Mentmore Mansion

Inside the Art Market: Ancestral Attics

Whilst magnificent showrooms in New Bond Street and Madison Avenue were once essential to the cachet of the brand, increasingly the art market and its clients demand greater convenience and flexibility driven by the march of technology and ever-changing collecting trends.

Mallett Letter to Clients, 2017

In reading these words from one of the oldest and most esteemed English dealers in antique furniture and decor, it was hard to believe what they were really saying: that their business had all but dried up and vanished. This made me wonder: if all these clients demanding greater convenience and flexibility no longer wished to darken the doorway of a posh showroom in London or New York, where had they now gone?

One could scarcely believe that a firm dating back to 1865 had all of a sudden vaporized due to a “march of technology” and “ever-changing collecting trends.” But perhaps that is exactly what had happened. Here was a proud old firm steeped in tradition but short of cash. Hence their remaining inventory—chairs, bureaus, tables, rugs, tapestries, paintings, bric-a-brac, all of it rare and expensive and once deemed indispensable to a luxurious lifestyle—was to be liquidated, sold off at auction.

I discovered the particulars of the sale when the catalogue for it arrived in the mail. It looked like any other auction catalogue, with its bidding information, endless legalese in fine print, color photographs of the items on offer, estimates, provenance blurbs and the like. But this wasn’t just any old catalogue of the sort that arrives daily from the major auction houses and gets stacked into a pile and forgotten. It was something unique: a going-out-of-business catalogue.

And with it came a lofty, dirge-like cover letter explaining those ever-changing collecting trends in the art market and the catastrophic effect they were having not only on the field of antiques but, alas, on the venerable firm of Mallett. The future looked . . . perilous.

Perhaps all that remained of Mallett, the letter seemed to imply, was the cachet of the brand.

Only yesterday it seemed that one could visit the Mallett website and scroll through countless pages of anecdotes and photographs showing the firm’s long and fabled history. Here were photographs of old Mallett showrooms through the decades bursting with English and Continental furniture of exquisite taste and distinction, rare period pieces of the sort Mallett had long supplied to museums, stately homes throughout England, apartments up and down Park Avenue.

One recalls a charming snapshot of the Queen Mother making an appearance at New Bond Street for an exhibition in the 1960s, the bobbies clearing a path for her through the cheering crowds as she entered this rarified mercantile realm where royalty and rich Americans were always made to feel right at home.

But memories of Mallett’s glorious past didn’t interest me of late. For I couldn’t stop thinking about a gorgeous pair of George II Japanned cabinets that we had recently consigned to Mallett for private sale on behalf of a client in California, and that were now in limbo.

Our contact at Mallett was an English furniture specialist formerly of Sotheby’s, someone we knew well and trusted. Despite recent rumblings about Mallett and its shaky financial state he had assured us that the firm was reorganizing under vigorous new ownership. Yes, they had all but decamped from America, deserting their posh premises on Madison Avenue. But plans were in place for grand new digs on Pall Mall in St. James’s, with a gala opening party soon to take place and a lavish catalogue to commemorate the occasion. Mallett would soon rise from the ashes!

It was heartening to hear of these developments, which sounded so promising; and we were anxious that our cabinets receive the attention worthy of their rarity and value. But on a visit to London I passed by the new location and found the windows papered over. The new gallery never opened; the exhibition and catalogue were but a dream.

Soon I received a phone call from our contact with the news that Mallett had again been sold. Now it would be the private sales division of an English auction company we had scarcely heard of called Dreweatts and Bloomsbury. As for going forward, we had a choice: the cabinets could either be included in a forthcoming auction at Dreweatts of Mallet’s remaining inventory, with a lowball estimate to ensure their sale; or they could be placed with another private dealer in London. Either way, we were done with the venerable firm of Mallett.

The dealer recommended to us was the small firm of Charles Mackinnon, with modest, storefront premises on Ryder Street in St. James’s, just on the back end of Christie’s. I knew the building well, and this seemed like a good fit. On ringing up Charlie Mackinnon, I found him delightful, brimming with enthusiasm for the cabinets and yet also cautious about their value in the current market, which was a far cry—no, a scream—from what our client had paid for them many years ago, when Japanned furniture was all the rage. So the cabinets were soon delivered to Ryder Street.

The whole unsettling experience with Mallett left me wondering if the antiques market even had a pulse left. How could this happen to such an old and famous firm? And what did this say about the future of the major auction houses, of Sotheby’s and Christie’s, which have sold English furniture since the 18th century?

But of course they had seen this coming for years and had steadily downsized their decorative arts departments in New York and London. They had cut staff, dreamed up new departments and theme sales, and tried every which way to make old furniture more appealing to a younger crowd of collectors.

But young people don’t care about old furniture. They like formica tables from the 1950s better than Sheraton or Hepplewhite. They haven’t a clue what ormolu is, and they wouldn’t want it even if they did. The auction houses know this, but, bound by tradition and ever loyal to the past, they soldier on.

This is not to say that the supply of old furniture has dried up. Far from it.

Choice old pieces from private collections, along with the occasional contents of stately homes here and abroad, still appear each auction season. After all, Sotheby’s and Christie’s used to have whole departments devoted solely to country house auctions in England. The catalogues for these sales—which often took place deep in the country at castles and manor houses with names like Ashwell Lodge, West Wycombe Park and Nosely Hall—would be prefaced with complex genealogies and stirring family histories that read like the backstories of Downton Abbey. Americans, always so besotted with English country houses and their glittering, puffed-up lifestyle, could be counted on as bidders and buyers at these events.

So clever about marketing, the auction houses tapped even deeper into this wellspring of interest in stately homes by holding something new: attic sales. These began with a bang around 1990 when a vast array of items from the spectacular Castle Howard in Yorkshire was offered by Sotheby’s in London. The sale might have been a bad joke were it not for the pedigree of the modest items being sold. For here were broken chairs, faded tapestries, shredded sofas and other discarded furniture and decorations that for decades had been stored deep in the gloomy, upper recesses of Castle Howard, cast off and forgotten.

Hence there was something wonderfully voyeuristic about the sale catalogue, which allowed the reader to look behind the scenes at Castle Howard in what was essentially a high-class tag sale. But it was a sensation, heralding much grander tag sales to follow at castles all over Europe. One in particular seemed to capture the essence of this sale genre, as it included hundreds of items gathered from castles all over Germany and was titled alluringly: Ancestral Attics.

But the glory days of the country house auctions have long passed. The auction houses have moved on to newer, richer veins of interest: Chinese contemporary paintings, balloon dogs, diamond-encrusted skulls, Nakashima tables and chairs, anything modern. Sotheby’s and Christie’s are masters of packaging and promotion, after all. This is why they have lasted for three centuries.

Perhaps it is this very lack of reinvention that has eluded the old antiques dealers like Mallett and caused them so much grief. Worse, keeping up appearances in swank showrooms has become utterly unaffordable. Take a walk any day along New Bond Street in London, for example, this former mecca of the antiques trade, and the most thrilling sight you’ll encounter are the crowds and titillating windows at Victoria’s Secret! The real estate here has become too valuable for the sleepy trade in chiffoniers and tea tables. Where’s the sex appeal?

This thought made me wonder: If only John Hobbs was still around to shake things up.

For here was a man with real showmanship, tall and leonine, with a cockney accent and rough, vulgar manner despite his tailored English suits, a man who could sell antiques like no one else. His showrooms at 107 Pimlico Road were nothing less than Hollywood stage sets, flamboyant and colorful, filled with the most stunning pieces of period furniture that screamed money, privilege, ego. Here was a movie actor masquerading as a salesman.

But in his quest for stardom he went way off-script. The John Hobbs story is thus a thrilling if bleak parable of the antiques trade.

John had started in the business back in the 1950s as a boy, working with his father Sid, who ran a King’s Road junk shop called Odds and Hobbs. Sid was a charmer who knocked on doors in wealthy London neighborhoods coaxing goods from cash-hungry owners. John learned the ropes from this master, and in time he struck out on his own with his younger brother Carlton. Together they opened a shop and gradually entered the rarified upper end of the furniture trade alongside firms like Mallett and S & J Phillips.

Their rise to stardom was meteoric and intoxicating, their business plan sublime. But it had one flaw.

To keep up with the demand for the rarest pieces of furniture, preferably ones with plenty of flash and pedigree, a dealer may need more than just good pickers and scouts or a pipeline to the aristocracy. He may need the services of a clever restorer.

Enter Mr. Dennis Buggins. He began working for the Hobbs brothers and proved himself indispensable. At some point, however, he seems to have crossed over from simply restoring pieces to inventing them.

In time the Hobbs brothers went their separate ways. Carlton moved on to New York and bought a fifty-one-room mansion on East 93rd Street, the former home of a Whitney, a private palace right in the middle of Carnegie Hill and the perfect stage for Carlton Hobbs’s extravagant inventory. By now he catered to the grandest museums and trendiest interior decorators, charging impossible sums for his many gilded treasures.

But his long-running feuds with younger brother John grew worse, until the two wound up hating one another. John, after all, was lazy but charming and sleek, a master salesman. Carlton was bookish and withdrawn, preferring research to glad-handing. In a New York Times article about the two in October 2008, John remarked on his loathing of Carlton: “If I heard that my brother had terminal cancer I would open a bottle of Champagne.”

The Times article was occasioned by a scandal that exploded as a result of a money dispute John had with Mr. Buggins that was both nasty and prolonged. Unbeknownst to John, Mr. Buggins had kept elaborate records and photographs of the work he had done for John over the years, notably the fakes; and he now shared these with the press. John was soon forced to resign from the British Antique Dealers Association, faced criminal and civil charges, fled abroad for a period, and was hounded to his grave.

Carlton suffered collateral damage, as he was part of the larger narrative of the Hobbs brothers’ rise to fame and fortune. But after the storm blew over he was back to business as usual in his Manhattan palace, where he remains still.

The John Hobbs story had a personal as well as a professional interest for me. For in 2000, when I was still working in the auction world, I had gotten to know John through frequent visits to his Pimlico Road showrooms. He had decided to retire to a country house, like a proper gentleman. And despite his years of fame and success, he needed more cash for his new life in a stately home of his own. Hence he was selling nearly his entire stock at auction, in two lavish sale catalogues that showcased his opulent, almost grotesquely grand taste. I left the auction scene before the sales took place, but they brought John the publicity and cash he so craved.

I had forgotten about John until 2007, when I paid a visit to an exquisite villa in Northern California. The owners of the house had filled it with the finest English furniture and decorations they could find, most of it through their decorator on extended buying trips to London, where they had patronized the plush salons of Ronald Phillips, Mallett and Apter-Frederick. For a few years they had entertained lavishly and enjoyed the comforts of living with many glorious pieces of old furniture. But now they were moving to a new and more informal house, one where an eight-pedestal George II mahogany dining table and twelve George II mahogany chairs were not needed. Hence the owner needed assistance navigating the auction market.

But in visiting the house for the first time and walking through the elegant rooms, I was visited by a ghost from the past in the form of John Hobbs.

For among the many rare pieces bought by the client on those trips to London with an unwitting decorator were several from 170 Pimlico Road. In reviewing the invoices from these particular purchases I could immediately see a pattern: extravagant description, dazzling provenance, huge markup. Henry House from Sotheby’s London duly arrived to prepare a formal proposal with auction estimates and to arrange for a sale of the collection at auction New York.

But one day before the catalogue was to go to press, we were asked to stop in at Sotheby’s to have a discussion with Peter Lang, the specialist in charge of the sale. He wanted to discuss some problems with the collection. Now that Sotheby’s had thoroughly studied and catalogued all the pieces in it, many of which were truly rare and valuable, it appeared there were some fakes.

All of these had come from John Hobbs.

And so one afternoon I was given a demonstration on fakes in the storage rooms of Sotheby’s at 1334 York Avenue, where Peter and his staff showed the many red flags, mismatches and oddities of various pieces that had been acquired from John Hobbs with alluring but made-up and thoroughly false histories and descriptions. These pieces were all the masterwork of Mr. Buggins.

By way of example, Peter guided me through the sins committed on a massive brass-and-gilt-metal mounted mahogany library table that had been sold as Regency, of the period roughly from 1812-1820 during which King George III, deemed unfit to rule, was replaced by his son and heir as Regent. This historical tie-in to the library table struck me as fitting, since Peter Lang of Sotheby’s was now demonstrating why the table was unfit to be deemed of the Regency period.

Of course, to the casual viewer the table seemed of great elegance and grandeur in all its monumentality. But Peter had the table turned on its side so that we could see joints and underpinnings that were, alas, replacement parts from the furniture salvage stores of Mr. Buggins. Hence the breathtaking price of some $350,000 paid in London for the piece was but a dim memory. For it was now revealed as a cleverly “made-up” piece, stripped of its Regency dating and downgraded to Regency Style.

Still, the table was impressive in size and appearance, very decorative if not authentic. And so, given an estimate of $15,000-25,000 for the sale, it yielded a hammer price of $16,000. The collection overall was a triumph, with many period pieces greatly exceeding their estimates, the total reaching $2.5 million. The client was thrilled.

But the fakes from John Hobbs left a bitter aftertaste.

I should mention here that the glorious pair of George II Japanned cabinets that languished for years in limbo, and were eventually given to Charles Mackinnon to sell, had come from this same California collection. But as the taste for such ornamental furniture had greatly diminished in 2009, when the sale of the collection took place, it was decided to keep them out of the sale and to offer them privately. This sale effort went on for several years, with ever-declining interest and plunging value.

But then in early 2018 Charles Mackinnon decided on acquiring the cabinets himself. And so they were finally gone. The client, by now retired and traveling the world with his wife, was relieved, although he could hardly forget the original heart-stopping purchase price of seven figures that he had paid so many years ago to the dealer—Carlton Hobbs.

Thinking about the mysterious early provenance of these dreamy, out-of-fashion cabinets, I can visualize them sitting long ago in one of those fortress-like castles in the English countryside, the sort at which an Ancestral Attics sale might have taken place. But the cabinets would not have been hidden away in damp, dark storerooms: they would have been displayed prominently in a stateroom or grand salon, where they belonged.

And in time, as is so often the case with fine pieces of old furniture in crumbling castles, they were trucked away to a showroom in London and offered for sale. The Queen Mother might have seen them on view and asked their price, going pale at the number given, a number perhaps only a rich American could be persuaded to pay.

At least that’s the way the antiques market used to operate. But amidst those vexing and ever-changing collecting trends that have overwhelmed the art market of late, causing such pain and consternation for old firms like Mallett and even for the major auction houses, perhaps we have reached a point of no return. Maybe the antiques market, like one of those ancestral attics featured at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in the 1990s, has now been cleared out and left bare.

Or maybe it is simply worn out. Time will tell.

—Ronald Varney

(Image: Mentmore Mansion, 1977: London auctioneers Sotheby’s auction the contents of the Mentmore Mansion in Buckinghamshire, following the death of its owner, the 6th earl of Rosebery, in 1973. The Labour government of James Callaghan had refused to accept the contents in lieu of inheritance taxes, which would have turned the house into one of England’s finest museums of European furniture, objets d’art and Victorian era architecture. Photo by Homer Sykes/Getty Images.)