Collecting for Form and Function
Depth of color, hand-applied decoration and illustrious backstories are precious ingredients in antiques that are as much artwork as home accessory.
“I remember when I saw Michelangelo’s David for the first time,” says Jan David Winitz, president and founder of Oakland, California-based Claremont Rug Company. “When I finally looked away, two hours had passed. An art-level rug will touch you that deeply.”
Winitz is not alone. Thanks in large part to the attention garnered from the openings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s galleries of Islamic art in late 2011, and Islamic art wing at the Louvre last year, Oriental rugs are having a moment. Particularly sought after are 19th-century specimens from the Caucasus region, which Winitz calls the “sweethearts” of the inner circle of rug collectors.
Like a couture gown, a great Oriental carpet woven prior to 1910, when large workshops for export were established and quality suffered, is a one-of-a-kind, handmade treasure. But unlike couturiers, the vast majority of weavers are anonymous. Rather, says Winitz, “It’s the impact of the piece that determines its worth.”
The condition of a rug is vital, as well as the pattern’s composition and design, but the most significant aspect of a rug is color. The most prized pieces might incorporate up to 50 subtly nuanced hues, all achieved with exotic dyes, the formulas for which have been long forgotten. “In real estate, it’s location, location, location,” says Winitz. “In rugs, it’s color, color, color.”
That richness of color, and also the scale, makes rugs so satisfying for both serious collectors and homeowners who purchase important pieces for furnishing grand estates. “Nothing warms up a room like a great rug,” says Winitz. Oriental rug patterns are nonrepresentational, making them a perfect, gorgeous stage—or backdrop—for furniture, paintings, sculpture and other objets d’art, effortlessly unifying the elements of a room.
Indeed, Winitz notes a dramatic increase in the number of rugs regarded as artwork hung on walls. He estimates that 50 percent of the interior projects he worked on last year included choosing rugs to hang on the wall. Tribal rugs, with their graphic, geometric designs, are akin to modern abstract art, despite them being centuries apart in age. They’re especially spectacular in minimal modernist spaces.
Another trend, among the most serious collectors, is to create a dedicated storage room—akin to a wine cellar—for one’s woven gems. Here connoisseurs, who generally collect smaller size rugs, can roll them out and show them off. Winitz has several clients, from San Francisco to upstate New York, with such rooms, which they regard as sanctuaries, and often equip with music and a bar. For those who collect more rugs than they can display, Winitz stores excess pieces and offers a service to periodically swap them out as many times a year as desired.
While the world has certainly started to pay attention, rugs have not yet entered the mainstream, so there are great values to be had. Whereas spending six figures on a painting seldom ensures a masterpiece, a fine antique rug in that range is both important and exquisite. Walter B. Denny, professor of art history and adjunct professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who also works as a senior consultant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, says, “It’s a huge, aesthetic bang for the buck.” He offers up this comparison: “For many sophisticated collectors, a $15,000 Kazak rug simply blows a $3 million Basquiat out of the water.”
Like a 19th-century collectible rug, which can serve function underfoot, there is antique china that one can enjoy on the dining table. “There are two types of clients when it comes to porcelain dinnerware,” says Bill Rau, third-generation owner of M.S. Rau Antiques in the French Quarter of New Orleans. “Those who want a great set to eat off of on the holidays, and those who want to display it.” As for distinguishing which pieces are appropriate for dining, Elise Abrams of Elise Abrams Antiques in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, says good-naturedly, “You’d have to be crazy to eat off 19th-century Sèvres … that’s what you find at Le Petit Trianon at Versailles.”
The crème de la crème of European porcelain, that is, the museum-worthy pieces coveted by top collectors, came out of three companies, all of which were established during the course of the 18th century. The first porcelain in the Western world was made in Meissen, Germany, produced by Johann Friedrich Böttger in 1710, with the first table services appearing in the 1720s. Next came French company Sèvres, founded in 1738, and supported by Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour starting in 1759. In 1775, Denmark entered the game when Royal Copenhagen was established to make hand-painted porcelain dinnerware for the queen. Fifteen years later, Danish royals commissioned the company to create the Flora Danica dinner service for Catherine the Great of Russia.
Richard Baron Cohen, one of the world’s most prominent porcelain collectors, whose tableware collection “Twinight” has been exhibited at museums internationally, points out “that first 70-year period was not so much about the decoration as it was about perfecting the mix.” He concentrates on gorgeously painted pieces from the major European factories made from the late 18th century through the early 19th century. He describes this as “the period when the factories tried to outdo each other in firing, etching, coloring and decoration.” But even with his 2,000-plus amassment, Cohen eats off plain white plates. Seems he agrees with Abrams’ sentiment.
So with what then does an aesthete set his or her table? Many dealers split up sets to spread the love to collectors. Abrams, however, is devoted to supplying clients with full services. The most highly valued, she maintains, are pieces by British porcelain company Mintons Ltd. that are embellished using the pâte-sur-pâte technique. Meaning “paste-on-paste” in French, it’s a method of creating a multilayer relief design. French modeler Marc-Louis Solon originally developed the technique at Sèvres, and brought his expertise to England in 1870 when he fled the Franco-Prussian War. The most coveted patterns feature romantic maidens and cherubs. Abrams has a superb example for sale, a signed set of 12 decorated in ivory, gold and blue, with three panels picturing nymphs and Cupid. The price tag is $38,000 for the set, or over $3,000 per plate.
The first porcelain in the Western world was made in Meissen, Germany, produced by Johann Friedrich Böttger in 1710.
The finishing touch for a formal dining room with china is a sparkling chandelier. Just as rugs are considered large-scale artworks, so too is sumptuous lighting. Giles Forster, specialist in European furniture and decorative objects at Christie’s London, affirms that although chandeliers are obviously both decorative and functional, “increasingly, we are finding that many clients are buying chandeliers as artwork to fill the void of otherwise wasted space.” And this needn’t only be the case for period homes. Forster notes the trend for placing an antique giltwood or crystal chandelier in a minimalist space “where it acts as a great conversation piece.” This is a similar sentiment to Winitz’s observations of the sublime melding of tribal rugs in sparse surroundings.
Forster also provides an example of the trend turned on its head. He points to London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, which he says has “applied the same idea in reverse by hanging Dale Chihuly’s spectacular modern glass chandelier in the Victorian entrance hall.”
Helen Costantino Fioratti, second-generation owner of L’Antiquaire & The Connoisseur in Manhattan, agrees with a chandelier’s ability to infuse personality and glamour. She says, “Hanging a chandelier in a room is like wearing a diamond brooch on your lapel.” Fioratti is a purist who favors examples made prior to 1800, reveling in each piece’s beauty, be it of Dutch, Russian, Italian or French descent.
Peter Moss, fourth-generation owner of Keil’s Antiques on Royal Street in New Orleans, deals in sparkling 18th- and 19th-century examples, many of which came out of garden district mansions. Baccarat chandeliers of hand-cut lead crystal that mimic those found in the Hall of Mirrors of Versailles are sprinkled amidst equally dazzling English Waterford crystal chandeliers. Like Fioratti, he maintains that desirability is a matter of personal taste. “One client might like the neoclassic lines of a Louis XV, while another prefers the curvaceous florals of Louis XIV.” Regardless, he asserts that high-end crystal chandeliers have continued to thrive despite the downturn in the economy.
Callie Belser, an 18th- and 19th-century furniture specialist at Christie’s New York, notes that when it comes to fetching top price, provenance is what matters most. “There’s a premium attached to chandeliers that have documented histories, like the late 18th-century chandelier from the Pavlovsk Palace outside Saint Petersburg.”
Belser is referring to a royal Russian chandelier that the Paris outpost of the auction house sold for more than $800,000 in November 2010. Condition contributes to market value too, and designs must be elegant to stand the test of time. Still, she says, “royal examples, whether from Russian imperials or English kings, are the most important. They’re markers of history.”
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