as you can.

For me it has always been about the middle market, and searching both the top and the bottom of the strata. The industry needs this market to not only survive but also to have spectacular growth.  This is also where creative market forces of efficient database technology and economies of scale, can disrupt the norm.  We at Newel are approaching our operation with that concept in mind.  Moving to a new facility twice as big as our present building will offer untold possibilities.  

Of course Newel will still be known (historically) as a “prop house,” but the opportunities in the decorative arts market are getting pretty intriguing.  Dealer competition is negligible, and auctioneers will never have the luxury of a strong secondary market that the dealers once offered. We have always been lucky and fortunate to have a highly successful rental division; it has made the transition in this industry’s last 15 years possible for us. The rumbling of the middle market are starting to sound like an echo, getting louder.   We believe in the future of the middle market and that the best is yet to come.

BADA for the 21st Century, Prospects For A Future?

Michael Cohen, the new chairman of BADA has written a ringing challenge in the “Back Page” of the Antiques Trade Gazette in an attempt to revitalize that organization’s standing and relevance to the trade and the greater public.  Certainly anyone trying to fill his new shoes would feel the urge to offer some (dare I say any) action that might help awaken the industry to a progressive and not resistant path.  As the consummate “outsider” who’s only membership in the trade is as a 1stdibs dealer, I want to offer my thoughts on the prospects for his success.

First and foremost, Mr. Cohen understands that membership growth is paramount.  With the last decade taking a devastating toll on dealer survival, and especially those with a “brown wood” stock, surely that one gesture should open some eyes of those still calcified by their own shortsightedness.  If BADA can’t embrace 20th and 21st Century design, then their relevance will certainly over time be relegated to the trash heap of an inapt organization.  As a case in point, think of how many new and exciting dealers with outstanding inventories have appeared in the last decade, stocking 20th Century or prior periods; very, very few.

If they cannot or do not find a way to cajole more members of any period and style, BADA’s demise will be a forgone conclusion. Those dealers that BADA has ignored or shunned for various reasons are now not dependent on the services of that organization.  As a case in point, I can never remember any customer inquiring if my firm was a member of any US dealer organization.  I never saw it as an advantage.  It is my stock and personal reputation that is on the line, every day, with every client.

But having a strong voice that looks after industry threatening legislation is perhaps the most important responsibility and aspect of what BADA or any professional organization should foster.  Whether it is legislation that hobbles dealers like the new English Regulatory Reform Act of 2013, which exempts auctioneers but not dealers with restrictions and disclosure of financial arrangements prior to an auction, there is a need for a strong advocate.  In the US, Mr. Cohen correctly points to the “ill-thought out legislation on antique ivory” as a case in point.  These are not just local issues but have broad industry ramifications that need BADA and other associations around the world to have a coordinated agenda.  

Finally, I have to disagree with Mr. Cohen’s idea of the value added by issuing Certificates of BADA provenance.  If you have BADA on your invoice what more of a provenance is necessary; is BADA going to create a data base of all sales associated with its members?  This seems to be an unnecessary task for its members and one that is self-serving and really does not offer anything more than what is already available.

I wish Mr. Cohen much success (although I am not expecting a solicitation for BADA membership).  I have been critical of BADA and American dealer organizations for their insular membership and limited vision.  However, I fervently hope that all of our survival and future growth will come from our industry being more open, approachable, and acceptable to the public.  


Sotheby’s Contagion Now Spreading to Ebay

On July 14th the front page of the New York Times ran a major article concerning the new relationship being created by Sotheby’s with the original internet auction giant eBay.  With all the fanfare of the Sotheby’s PR machinery, breaking the news of this questionable combination was orchestrated to quiet their critics and leapfrog their “competition.”  Well Christie’s, their duopoly partner/competitor, is probably not too concerned given that this new partnership is full of many hurdles and issues that perhaps may yet come back to haunt them.

It’s interesting how the New York Times article puts such a spin on the synergies and possibilities of eBay’s worldwide market gaining access to Sotheby’s “imprimatur of authenticity.”  There is a big problem however, they both operate in directly opposite manners, with one (guess who) charging and exorbitant buyer’s premium and the other just a listing fee.  It appears that eBay will be getting a listing fee from Sotheby’s, but will the buyer’s premium now be the generally accepted method for the eBay masses, and can we now rate Sotheby’s as a Power Seller?  Of course the details of the arrangement remain confidential according the article, probably because they have to reconcile that gap and many others.

Another interesting comment made by eBay was that they perceive Sotheby’s as an “anchor tenant” in their virtual shopping mall, but since when does Saks Fifth Avenue have a marquee place in the same location as a Kmart?  Ebay tried to go upscale with Butterfield & Butterfield and failed not because it was bad idea but because they could not make the migration to an upscale market. Same was the case when Sotheby’s made prior deals with eBay and Amazon.  When they attempted to create their own marketplace and approached my firm to be part of it, I told David Redden, then running that operation, that it would never succeed.  We somehow forget that secret reserves, and an outrageous 25% buyer’s premium on items sold under $100,000 (naturally identical for both of the duopoly participants) has severely impacted the market for these items and the jury is out as to how much lower on the food chain this practice will be tolerated.

Unfortunately for Sotheby’s, this gesture to the mass market will only dilute their cache and give Christie’s a better marketing position.  According to the article, Christie’s will be expanding its online presence by going it alone, using consultants from other high end retailers to bolster their image, not dilute it.  However, both of their sights are on the younger online shopper who now does not want or need to visit a gallery or showroom.  Also, this younger generation might not tolerate the deceptions and frauds perpetrated by their business methods. Explaining these practices to a generation that craves the openness and disclosure that the internet offers could have the opposite effect.  It has turned me off of being a participant in their rigged practices and might just do the same to the middle/mass market; so let their present affluent customer base enjoy being hoodwinked.


Humira, the Arthritis Drug for Antiques

While watching the news on TV it seems that most of the commercials cater to drug oriented products, be it erectile dysfunction, diabetes, stomach ailments, and cholesterol issues.  One that caught my eye was for an arthritis relief drug called Humira.  Not that I have arthritic issues (although I do have a bum knee), the Hurmira commercial features a young lady searching through an antiques shop as a nod to her physical ability to enjoy a task that the drug would ameliorate. Why antiques, and she appeared to be under 45 years of age.

Perception is not necessarily reality and not anyone who wants to live and collect antiques has to be rich and elderly.  What I found so stunning in the commercial is that the showcasing of “antiquing” was a subliminal connection to perhaps biking down a country road or playing with your grandchildren. There is both a physical and cerebral activity involved.  Ever watch the TV show “American Pickers”; you have to go through floors, up steps, over tables, and just plain move the stuff around in search of something that connects.  In the Humira commercial the featured actress touches a brass cloths valet that has a certain charm and functionality which catches her attention.  It is what all antiques and decorative art should do, to be able to make a personal and pleasurable connection for what it is and how it can be useful and enjoyable.

The public image of antiques has a way to go before it gains a cache like fast cars and the newest handheld technology.  Just getting noticed is a start and not having a condescending attitude about our items is even more important.  The upscale show phenomenon has little reason or the ability to expand its public persona just as the elitism of Sotheby’s and Christie’s is portrayed by their abuse and manipulation of both buyers and sellers.   

The only salvation for the growth in the market for antiques is to be a more generally accepted commodity.  Acceptance has to come with a recognition by the general public that, like an effective drug, you want it because you believe it will offer a positive benefit.  Antiques should implicitly offer a remedy for value, functionality, taste, and style.  What we need is the benefit of an industry organization that can get the message out to our potential customers.  Unfortunately we don’t have an AppVie, Inc (the developer of Humira) or a Bristol Myers who have the deep pockets to promote our industry and the products we sell.


The Spring Masters Show in NYC, Done Differently

I started blogging about this industry back in 2007 when I discovered Clinton Howell commentaries and his participation at shows.  I saw him today, exhibiting in the revolutionary format of this year’s Spring Masters show.  With Artvest Partners now in control they are attempting a different approach that is dramatic, and it works.  Clinton suggested I write something about the show, as he obviously loved the change and extraordinary visual vistas of the show floor.

It works because of the creative and inventive approach taken by the architect, Rafael Viñoly. That antiques and art fairs so desperately need a new format is reflected in the fact that this show unfortunately was projected to be no better than the prior year show which was created by AADLA, or for that matter any highbrow style show. The whole idea of any show, be it a Pier Show, Brimfield, or any local event, is the grid layout that prevails as the only solution.  Up one aisle and down the next; and (my method) repeat the process in reverse so you can really see the most merchandise at any show.

Mr. Viñoly’s design for the show has attempted to break that monotonous pattern with a fun, fantastic, and innovative approach to multi-dealer display.  The magic is the open, almost interconnected feeling that is created by have transparent and angular walls within the layout of the booths. What made this all the more fun is how you almost get a certain vertigo in terms of “have I been here before”? This makes you look even harder at all the merchandise, and appreciate how the dealer mix from antiquities and art, to items of recent design, are somehow seamlessly connected.

Lost in this review is the merchandise and art that in on display.  Yes it is of high quality and caliber, but why do some have prices and others do not?  And if you need a set of chairs, not at this show.  This fair isn’t necessarily for the decorator trade but really requires patrons who want to see a diverse exhibition of fine and decorative arts in a stimulating and contemporary environment.  Being creative and innovative is how you can make it approachable to students and a younger generation of consumer. Imagine if every item in the show could be looked up on an iPad as you strolled the show?

Perhaps this style of show presentation will be replicated by other show promoters.  It cannot help but foster some creative new approaches to dealer presentation as groups or individually.  There should be a way to promote having a stimulating experience and interest in how and what we sell.  But this original 2014 Spring Masters New York will be the standard reference as to what broke the “show” mold.

The New UK Way: Auctioneer Exemption, Of Course

When I was trying to relax this past Sunday morning, I picked up the latest edition of The Art Newspaper and was stunned when I came upon an article explaining how the new English Regulatory Reform Act of 2013 would exempt the auctioneer’s from being a party to a public sale.  At auction, the restrictions and disclosure of financial arrangements are only applicable to dealers who form a “ring” or limit the number of potential buyers, but not on the auctioneer’s side of a deal.

I can’t image how proud I would feel if I were a member of the British trade.  First they blinked at challenging the auctioneer’s buyer’s premium back in the mid-1970s, and now your own government in coming down against the dealer trade.  When you read about the restrictions and new regulations, I am totally in favor of them.  I think that disclosure of inside information is good for the market. Since governments can’t control or regulate the financial markets from a meltdown, let us start in my unregulated industry.  Great, but why not level the playing field for disclosure of auctioneer collusion with another interested party.

Disclosure of a transaction within the auction world is of course, the biggest joke that Wall Street envies.  The way this new Reform Act works, the info on the irrevocable bid somehow does not need to be disclosed in the same format required by non-auctioneers.  It seems strange that the auctioneer, the consignor, and another party (or more) does not have to disclose the same information requirements of the new law.

To be fair, I think the British trade has been a good model for the US, who have an even more flawed structure as a representative organization.  It really comes down to the classic duopoly approach that leaves one two-headed monster (guess who they are) running their own show.  I would love to lead the charge to dismember them, and would suggest that only a class action be initiated to demand equal status as the auctioneer who is running the event in question, with these new rules.  

The Sotheby’s/Christie’s duopoly has had its share of publicity regarding hedge fund activity, record prices at their auctions for contemporary art, and having made a major push into the private treaty/dealer space for transactions.  They pride themselves on being the most egregious offenders of conflict of interest in their major transactions and way of doing business.  

These new Regulations requires that the “ring” dealers submit a written contract to the auctioneer, so the auctioneer is aware of the pending transaction. But what of the dealers or other bidders who does not have the privilege information that an auctioneer may have with its consignor and or an interested third party?  This is a fundamental flaw in the regulations and with their international scope, will allow them to funnel contracts to auction merchandise in the country that best serves their and their interested 3rd party’s interests.

This leads me to the point that dealers must and will have to evolve in the face of the unregulated, manipulative, and fraudulent methods employed by auctions. Secret reserve and chandelier bidding are blatant deceptions; the British government condones that and leaves dealers like myself with another excuse to not partake in their farcical way of operating.  Unfortunately, this is the power they exercise.

Buying Decorative Art; A Changing Knowledge and Passion

The alchemy of knowledge and passion can usually result in a productive creation (not necessarily legal either). However, in the decorative arts as a dealer or collector, it now requires a new calculation of the supply/demand equation.  The reality of how goods surface on the market has drastically changed and with it is a radically different consumer, who has an expanded or minimal visual perspective of space.  

Filling the space to suite a lifestyle will usually require some sense of taste and style.  Today, the buyer of antiques for the home has not changed much and has always been the largest application for their functionality.  The home will always be the easiest destination for one’s own passion be it living or working.  Where you want to show your passions and interest can range from an apartment with dramatic panoramic views of New York City, to bomb shelter garage housing a collection of vintage automobiles.  It is all in the perspective of having enthusiasm and satisfaction.

Knowledge is much more tangible and easier to quantify.  What you know presents a clear advantage that does not require an interpretation when the facts are self-evident.  You know a Tiffany lamp when you have seen thousands.  The decorative arts has so many nooks and crannies of makers, materials, shapes, and functions.  How can’t you just keep learning?  The search for knowledge and recognizing a great object requires an inquisitive mentality that has many competitors for your attention.  It requires a motivation, which also includes money and valuation.

Since I first went on a European buying trip with my grandparents in 1963, I have witnessed some of the most critical junctures in the pricing, supply, and demand for use of decorative arts by interiors designers, who also work with collectors.  Acquiring a 40 foot jumbo container of great merchandise was almost literally like a walk in the park.  That fantasy period has completely disappeared and has now being transformed by the complete lack of dealer price support in the market.  Are you kidding, who is buying things at auction for stock?  Not nearly as many as in years past.  The critical number of dealers to support auction pricing is vastly different and private purchasers cannot make up the difference.  

Because of this disruption to the buying side of the decorative arts, new and exciting options will avail themselves to those dealers that afford to control or take advantage of the lack of competition both to buy and sell.  As economists talk about generational passing of assets from parents to children, the amount of inventory potentially coming on the American market is staggering.  There was such a tremendous importation of decorative arts into the United States in the last century and a half. Not much has gone back.  For me there is no financial advantage to try to load up a container in Europe; it is already here, somewhere.

This gets me back to my original thought, how the changing market dynamics offers an opportunity for someone to wants to own and live with these items.  It should not be a case of making it difficult to find and buy at a reasonable price.  The decorative arts needs to embrace design, and expose minimalism for what it really is, stunted creativity.

Going, Going, But Not Gone; This Decorative Arts Dealer

If you take out of the equation, Mid-20th Century Modern, the traditional antiques dealer no longer exists or does so as a relic of the past.  Counting down the number of surviving dealers from just 20 years ago is a staggering thought.  The monumental shift in taste has made the antiques business a one pony show of 20th Century and modern.  Dealers in classical French, English, 17th, 18th, and 19th Century decorative arts might never appear again.

Never is a strong term, but the role of a dealer must evolve into being more of a merchant than a curator.  No one ever accused Sotheby’s and Christie’s of being curators, but rather as super promoters.  If you want to curate, go to a museum; to make money you have to raise the awareness of your business and promote it so it can engage one’s visual and intellectual attention.  You don’t do that by building walls of intimidation (go to a “fancy” antiques show), price deception (auction with secret reserves or dealers not showing a price tag), and difficulty in finding and shipping the item.  We are not talking about buying TV’s, but these are major obstacles to connect with the potentially massive public domain.

These issues of making it difficult to embrace the public will not be ameliorated by any dealer run organization, as has been the case for the last 35 years (since the British dealers blinked at the imposition of the buyer’s premium at auctions).  Dealers as a group sounds more like an oxymoron for inaction.  It can only come from some sort of dealer consolidation, where many can be spoken for by one dealer, both in policy and operation.  Perhaps that is an evolutionary thought for my industry, but how else will it ultimately survive?

For the last several months, I have heard from so many dealers that having a physical storefront is not particularly relished any more.  An incredible number of venerable and well stocked firms have made the decision not to renew a lease or are looking for an exit from the business.   And this is on top of an industry that has contracted significantly in the last 10 years.  Adding fire to the situation, The New York Times noted in an article on affluence that every major category of wealth spending rose considerably, but furniture fell 16%, yes 16%.

But somehow, I think Newel will survive this present state of the industry like it has always survived; it will go on with what it does best but with a vision of doing it even better.  For years we have been busting out of our building and it has been a major constraint on our growth.  Walk-ins can be great (and scarce) but a presence on the Internet is worth that price.  

Later this year, we are planning to move our business to a new destination; the third in our history, Long Island City.  Yes, it is across the river from where we are now, but it is closer than you think and will make Newel bigger and better.  We’re going, going, gone; across the river into an exciting new channel of our future.