Robin Butler on Twitter

January 2014

By the time you read this I hope we will all have had a very happy Christmas and it remains for me to wish everyone all they could wish for themselves in 2014.  Early in January we will be moving home for the second time in 6 months - something we neither wanted nor expected, but our new home has fibre-optic Internet connection and excellent telephone service and we feel the house will suit us very well.

It is fascinating to see that every year as December approaches, there is a steady rush to buy presents for those who love their wine - as well as for those they love, of course!   It should not surprise me, but this year, the number of fresh enquiries rose quite markedly which is very welcome.   One particular sale amused me somewhat by the reaction of the buyer, although on this occasion, it was not from my website.

I had sold a pair of decanters we inherited which were too small to hold even a half-bottle, and were 20th century.  As they did not measure up to my standards, I put them on eBay and I was delighted that they sold for what I considered to be much more than they were worth.  The buyer later asked me if I had any other small decanters and after I had told him what I had, this is how he replied:-

“Alas, I have as many full-size decanters and claret jugs as my wife will tolerate.  The reason I am interested in smaller ones is that I find that as one ages, so do one's guests, and they find both passing, and pouring from, heavy full-size ship's decanters a test of both muscle and aim. A perfect half-size ship's decanter I picked up for a song has been a great hit when passing the port, but the problem is that one needs to keep refilling it. The solution is to have a couple of them in circulation. As for guests who like spirits after supper, a half-filled, half-sized personal decanter, tumbler, and water jug seems to cope with the most dedicated whisky-drinker’s pace for half an hour or so”. Chacun à son goût !

A few weeks ago, I gave a lecture to the Glass Circle - the leading forum for those whose interest is glass in all its forms, but with a leaning towards the antique.  My talk was entitled  ‘All at Sea with a Decanter” and in it I tried to give answers to the many questions that so-called ship’s decanters pose.   I am delighted to report that the quite large audience seemed very pleased with what they heard, and I can let anyone have a PDF of the talk on request..  

Around the time of the millennium, I felt the urge to write another book.  It is strange, but once the writing bug has bitten, the motivation to be an author seems to remain, which apart from all else, probably accounts for the frequency of these newsletters!   However, the outcome was that I quickly put about 50,000 words on paper provisionally entitled ‘The Trade in Antiques’. I gave my draft a working sub-title “What you always wanted to know about the antiques trade, but did not know what questions to ask and of whom.”

There cannot be many businesses about which less is understood and which, despite hundreds of television programs about what they call ‘antiques’, still fascinates and commands a daily interest among television producers and viewers.   At the same time, there is much mistrust of those who deal and a curious feeling that selling at auction will necessarily bring the best price for an antique. In my text I wrote about my solicitor who asked me, having just sold him a good mid-18th century dumb waiter, how he could know what I had just sold him was what I said it was.  I surprised myself with the spontaneity of my response by saying to him that while the whole basis of his business was mistrust, mine was based on trust.  No more was said!  But that is another story.

I showed my draft to a few people who seemed to like what they read, or maybe they were being unduly polite, so I asked a publisher of many books on antiques, including one of mine, if they would be interested in publishing.  They were not.  They gave a valid reason - that they produced books about specific subjects within the decorative art world - but not about the trade itself.  My typescript lay for the next 10 years or more on a shelf, then something happened.

The Antiques Trade Gazette, is an extremely good weekly newspaper aimed at our trade.  Recently, the lead article on page 1 was entitled “Major research project into the trade launched”.  It went on to say that the research (if you are British, please put the stress on the second syllable !) was being carried out by a team from Leeds  and Southampton Universities, with the lead researcher, Dr. Mark Westgarth, having previously been a dealer.

My immediate reaction was to e.mail the text of my proposed book to Mark, and he returned my e.mail with enthusiasm to say how delighted and surprised he was with what he had seen.   Of course, in the 10 + years it has lain dormant, there has been a shift in emphasis in the way the trade has developed and there is much to bring up to date.  Nevertheless he had his eyes opened to some of the practices of the dealing and auctioneering businesses which were rife in the trade only a few decades ago.  I am now waiting to see what will happen next, but it seems they want to interview me and involve me in the project.  I’ll keep you posted, but it is a 30-month project.

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