Sunday 19 October 2008

Hobbs, Hobbs, Buggins and the Antiquities Trade

For the past few months the revelations of Dennis Buggins, a furniture restorer and architectural salvage dealer based in Kent have been rocking the antique furniture world. He claims to have made a number of pieces of fake furniture which have been selling for very high prices from at least two exclusive showrooms run by brothers, one in London, one in New York (Furniture Restorer’s Allegations of Deception Shake Antiques Trade). The Sunday Times in London and The New York Times published evidence that suggested that London antiques dealer John Hobbs “known for superb English and Continental furniture, stratospheric prices and wealthy American clients”, was dealing in fakes and his London store closed in spring. Now according to the NYT (The Feud and the Fakes ), the business of equally well-connected transatlantic brother Carlton Hobbs seems likely to be going the same way. The items involved are described by a member of Sotheby’s staff as “convincingly made and with an intention to deceive. They incorporate elements that appeared to be period”. The New York Times described the affair as “deception and audacity on an extraordinary scale”.

The story of the developing feud between the brothers and the furniture restorer/maker who worked for both of them makes fascinating reading and no doubt would make a good book. Most interesting of all however are the comments which certain people involved in the trade made when learning of the allegations. Prominent Los Angeles decorator Michael Smith who had done business with the brothers was alarmed: “Antiques are the last business based on trust, you take things on a handshake deal. That someone would abuse that trust is staggering.” Robert Couturier, a leading designer based in New York, said that he was incredibly angry at Mr. Hobbs. “It’s such an abuse of confidence, [...] Nobody questioned his honesty. It’s very sad.” Nicholas Somers, a London arts and antiques appraiser explains: “Trust and honesty are the backbone of the antiques trade, and private collectors and museums rely on the integrity of a dealer, particularly those who have an international reputation [...] Without the integrity and trust from both sides, the confidence in the top-level antique furniture trade from buyers would evaporate and the market could crash.”

What about the antiquities trade? Dealers in antiquities trade only on their “reputations”, a nod and a wink and a handshake are the best most customers can expect when buying no-questions-asked an anonymous, unprovenanced, undocumented antiquity which he is convinced (by the seller’s “reputation”) is both authentic [not a fake] and legitmate [really and truly from a pre-1970 “old collection”, even if the dealer cannot document that]. Actually most buyers are only really bothered about the former. But fakes abound. Illicit artefacts also. The undocumented bulk of the global antiquities trade and the jealously-guarded contract of secretive silence of the trade is very effective at absorbing and concealing both. Honesty and trustworthiness and the integrity of a dealer should be the backbone of the antiquities trade, but private collectors and museums should not have to rely on the assumption that all involved in the trade are white-as-snow angels 'until proven otherwise', but rather should be able to base it on their ability to document the legitimacy of the items offered. It is on this that a reputation should be built. Without the integrity and trust from both sides, the confidence in the antiquities market from buyers would evaporate and the market could crash. And then what would have been the sense of trashing all those archaeological sites to supply it?
Thornton Kay, 'Dennis Buggins settles his dispute with John Hobbs', SalvoNEWS December 09, 2010

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