The Discreet Chair of the Bourgeoisie

Regular readers of these pages know that I often take the time to write about individual works of art, or the artists who created them, as touchstones for the examination of Western culture in general.  Yet an interesting consideration here which I do not often touch upon is one which, to a large degree, has to do with economic forces.  The value of a painting, or a sculpture, or a piece of furniture is not readily apparent, and yet can be measured almost as predictably as the widgets, guns, and butter which are often the commodities being studied in the area of economic theory.  And because of this, no matter how much the art and antiques market may change, there is something about it that is probably always going to remain decidedly bourgeois.

While watching “Antiques Roadshow” last evening, something which I do on a regular, if not strictly scheduled, basis, the thought struck me about how very conservative the whole program is, despite its being a production of the decidedly left-wing PBS.  Of course some of the objects being appraised, the owners of the objects, and those performing the valuations are not conservative themselves.  However there is something interesting about the fact that the show distinguishes between the intrinsic and the emotional value of a piece being examined.

A common response for example, from one of the appraisers to an inquiry as to the valuation of a family heirloom, is something along the lines of, “Of course you would never want to sell it, since it means so much to you, and you can’t really put a value on such things.”  Another, related response is when the expert notes that, “Well the value lies in what it means to you, since it is not actually worth very much.”  Yet even when the owner of the object is forewarned, as it were, that they are not going to be able to retire on the worth of their object, they of course still want to know what the value is.  I cannot recall seeing an episode where at least some stab at a valuation has not been asked for or made, even if in an off-hand way without the estimate appearing at the bottom of the screen.

Similarly, there is the idea of the “bidding war”.  When an object is rather unique, the expert will give the valuation and tell the owner that their valuation could be a conservative one.  For if two collectors really wanted to get their hands on that particular object at an auction, the price could skyrocket well above the estimated value.  In such a situation even the insurance value placed on an object, for example, which is generally higher than the auction estimate, and given to give some idea of what one would have to pay in a retail shop to replace it with something similar, can be blown completely out of the water into fantasyland.

However the bidding war situation is one in which emotion and greed can sometimes outweigh common sense entirely.  Academic paintings of the 19th century, for example, while certainly very popular in their day, do not tend to fetch as high prices now as they did then, in real terms.  One wonders whether the same will be true a century from now for things such as “installation” art, which fetch astronomical amounts of money and yet only a very rich fool would want to “install” in their home.  There is something about the accumulation of trendy objects that are poorly made which tends to deflate their value later on, when the bourgeoisie get around to purchasing them as second-hand.

And then there is the art market itself, which paradoxically both encourages and discourages collecting based on income.  To the person of average means, the expert on a program such as Antiques Roadshow always advises caution: the owner of an object is told that the best way to collect is to buy what you like.  However if you are a collector with deep pockets, this sensible advice is sometimes abandoned by the art expert, letting the collector know that so-and-so, a famous collector, has one just like this, and so perhaps you ought to pick one up as well.  This is little more than peer pressure or keeping up with The Joneses, with many “0’s” on the end.

Most of us are never going to find ourselves in the situation where art investment advisers from the banks – and yes, there are such persons – are emailing us with photographs of poor art for sale at rich prices, trying to get us to purchase such things.  We have to be content with grandmother’s pearls, or Uncle George’s collection of Vanity Fair caricatures, or that reproduction Louis XV chair we picked up for a song at a garage sale.  And while this may not, for many, be the most exciting end of the collecting market, it is certainly the bread-and-butter of that market, despite its being more cautious and prudent as a segment.

The next time you have a chance to watch a valuation program like Antiques Roadshow, try to separate yourself a bit from the excitement and the emotional quality of what is going on, and look at the practicalities of it.  The people you see may be wearing jeans and t-shirts, and the chair they are looking at might be something that no Founding Father or Eminent Victorian would ever have considered putting on display in their parlor.  Yet the inherent basis of the market for that object remains the same as it did in earlier times. Prudent purchasing at a low price, with a higher valuation than what was originally paid, continues to be celebrated as a “good investment”, and the purchaser is complimented and told they have a “good eye”, both for the object itself, but also for a bargain.

The times may have changed, but when it comes down to it the bourgeois joy of collecting things like art, furniture, silver, and so on at reasonable prices, it really has not changed much at all.


Illustration of Antique Louis XV-style chairs
from “The Furniture Collector” by Maincent and Guilmard (1871)

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