Lovely legs, madam

Thomas Woodham-Smith on the sexed-up fantasies of the antique dealer


This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Many antique dealers yearn to be James Bond, not because they want to be spies and shoot people but because they want to be considered sexy. It is a peculiar thing the number of times dealers have said to me without irony, “People do say I am the James Bond of the antique trade.”

The real trouble with buying and selling a mahogany George III chest of drawers is that it is hard, nigh on impossible, to make it into a sexy experience. There are also innumerable aspects of an antique dealer’s life which are very not sexy: early-morning markets, carrying heavy furniture to a top-floor flat and back down again when the client has decided against it, VAT, getting your van serviced. All of these things James Bond does not do. But that is the dream. In Dr No, Bond’s flat is full of antiques. It wouldn’t be now, but it made an indelible imprint in dealers’ minds.

There is equally a tendency for dealers in their early sixties to wear their hair long and their shirts out, display a lush chest of grey hair, and be supported on flamboyant trainers. This is faded rock star rather than our man from MI6, but the ultimate direction of travel is the same: the dealer wants to appear gorgeous.

Another problem is the language of furniture. There are a lot of body part names: legs, arms, backs, knees. This is a notorious trap for the antique dealer. These parts can be described to potential buyers as being sexy. Cor — look at the shape of the legs on that side table — isn’t it sexy! This tendency was particularly prevalent in the 1980s, when antiques were at the apex of their popularity.

These days, when antiques are significantly less popular, the term sounds ever more ridiculous but you still hear it. The replacement vogue is to lay claim to an object’s modernity. Objects from centuries past are described as being modern or contemporary-looking. I have often succumbed to this nonsense myself.

Some dealers actually are sexy. There are people in this business who have made it their life’s work to charm and seduce. The ability to persuade people to buy a piece is not enough: they want to be personally and physically adored themselves. Then there is the sexual crackle of an Art Fair, especially abroad where the restraints are off. A lot of dealers go a bit nuts chasing and being happily chased. The confluence of dealers seems to engender a sort of crowd friskiness.

We were exhibiting at the antique show in San Francisco. After dinner we were walking back to the hotel when one of my colleagues announced that he was not very sleepy and fancied popping into town for a nightcap. We did not see him until the next day; he was looking a little the worse for wear.

The next night it was the same story, and the next. In the end I had to tell him that he should get some sleep and freshen up. He said he felt in some way he was living his dream as an antique dealer.

But there are times and moments when somehow the S-word does seem appropriate: you might even call it love. It is not always obvious, such as when a piece is exaggeratedly curvaceous or eye-wateringly expensive. It is a strange and indescribable moment when a piece is just totally perfect and at the same time unusual and rare. When you see it, you know.

Of course, tastes vary but the feeling is one that all dealers have experienced. I met a client for a drink at his New York apartment. He had a small tripod table on the coffee table in front of him. He sat admiring it with a glass of whisky in hand. As we chatted, every few minutes he would rotate the table a tiny bit.

He explained that he had bought the table a few days earlier after chasing it for nearly a year. He was trying to see if it had any flaws, an awkwardness from any angle. He had been looking at it all day. He had taken the day off work. He had yet to find a fault. You could well gasp at the pretentiousness of it. But it was desire fulfilled and, as I saw it, a love that was totally sincere.

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