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The Secret Life of Furniture : OBJECTS OF DESIRE: The Lives of Antiques and Those Who Pursue Them, By Thatcher Freund (Pantheon: $24; 291 pp.)

August 14, 1994|Kathie Jenkins | Kathie Jenkins is a Times staff writer and former antiques dealer

The urge to collect starts early in life--one Barbie doll soon leads to another and another, and, before you know it, you've got a whole drawerful of the 11 1/2-inch arched-eyebrowed, plastic, pony-tailed teen-agers. A hobby has become a habit.

There are no bounds when it comes to collecting. All you need is the courage of your convictions and a little cash, or a lot, if you are one of the people who flock to New York every January for the Americana auctions and the Winter Antiques Show on Park Avenue held the same week. A dealer spends as much as $30,000 in fees to sell at the glitzy Americana show. This is actually cheap, considering the number of people who might spend $1 million on a single piece of American furniture, including Eddy Nicholson, former chairman of the Congoleum Corp., actor Bill Cosby and Dallas billionaire Robert Bass, who once paid $12.1 million for a Newport secretary-bookcase. Even with $30,000, it's not easy to become a seller at that show: A dealer currently exhibiting there would first have to die.

In "Objects of Desire: The Lives of Antiques and Those Who Pursue Them," Thatcher Freund focuses on three pieces of 18th-Century American furniture on offer during a single day in January, 1991: a blue blanket chest that once stored socks and underwear, offered at the Winter Antiques Show for $245,000; a rare ball-and-claw-foot Chippendale card table, forgotten for 60 years in a dark basement until the grandson of its original owner discovered it, estimated to bring $1 million at the Americana auction at Sotheby's, and a federal inlaid, drop-leaf sofa table, a prized piece from a Massachusetts collector forced by the recession to sell his antiques, valued at $100,000, also on display at Sotheby's.

"Things lead lives like people do," writes Freund (ungrammatically!), "and they prosper, like people, on the strength of their character."

While "Objects of Desire" is partly about antiques and immortality, it is really a story about collectors and why they'll do practically anything to remain in the hunt. Judging from the cast of characters Freund introduces, you get the impression that a prized table is no different from a prized terrier. What's really at stake are egos, and the need to win.

Freund writes about Joseph Hirshhorn, the 5-foot, 3-inch uranium magnate, who would shout: "How much is this? How much is this? How much is that? How much for the whole lot?" and buy 40 or 50 things at once. He writes about Connecticut antiques dealer David Schorsch, who shopped at Mr. Guy of Beverly Hills because that's where Jeopardy host Alex Trebeck got his clothes. A blockfront-furniture expert by the age of 7, Schorsch paid outrageous prices for American folk art just to get people to notice him.

Great antiques, like great dogs, are valued for provenance. And certain collectors and dealers trade on that allure. About Mario Buatta, the "Prince of Chintz" decorator who single-handedly turned the Winter Antiques Show into a major social event, Freund describes a panel discussion Buatta moderated. Three hundred women paid $35 a piece to listen to famous decorators discuss decorating with antiques. "(The ladies) seemed to care less about what made one antique unique and another not, than about the way such things fit together. They wanted history right then. They didn't want to wait two hundred years to have it. Mario Buatta was happy to oblige. He knew it was his job not to help others connect to the past, but to invent a past. 'A lot of us didn't inherit these things,' he explained that day to his admirers. 'But we want our houses to look that way. That's what we all want to strive for.' "

The author knows it too. He also knows certain individuals will do just about anything to buy--and even more to sell--a piece of the past. He tells of auctioneers who pretend to have other bidders when there are none. He tells of how a Sotheby's deal with an old-monied family to sell the $1 million card table required full-page color ads of the table in antique magazines, a meal to be served to the family by Sotheby's chef Bernard, a suite of four rooms to be taken at the Carlyle Hotel and catalogues to be mailed free to the widow for life. He writes about dealers who distract the competition at auctions to keep prices down. And he describes how some Ohio dealers discovered that while they had no trouble finding antiques made by Ohio craftsmen, few people actually wanted them; "As a result . . . when clients asked about a piece, the dealer would sometimes say, 'The people who owned it moved from Pennsylvania.' "

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