Inside the Art Market: Curse of the Color Brown

Solid mahogany! What pictures of impregnable financial fortresses, of widespread surfaces brilliant with the gleam of candles and the glint of silver, of all of the spacious hospitality of by-gone days will be brought to mind by the words. Solid mahogany!

Mahogany Antique and Modern (1926)

What a serene, elegant visage: a spacious, ornate room with soaring ceilings, grand carpets and tapestries, gilt-framed portraits of ancestors, silver and porcelain in abundance; and commanding full attention a magnificent Louis XVI mahogany commode stamped by a famous ébéniste, with candlelight flickering off the shiny surfaces, silk brocaded window treatments to enhance the setting, the whole summoning up a world of privilege, taste, tradition, comfort.

How stirring and sumptuous. And yet how quaintly outmoded and almost irrelevant to current taste.

So often these days one hears the laments about “brown wood,” its plunging value and desirability, even its blandness, as though the very color brown was an affront to good taste. One has only to look to the salerooms of Sotheby’s and Christies to see that auctions once devoted almost exclusively to the rarified fields of French Furniture, English Furniture and American furniture have all but vanished. In their place are snappy, dressed-up theme sales of miscellaneous furnishings artfully staged and packaged to inspire decorators and their new-collector clients with the smart if dated look of period interiors. These interiors would most likely include antique furniture, of course; but the artful auction-house packaging would hopefully distract one from ever thinking of it as the now unfashionable “brown wood.”

For mahogany, solid or otherwise, is out.

Robert Woolley would have been appalled. The legendary and longtime head of Decorative Arts at Sotheby’s, Woolley was a pioneer of benefit auctioneering, a man whose rare and ripe sense of humor proved uniquely persuasive in coaxing bids at black-tie events around the country. Before his death in 1995 Woolley ruled the roost at Sotheby’s, prowling the maze-like corridors, back offices and exhibition galleries of the auction house on York Avenue, moving always at a relentless, no-nonsense clip. He called to mind one of those formidable New England boarding school masters who uphold the traditions of the old school by taking it upon themselves to make sure caps are being worn in winter, the common rooms are being properly swept and that efforts on the playing fields are nothing short of heroic.

For Woolley, furniture would reign supreme forever. As he once remarked, “In a sense, you can rely on the fact that there will always be sales of porcelain, silver, Chinese art and the like. You may not need a million dollar painting on the wall, but you have to have a chair to sit on, and it might as well be an antique one.”

But Robert Woolley could not have foreseen the decline of period furniture, indeed its stunning eclipse as a collecting field of vibrancy and allure. Perhaps he was most wrong about the need for “a million dollar painting.” For the art world now seems driven to a large extent by just such a need. One might easily argue that the very foundation of the art market as we know it today is the expression of wealth and stature through the acquisition of paintings worth millions of dollars, the more flashy and “branded” the better. Furniture, on the other hand, is a thing of the past. Indeed, the art market today almost screams: “Who cares about a chair to sit on?”

What a strange development, but perhaps not unexpected.

For years the drum beat of Modernism and all things contemporary has pushed old-fashioned fields of collecting such as English furniture, porcelain, silver and tapestries into the shadows. Perhaps period furniture is just not a taste for young people, connoting as it does formality, stuffiness, even parental authority. Mid-century modern furniture has thus gone ablaze with popularity and a certain cultural timeliness, its stripped-down, cold and sleek look perfect for loft-like rooms with minimal pretensions. Not long ago one could wander into any apartment up and down Park Avenue and find a surfeit of “brown wood” to lend decorative grandeur; but not any longer. Imagine formica-topped kitchen tables from the 1950s of the sort once found everywhere in middle class America. These now exude the sort of stylistic power once the province of all things mahogany.

Hence niche auction houses like Wright in Chicago and Rago in Bucks County have steadily built up a clientele seeking all manner of modern furniture and decorations, with signed pieces by the most daring and innovative designers from Europe and America highly prized. Nordic design, for example, is suddenly all the rage. As a result of this growing phenomenon even the most prominent, blue-stocking dealers of English, French and American furniture on both sides of the Atlantic—Mallett and Partridge in London, Devenish and Kentshire in New York—once so magisterial and profitable, have been forced to retrench, retool, even to close shop forever. It is surely a revolution in taste.

Certainly it is a very altered reality from the 1980s and 90s, when wealthy collectors in America would frequently travel to London for the major furniture sales, visiting the shops in Mayfair and St. James’s, quietly adding pieces to their collections. It was a genteel trade, slow and steady, with dealers and auction house specialists alike working closely with genuine enthusiasts, many of them with a deep knowledge and respect for the finest examples of Georgian, Regency, Chippendale, and Queen Anne period furniture. The dealers, in particular, made great sums of money from an affluent and ever-loyal, if aging, clientele.

They must have thought this would go on forever.

“Things changed dramatically for the furniture market after 9/11,” says Henry House, Senior Director, Head of Department, Furniture and Decorative Arts at Sotheby’s London. “True collectors, especially Americans, ceased traveling to London, and the last sixteen years have seen a steady erosion of this market.”

Still, he sees hope amidst the gloom. “We find that younger buyers are coming to this field, especially as they recognize the value in English furniture. These emerging collectors have been gradually moving away from a style they might have preferred five years ago, a stripped-down minimalist look, and are now being drawn toward more furnished interiors, with a blend of good modern pieces paired with good period furniture.”

One of the problems with the current furniture market, House feels, is supply: there aren’t that many superb pieces coming fresh to the dealers or the auction houses. He described the American market as largely untapped. “There are many great furniture collections there, notably in the older Midwestern cities such as Cleveland, Detroit and Cincinnati,” he commented. “But families are holding on to these collections in an environment where it may be unappealing to sell.” House speaks frequently with private dealers about the state of the current market, and they all seem to agree on one thing: “What we need is a sensational private collection coming along for sale to spur interest.”

By way of example House mentioned the recent auction at Sotheby’s in Paris of the collection of decorative arts and Old Master paintings formed over fifty years by businessman Robert de Balkany. It was a thrilling flashback in terms of buyer zeal, with some 4,000 people visiting the exhibition, 1,100 registering to bid, and people from thirty countries participating in the sale. The total was a robust €19.3 million, an impressive figure achieved through the benefit of lavish catalogue photography, stirring online videos, tributes to the collector extolling his exquisite taste, and generally a potent and stylish digital marketing campaign. It was very much a high-tech promotion of an old and fading collecting taste, and it worked brilliantly.

As House relates, “Before the sale we opened for public viewing de Balkany’s Paris home, the spectacular Hotel de Feuquières at Rue de Varenne, and it was mobbed. The sale was filled with good things. It was a lavish, wealthy-playboy taste but did very well.” Among the rarities was the most important Roman piece of furniture ever to come on the market, the Borghese-Windsor Cabinet, which sold for €2,499,000 to the J. Paul Getty Museum. Still, many glittering pieces of 18th century French furniture, oozing flash and impeccable provenance, found only tepid interest. A rare Louis XVI Gilt-Bronze Mounted Mahogany Commode stamped B. Molitor and classified as a Historical Monument, for example, brought only €243,000, well below its estimate of €300,000-500,000.

It was just the sort of dazzling piece that would have ignited a bidding frenzy in the old glory days.

I am reminded of those glory days by a single-owner sale that took place at Sotheby’s New York in October 1990 offering an altogether more sober and restrained taste than the one presented in the gilt-laden treasures of the de Balkany Collection. That sale encompassed a wonderful group of English furniture, decorations and paintings owned by the late John Treleaven, the venerable owner of Needhams Antiques, now long gone.

Operating from a four-story building at 143 East 57th Street, Needhams for decades offered to its discerning clientele the finest examples of rare English commodes, drum tables, canterburys, Tambour desks, torchères, hunt tables, Coromandel cabinets, 2 and 3-pedestal dining tables, and old-fashioned sporting scenes and family portraits, the whole evoking the plummy ancestral glories of English country house interiors. The fitting if quaint company motto was this: The happiness of home life is vastly enhanced by attractive and comfortable surroundings.

Recently I came across a Needhams brochure from 1963-64, with page-upon page of grainy photographs showing, in muted room-like recreations, its vast, encyclopedic stock. The brochure helpfully provided a glossary of the many kinds of wood to be found in all these striking pieces of furniture offered by Needhams, including satinwood, rosewood, snakewood, kingwood, harewood, boxwood, tulip, amboyna, holly, pear, beech, and, of course, mahogany.

Reading the old–fashioned prose of the Needhams brochure gave me pause, with its quiet and silky tone of enthusiasm for a field of collecting now so overshadowed in the art world:

“This brochure is presented to assist all who desire such examples of antique furniture, as may be enjoyed today and cherished by ensuing generations, which is the aim of many collectors.”

The word “cherished” jumped out at me, and I thought: Perhaps these phantom “ensuing generations” of collectors will indeed come to appreciate one day the poetry and elegance once so evident in “brown wood.”

—Ronald Varney

(Image: Photo Courtesy of Sotheby’s. View of the Hôtel Particulier, Robert de Balkany, Rue de Varenne, Paris)