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Handshake deals

My father was a man of honour, Sir!
 - Geoffrey Charles, in Poldark, Winston Graham

An interesting thing happened yesterday.  We went to view some decorative pieces that an elderly couple had for sale, and ended up agreeing to buy a few, and take a few on consignment, and so forth.

It was a really pleasant interlude, and the conclusion was that Martin and the other gentleman agreed on an amount, we made a deposit, the gentlemen shook hands, we said our goodbyes, and we left.

Sans merchandise, sans receipt, sans a few hundred dollars.

Now the cynic in me was saying, (as I'm sure you are, too) are you madSay something!

I kept my trap shut.

You had to have been there. It just didn't seem appropriate to suggest to this elderly gentleman that there was anything wrong with taking his word.

I fully expect that we will arrive later in the week, be greeted with smiles, and pay the balance of our account; at which point we'll formalise things, pick up our goods and go along on our way.

That, or they'll pretend they've never seen us before and set the dogs loose.

This might sound strange, but it felt really good for a person my age to be a party to this.  It harked back to a time when people really had a 'word of honour', and took it seriously.  In this jaded age, it was a pleasure to take the risk.  Could I have done so in Sydney or New York?  Probably not; but here in our sheltered little corner of the Southern Highlands, I was able to feel, just this once, what it must have been like in an elegant age, long gone.

More on the Qianlong Vase

It now appears that the transaction for the Qianlong Vase will be completed.  At least, that's what auctioneer Peter Bainbridge is being quoted as saying. Whew!

But here's an interesting snippet on the subject of Chinese vases:  according to the Financial Times and other sources, at a Sotheby's New York sale this week, a Chinese famille rose vase catalogued as 20th Century manufacture and estimated at $80-1200 sold for $18million.  Whoa!

That puts Sotheby's in an 'interesting' position.  They've either got to say that their cataloguing was wrong or their buyers are.  Not to mention that their buyers don't trust their (Sotheby's) cataloguing.

Stay tuned!

On Australian Art

I just read a (to me, at least) rather shocking article in this morning's Sydney Morning Herald.  Lawyer and art gallery director Nicky McWilliam suggests that Australian universities disdain Australian art.  


Ms McWilliam gives a short summation of the current offerings at Australian universities, and  points out 'that not one of them had a mandatory undergraduate course in Australian art history'. She concludes:

It is possible to complete a graduate and even postgraduate degree in fine art, visual art, arts administration or art theory at an Australian university without acquiring even the most basic knowledge about Australian art or art history. [emphasis added] This dishonours the profound wealth of Australian art and the indigenous history and social comment that inspired it.

Jeez, I'll say!

The White Glove Treatment

Ike, he found a chair and asked her
"Won't you set down?" with a smile
And she answered up a-bowin'
"Oh, I reckon t'ain't worth while"
That was jes' for style, I reckon,
'Cause she sat down just the same
And she stayed down....

-Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Party

There's an interesting article that's been reprinted this morning on the website of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers. The author writes on the debate over the use of white gloves in antiques auctions.  She's writing in the context of old books; but the arguments are the same ones raised about the handling of antiques in general:  is this a matter of giving the right impression, etiquette, what is or is not de riguer in terms of custom and style; is it just the fashion or is there a specific and necessary function involve here?

All issues I have raised myself.

Now, I'm clumsy.  I'll admit it.  I'm also clean, and if you ask me, my freshly-washed hands are a damned sight better for the care of precious antiques than other people's grimy, germ-ridden gloves. I'm not happy about wearing gloves for handling porcelain and glass, for example.  I've always stated what it seems to me is the bleedin' obvious:  gloves are slippery, for Pete's sake.  Handle a several-thousand dollar's worth piece of old glass with white gloves and you've got broken glass.  The argument that one leaves deposits and skin oils in dangerous quantities on the surface of the item never washed with me, and anyway, isn't glass non-porous and isn't that why it's such a useful container?

People like Dr Lori slam people like the good folks on the Antiques Roadshow for not using gloves.  But it seems that the facts don't support her vehemence; I've not seen any concrete scientific evidence about the detriment of bare hand holding.

Now we've got people on the other side of the argument who are just as vehement:  according to the article, '
Cathleen Baker, a senior paper conservator at the University of Michigan library, feels so strongly about the subject that she has walked out of institutions that asked her to wear gloves.'  I think Ms Baker has a point; a tactile review of these works is part of the experience.  I won't buy glass if I can't feel for damage with my naked fingers.  Your eyes can deceive; your fingertips are less likely to.

Now, there's another aspect to this, and in some contexts I'm all for the wearing of gloves, same as I'm all for the wearing of vestments by clergy, wearing your best suit to go meeting someone important or dressing for a night at the opera.  What these things all have in common is lending a feeling of 'specialness', and of being appropriate, reverent and respectful of the item, the person or the occasion.  Seeing a special item handled reverently at auction, or even when you're locked into a secret reading room to view an ancient manuscript, keeps us mindful of our privilege. Following social mores and setting standards are an essential part of what makes us human, and an 'Event' is a good thing.

I'll be watching avidly for other reactions to this.

How many antiques auction houses can one city support?

Martin and I don't often disagree but we've got a bit of a friendly bet going on whether or not Sydney needs one more auction house in the antiques market mix.

It's Martin's contention that the city needs a medium sized antiques auction with a yen for real quality, somewhere between the top tier auctions and, oh, I don't know, Ma and Pa Kettle's local livestock sale.

Martin's tipping Theodore Bruce, the long established South Australian auctioneers who are the new kids on the antiques block in Sydney.  What we've seen so far, we like.

Western Art Design Periods and Design Movements

I've decided to blog on some antiques topics.  I'll start with a) the important design movements and b) designers in Antiques, Fine Arts and the Decorative Arts.  If it goes well - in between blogging about news and events - I can expand into other series as well.

Let's start with design movements.

In discussing Western Arts, we classify styles and designs into Design Movements (particular styles and schools, that sprang up and that people then copied), and Design Periods, that is, the era(s) in which such styles were fashionable or prevalent.

Design Periods influence many different fields, from architecture to literature to fine art to interior design.

What these periods are called, and how artworks are classified depends on the field (Fine Art, Decorative Art) and on the country, as the same eras are often known by different names in different nations.

We'll start by discussing some of the best-known art periods.  In subsequent posts I'll talk about The Victorian Era, the Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau and Art Deco.

Diana, Princess of Wales Wedding Dress


The enticing news item is that the wedding dress Lady Diana Spencer wore for her 1981 marriage to the Prince of Wales is going to be auctioned.  That isn't exactly true. 

What will be auctioned is the duplicate dress; the one that was on standby in case there were any mishaps and the Princess had to change. Cooper Owens will auction the dress in December. I think.  At present the Cooper Owens website only shows some wedding memorabilia; ephemera and some swatches and such.

Stay tuned.

Higher Education

This is a cool item:  Sotheby's Institute and New York School of Interior Design have announced a joint Master's program.  It'll take two years and students will get a Master's in their field from Sotheby's and a Certificate from NYSID.  Sounds like a good deal for creative types.

Queen Juliana's garage sale

Much is being made about the current Sotheby's sale (what, Sotheby's again?  I'll have to start talking about something else) of items that once belonged to Juliana of the Netherlands.  It's admirable of the royal family to donate the proceeds to charity, but I don't find this to be the most exciting group of lots I've ever seen.

What's Going on with Goodman?

Okay, I'm confused; I'll admit it.

I'm a simple woman, from a simple village.  I like things to be simple. Unfortunately, life isn't like that, and the auction house situation in Australia is enough to give me a headache.  Should I even try to understand what's going on?

About two years ago, things made better sense to me.  Mr Goodman was the head of Bonhams and Goodman.  This was clear; I liked it.  But, then, he was also involved with Sotheby's.  Then relationship with Bonhams went South and Bonhams' Australian branch cum Bonhams and Goodman was now Bonhams Australia and Tim Goodman was head of Sotheby's. 

Okay, I've understood this much, but now the news comes that Mr Goodman has just sold Sotheby's.  Geoffrey Smith, who ran the Art Department at Sotheby's, will now be chair. 

But that's not the end of it, because Tim Goodman still controls Leonard Joel, a big mover on the Fine Art scene, through First East Auction Holdings Ltd. (or is it through Second East Auction Holdings Ltd., which Tim is also involved with?)

Remember that Martin and I had a friendly bet going about whether or not there was room at the top of Sydney's Art Market?  I don't think things are stable enough to answer this right now.  For my part, I'm going to end up owing my husband, because I can't even keep the players straight!

That Qianlong Vase, Again

You know the one.  It sold for umpteen million pounds last November, blowing the former record price out of the water.

Well, people are now gleefully reporting that as far as anybody can tell, the buyer has not actually paid for the acquisition as yet.  It's not quite time to hit the panic button yet - I certainly can't come up with £43million cash just by breaking open my piggy bank, and I suspect most of the rest of you can't, either.

But what if worse comes to absolute worst?  Someone recently asked on a LinkedIn group what kind of recourse the seller had.  This was my response:

It's a broken contract, so a seller's recourse is a lawsuit. What typically happens here in NSW, when much lower amounts are involved, is that lawsuits are not worth the trouble and people negotiate, especially if they have a track record with the buyer.
Got absolutely no idea what will happen with this sort of money involved!