Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Why do people purchase high-end antiques?

I get asked this a lot, especially since our antiques at C. Mariani
are some of the finest and, yes, some of the most expensive in the world.

Well, for some people, it's the desire and means to live "like a queen". And owning important antiques reflects their station in life, status and prestige, like Queen Elizabeth II:
In this category, it's important to distinguish between people who live like a queen and people who just act like a big queen. That's an important yet subtle difference that every urban sophisticate should recognize.

An Italian giltwood and pietra dura 18th c. center table truly fit for a queen:
List price: $321,000 USD

Then there are clients who buy antiques as investments that not only add beauty to their home but also represent a legacy that can be passed down to their children to secure their financial security, like Joan Crawford forgot to do with Christina, shown here in happier days (note the smart matching bonnets):

Ok, maybe that was a bad example. A better example would be Leona Helmsley who generously left all her antiques along with $12 million to "Fluffo", her oh-so-adorable pooch seen below (Fluffo is the one on the right):
An open letter to Fluffo from The Buzz on Antiques:
"Dear Mr. Fluffo,

I'm a dog-loving antique dealer who could soon be widowed (you never know) and I thought you might be as lonely as I am.

Being a bitch yourself, I'm sure you desperately miss Mama Leona. I know I definitely miss her $12 million. Not to mention her antiques, which I suspect you tinkle on frequently. Yes, I understand we're different species, but I've developed a refined palette for kibble and always order Pupperoni on my Round Table pizzas. So there IS COMMON GROUND for us as a couple.

And, in the category of looks, I know you'll fancy me since people frequently call me a "total dog" and one young lady in a bar recently told me to "Take a hike Fido," so that's a plus.

Finally, "Fluff" (may I call you Fluff or is it too soon yet?), I'd be more than happy to be create a custom Italian Palazzo dog house for you right next to my modest 20,000 square foot villa filled with the finest antiques a dog could buy. We might even get a spread in "Dog Fancy" magazine showcasing our treasures like this pair of 19th c. English Staffordshire Spaniels, list price: $55,000 USD:
Warm regards,
Buzz
Then there are those who purchase the best antiques simply because they want them, they can afford them, and they always get what they want, like Amy Winehouse who surprisingly joneses for luxury goods in between her rehab stints:

For others, buying a 250 year old antique is a chance to own something that's actually older than they are. This group would include fossils like myself as well as others like Brooke Astor:
Another great example would be New York Socialite, Glamour Puss and the winner of the coveted title "Miss Deb of the Year 1938" (I was first runner-up), Brenda Diana Duff Frazier, shown below in later years doing what she does best:

And finally there are the few who buy antiques because of their financial privacy. For them, antiques are a way to amass and store value that they conveniently forget to report to the IRS. This is called laundering, it's illegal and The Buzz cautions against it unless you look REALLY good in stripes. Kind of like Bernie Madoff:Fashion note to Bernie: go with the vertical stripes next time, they're more slimming.

OK, Buzz, this was all semi-hysterical but is there a moral to this story? Yes! And it's simple dimple: The best reason to buy fine antiques is because you love them and they enrich your life. They really do.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Antique terminology: ENFILADE

If you didn't catch this article on Decorati Access (my favorite online high-end design magazine), then here you go:

The word ENFILADE (pronounced "on fee LAHD") is an interesting one because it has two distinct meanings:
1. It's a very long and low French buffet (it has to have four or more cupboard doors to be an enfilade. Otherwise it's just called a buffet. Here is an 18th century cherry wood enfilade:

This particular enfilade measures almost 9 feet long and lists for $105,000 USD.

2. The other meaning of enfilade is a bit more obtuse. It's an architecture term that means a suite of rooms formally aligned with each other on an axis so as to provide a vista of the entire suite of rooms. 

Put another way, it's an alignment of open doorways or halls that draw the eye through a series of attached rooms, like the galleries at the Royal academy of arts in London:

See how one room "leads" to the next? That's an enfilade. 

Here's another enfilade, this one in the beautifully baroque Mannheim Palace in Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany:
Enfilades were a common feature in the grand European palaces of the Baroque period and onwards.

You can think of this second definition enfilade as "beads on a thread". I think that's a lovely and succinct way to describe this architectural device.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Is "The Buzz" Secretly Hollywood Royalty? Uh, no.


In case you missed the interview that DECORATI ACCESS MAGAZINE did on me recently (strange but true)...then here you go:

Q: Buzz, how did you first become interested in antiques?

My folks ran a boarding house near Hollywood in the early 1950’s and the boarders were a colorful bunch of starving actors and actresses.

One of them was Carolyn Jones, who later played “Morticia” on The Addams Family TV show:


Odd factoid: "Morticia" often invited her unemployed actor boyfriend over to mooch food off my mom (which drove her bats): his name Aaron Spelling. Isn't that weird?

When I was writing this I Googled him and it winds up he married Carolyn Jones (for a while) before marrying Candy and having Tori, but I digress.

But isn't it glamorous that I ALMOST knew all these Hollywood stars when they were flotsam and jetsam? Ah, the glitter of Hollywood-adjacent life.


Anyhow, another of our actor/waiter boarders came from a well-to-do family in Chicago and had his room crammed with antiques he'd inherited from a relative. In lieu of cash (which he never had), he’d pay for his room and board by giving my mom an antique trinket or two every few months.

My mom would research each piece in her favorite book, “The Practical Book of Period Furniture” (which I still have) and do “show and tells” for me and my brother about what it was, why it was interesting, and how it gave us a way to “see” into the past. I’ve been “hooked” ever since.


Q: How are your antique pieces collected and how do you verify the style, period, and artisan?

The best way to collect antiques is incrementally over time, purchasing only pieces that you love and that reflect your personality and taste. Collecting antiques is like "grabbing the brass ring": when you come upon a piece that "speaks to you", buy it and add it to you collection.

Generally speaking, antiques come on the market as a result of what we call the “Three D’s: Debt, Divorce and Death”. I know this is kind of morbid, but it's a fact..

At C. Mariani, most of our important pieces are acquired through private transactions with individuals who want to discretely raise capital by liquidating one or more of their antiques. A steady stream of our business comes through European titled families that have been dealing with the Mariani family for more than a generation and have entire palazzos, villas and chateaus filled with incredible antique furniture going back generations.

But you have to be careful when dealing with Dukes, Duchesses, Viscounts, Earls, Baronesses, etc. When I first started working at C. Mariani, I hung up on a Yugoslavian “Princess” who I thought was some clown trying to punk me with a patheticly amateur Bela Lugosi accent. It wound up that Claudio Mariani had dealt with her for years and she was an important source for our new acquisitions.

We also have clients who have bought from us in the past and sell their the pieces back to us for a variety of reasons (sometimes it's to purchase another antique and other times it's because of the "3 D's": Divorce, Debt, etc.). When we buy a piece back after several years, it’s like seeing an old friend. I’ve bought and sold this pair of Maggiolini commodes twice over the past 5 years:


Pieces that we buy back or that come from known European collections are easy to vet since the provenance is already established.

Other pieces come through “spotters” that we have in Europe who locate important pieces as they become available as well as through other dealers and auctions. Those pieces require careful examination and vetting, a process that calls on your expertise in knowing periods, color, condition, shape, and style. Rare pieces that are stamped or are associated with a particular artisan require additional investigation. Below: an 18th century French Louis XV Chinoiserie Commode stamped "M. Criard", a matre Parisian ebeniste:


This vetting process is more art than science and requires years of experience in seeing, touching and even smelling thousands of antiques. With that experience, you come to know when something, like proportion or patina, is “right” or just seems “off” or “wrong.” There’s no one scientific formula for verifying styles, periods and artisans-and there's no substitute for the experience of working with antiques day in and out.

Q: What is your favorite antique piece of all time? Why? What makes it so unique?

My favorite antique of all time is this second quarter 18th century Roman Tortoise Shell Secretaire. It’s beauty literally takes your breath away.

The exterior and portions of the interior are veneered in rare tortoise shell underlaid with pure 22k gold leaf to create a shimmering effect of unparalleled opulence. It also has bronze dore finials, mounts and hardware, all original. It has more than 65 secret drawers, doors, pockets and hidden cubbies concealed within.


The interior is so intricate in detail and richness that it boggles the mind. It looks just like a miniature version of St. Peters Basilica in the Vatican, only rendered in miniature out of translucent tortoise shell and gold. So the buyer of this piece will effectively have something on par with the Sistine Chapel sitting right in their living room. But then it retails for more than $1,000,000 USD.


The piece’s importance is underscored by its provenance. It was originally part of the household inventory of the Villa Marlia, near Lucca, in the Tuscan region of Italy and was owned by a variety of Italian royals including Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Duchess of Lucca, Princess of Piombino, and the Comtesse de Compignano. The piece was secreted from the Villa during World War II, ultimately surfacing in the 1960’s, still in the possession of an Italian royal, the Contessa Ferrari Lauretta.

It’s my favorite antique because of its rarity, workmanship, condition, materials, beauty and provenance.

Q: What is your favorite antique period? Why?


That’s like asking a parent which child is their favorite. I like them all. But I guess if I had to choose one favorite period it would be Louis XV Rococo.

This period was really smack in the middle of the Golden Age of furniture and represented a dramatic break from the past. It was a period of whimsy, sensuality, and intelligence. It’s asymmetry and sense of fun flew in the face of all of the periods before it and after it.

For example, the preceding Baroque period of Louis XIV was grand, balanced and somewhat serious, much like the post-Rococo Neoclassical periods from Louis XVI to the Empire. Below is an 18th century Italian Louis XV Rococo commode that could only be described as "exhuberant!":

Although I ascribe to the saying that there’s really nothing new under the sun, I think that the Rococo style really blazed new ground in furniture design history. And, of course, its designs have stood the test of time. The look is still used extensively by the top interior designers and can be mixed with many other styles without looking out of place.

Q: What is your favorite venue featuring antique pieces? Why?

That’s an easy one: C. Mariani Antiques (where I work). I call it “the Louvre with price tags” because we have more than 4,000 of the world’s best (and yes, most expensive) period antiques, primarily from the 16th to the mid 19th century.


For me, it’s even better than any museum because I get to snoop around, take out drawers, turn pieces upside down and examine them for hidden treasures and clues.

You’d be surprised at what I’ve found over the years: love notes scribbled on the bottom of a drawer, signatures of craftsmen, stickers from long forgotten antique dealers and once in a great while, a forgotten trinket or two. Once I found a small gold locket in a secret compartment. Another time, I found a lady’s fan. It’s fun.

My second favorite venue is the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. They have the most amazing range of antique furnishings in their collection.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Words of the Day: FAIENCE, FAENZA and MAJOLICA


The first word for today is FAIENCE, meaning French tin-glazed, low-fired earthenware.

It's pronounced "fay AHNS". So the emphasis is on the "AHNS", sort of like Beyoncé, only you add the fay and drop the say. 

Oh--and also drop the "bee". OK, you're right, they're not alike at all. Never mind...

Here's a photo of me with one of our very happy (he's smiling!) 18th century faience lions (I'm actually the one on the left--I've had lots of work done...Do you think it's too much?):


This faience pair are quite extraordinary because they were most likely commissioned for the French Royal Hunting Lodge in Rouen around 1755:

List price: $85,750 USD

So now we know that when you say faience, you're describing French pottery or statues that are glazed terra cotta like the ones above.

But what if you're talking about Italian glazed earthenware? If it's Italian (or English for that matter), it's not called faience, it's called MAJOLICA (pronounced "muh JAHL ick Kuh") from the Italian town of FAENZA. Faenza was a leading pottery center during the 15th and 16th centuries. Here's a beautiful set of Italian Montelupo majolica plates:

I love these. They'd be great in a Tuscan interior. Rustic but elegant. List price:  $28,000 USD

And by the way, the French came up with their word "Faience" from the Italian town of Faenza. And thus we come full circle and...The End.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

How Legs can Help Identify Antique Periods & Styles


Here's a reprint of the Decorati Magazine article on Antique Leg Styles, in case you missed it.

Can you tell how old an antique is just by the shape of its leg? 

Well, no, not the exact date it was created, because classic leg designs are copied to this day. But a leg CAN tell you when a style was first introduced and that is one important step in identifying an antique's age and period.

Look at this leg: 
It's shapely curves identify it as a cabriole (pronounced "CAB ree ole") leg and that type of leg was first introduced in the 18th century. The prototypical cabriole leg was introduced in the Regence period in France and was refined/perfected in the following period of Louis XV rococo.

But that doesn't mean this piece of furniture was made in the 18th century. In fact, it is a Louis XV revival desk made in the late 19th century, most likely by the renowned Parisian copyist T. Millet. To antiquarians, this desk would be called "Louis XV style", "in the taste of Louis XV", or "19th century Louis XV". Those phrases tell you it's later than the mid-18th century. 

So does that mean it's a crummy antique? Definitely not. Some of the 19th century copies of 18th century styles are even more valuable than the older pieces. They're just different and must be judged on their own merits.

This particular 19th desk is extremely valuable and would list for more than $200,000 USD:
But the leg design does allow us to identify the historical style (in this case, Rococo) and that's an important piece of information in understanding and describing a piece.

Here are other leg styles that can help you do the same:




One final comment: in the first chart above you see the leg design that looks like a cruller doughnut (see a cruller below-yum):


It's that twisty design...everyone wants to know "Why is it called 'barley twist' or, as commonly, 'barley sugar twist'?"

The answer is that in the 19th century, a favorite candy was a sweet barley sugar twist stick and it looked just like this 17th and early 18th century leg--and the name stuck! Go figure. 

Monday, June 8, 2009

Words of the Day: What's the difference between ARTICULATED and RETICULATED?


I always considered myself to be an articulate person. More or less.

But when describing many of our antiques at C. Mariani, I'm constantly confusing the words "articulated" and "reticulated". Maybe I'm more reticulate than articulate.

Anyhow, here's the correct way to use and pronounce these words when describing antiques:

RETICULATED ( "ri TICK yuh lay ted"): means a decorative motif that looks like a net, cross-hatch, or trellis pattern. Another trade term for this motif is "diapering" (See my C. Mariani blog post on Why Can't Antique Dealers Talk Good English?).

Reticulation or diapering looks like this ground pattern on a 19th century gilded Italian wall bracket:
List price: $7,500 USD

ARTICULATED ("ahr TICK yuh lay ted"): means that a piece has moving parts, like this antique polychrome and wood devotional figure:

Thursday, June 4, 2009

How Many People Can Sit at a Dining Table?

I'm glad this question wasn't "How many angels can sit on the head of a pin?" Because I have no idea so help me God.

But I do know my dining tables, antique or otherwise. And when a client is looking at a particular table, they invariably ask, "Can this table fit ten people?" Here's how you answer that question.

FIRST, it depends on the shape of the table and I realize there are a million different variations on this:
Just to keep it simple, let's stick with two basic shapes: rectangular (No. 4 above) and round (No. 11 above). 

SECOND, depends how super-sized your guests' behinds are...oh, never mind, we'll just go with table shape.

Shown above, a 19th century mahogany and brass inlaid neoclassical dining table that sits 12 people very comfortably.

The general rule is that people need about 24 inches of width for dining table seating, but banquet room chairs will often work at 21 inches or even less (I've seen them at hotels measuring 17 1/2" wide and if you use chairs like this then 12 sardines can sit at a 6 foot round table).

Shown above, a 19th century French Directoire walnut dining table that can sit 1o people very comfortably.

So here are some general seating rules:
  • If  rectangular and the table length is 5 feet, sits 4-6 comfortably; if it's 5 feet round, up to 8 people comfortably;
  • If  rectangular and the table length is 6 feet, sits 6-8 comfortably; if it's 6 feet round, up to 10 people comfortably (if you use banquet chairs, you can squeeze 12 people);
  • If  rectangular and the table length is 7 feet, sits 8 very comfortably; if it's 7 feet round, 9-11 people comfortably;
  • If  rectangular and the table length is 8 feet, sits 8 very comfortably; if it's 8 feet round, up to 12 people comfortably;
  • If  rectangular and the table length is 9 feet, sits 10 comfortably; if it's 9 feet round, up to 14 people comfortably;
  • If  rectangular and the table length is 10 feet, sits 10 comfortably; if it's 10 feet round, up to 15 people comfortably;
  • If  rectangular and the table length is 11 feet, sits 10 very comfortably and 12 comfortably; if you have a round table this big, you're in the UN General Assembly Room and good luck;
  • If  rectangular and the table length is 12 feet, sits up to 12 very comfortably and up to 14 with narrower chairs; 
  • If  rectangular and the table length is 13 feet, sits 12-14 comfortably;
  • If  rectangular and the table length is 14-15 feet, sits 14 very comfortably and 16 if need be; 
  • If  rectangular and the table length is 16 feet, sits 16 very comfortably and 18 if need be. 
Shown below, a parquetry walnut and satinwood dining table (with later leaves) that measures up to 187 1/2" (about 15 1/2 feet) long and can sit 14 people very comfortably and 16 if need be:

Other little known dining table factoids that you might find useful:
  • The maximum height that you'd want for a dining table is 31" (30" high for a dining table is about average)
  • A critical measurement, especially with antique dining tables that have very big aprons is that you need at least 25 3/4" for roomy leg clearance and to cross your legs, you need 30" for a person 5'9" tall--generally, you don't have antique tables with clearance to cross legs and that's fine
  • A light fixture over a dining table should hang between 28-32" from the top of the table and the bottom of the fixture
Ok, Mr. Smarty Pants, if you're so smart then what's a 12-sided table called? Honestly, I had no clue until we got one in and had to look it up. It's called dodecagonal and here it is:


List price: $421,600 USD