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GP 18 October 2006: Sticks and Stones

$143.5 Million.  Every week brings us a new chapter in our country’s saga of excess, so much so that we can only stifle a yawn when the incredible comes to pass.  Last week “two postwar paintings by Jasper Johns and Willem de Kooning” went for $143.5 million (New York Times, October 12, 2006, p. B1).  Two moneymen on the make, Kenneth C. Griffin of Chicago’s Citadel Investment Group and Steve Cohen of SAC Capital Advisors in Stamford, Connecticut, peeled a few bills off their stashes, paying too much, respectively, for False Start and Police Gazette.  While the paintings of both talented postwar artists make handsome decorations in a campus style house by the water in Belvedere where we spent a night or two, they hardly merit the king’s ransom the stock traders plunked down for them.

Maybe it proves that a dollar just isn’t worth that much anymore, certainly not outside the U.S. for dead sure.  It has depreciated rapidly in the last 8 years.  These hedge fellows, lucky players in the game of speculation, know that they should get out of the dollar and into some tangible assets. So they have become collectors.  But their investment style symbolizes the plight of our government and the misfunctioning of our financial markets:  capital is not being properly allocated and is going down all sorts of black holes.

New York Social Diary.  These blazing purchases are just the sort of chitchat that daily appears in the “New York Social Diary”, a publication about the rich and infamous, the truly glitzy and terribly parvenu.  It’s a fun read.  To peruse it is to realize that New York City no longer has an upper class, because any flyspeck with a buck in his pocket and a publicist on call can land in the social pages.  J.P. Morgan has been trumped by Paris Hilton, and Brooke Astor has been toppled by a larcenous son.

This is far cry from the world of the social register.  There was a time when only one actor, a man of substantial dignity and considerable descent, could be found in the New York Blue Book.  In today’s world, the blue book is thought of as a guide to car prices, and sometimes as a directory to various suppliers.  The actor, by the way, has passed away and his ashes have been put to rest in the Pacific Ocean.  His world has disappeared.

Objects of Desire.  Thatcher Freund knit together Objects of Desire in 1993, a rather delightful book about the world of antiques.  It is full of knowing gossip about the world of collectors, who are not so unlike the two acquisitors above, and celebrates the dealers and restorers who people the obsessive-compulsive antique world that is, in the end, mostly about accumulation and, perhaps, a bit about beauty.  Much more interesting, however, is his historical imaginings about the provenance of some first-in-class antiques.  Particularly intriguing is his account of the Willing card table, a highly prized made-in-Philadelphia work from the days of Ben Franklin.

“From the opulence of the Willing card table, one can speculate that the man who commissioned it knew exactly what he wanted.”  He was a whist player.  “Willing found a great advantage in a card table with turreted corners.  After his servants opened it up, the table’s top revealed four niches at the corners—each the size of a nice coaster—where the players could place their candlesticks.”  The wood carving was of a remarkable order.

Thomas Willing was an 18th-century Philadelphia merchant who put together an enormous fortune, participated fully in the civic life of Philadelphia, and played a vibrant role in the founding of the United States.  He and his partner Robert Morris served their country well while serving themselves, a nice equation hardly ever achieved in the present day.  Willing early became the Mayor of Philadelphia, rounded up foreign supplies for the Revolution with Morris, and later became the first president of the Bank of the United States.  His father, incidentally, had twice been Mayor.  Philadelphia, after London, was the second most important city in the British Empire.  Back then Philadelphians were as vital and interesting as their architecture and their furniture, a far cry from today’s city where doleful wits counsel you not to spend the night.

Willing was a patron who worked with craftsmen to mold his dwelling (stones) and shape the furniture (sticks) and other artifacts that completed it.  In this he was much more interesting than the collectors who in time laid hold of his card table, because his was a creative rather than a collecting role.  As merchant citizen, he built his city and enlarged its scope by the nature of his purchases, his enterprise, and his leadership.

Such city builders are Medici, contributors to every aspect of urban life.  Often not remarked upon, they are the drivers of quality urban growth and the architects of the national economy who quietly define a nation’s greatness.  Equally forgotten today, Lewis Ginter of Richmond played as robust a role in the capital of the South.  Such individuals of broad interests and deep energy are just as vital to us today, both in the developed and emerging worlds.  They force new, worthy dreams into existence, letting the past slide away.  We find them more interesting than our present mere business magnates, who tend to do business for 20 or 30 years, and only get to civic matters very late in the game.

The Collector.  John Fowles’ novel The Collector, made into a movie in 1965, was about a “neurotic recluse whose only pleasure is butterfly collecting.”  Then he comes into a $200,000 windfall from the British Football Pool, gets himself a huge estate, whereupon he kidnaps a girl, another specimen to add to his collectibles.

Collecting paintings or antiques can only remind us of this movie.  It seems a dead sport where one has a thing just for the sake of having it.  It does not enlarge the collector or enrich his society.  That is why we need patrons, not collectors of sticks and stones. Commissioners of greatness. 

French Island Elegance.  But we can recommend to collectors and patrons alike French Island Elegance, a handsome book by furniture and Caribbean scholar Michael Connors, an eminently likeable chap.  In “Caribbean Furnishings Man” we had previously cited his Caribbean Elegance.  What we like about this volume is that Connors clearly sees the connection between class (the French aristocracy, unlike the English, moved into the islands), commerce (the sugar trade), and the distinctive French furniture and architecture that arose in the islands during parts of the 18th and 19th century.  “The rapid decline of the sugar economy and plantation life, along with the abolition of slavery during the Industrial Revolution, led to a generation of smaller island homes and less elaborate furniture.”  By the 20th century, all this had faded away.  Those who made great things happen are forgotten, and they are known today only by their sticks and stones.  The trick for a vibrant region is never to be free of class, but always to be free of caste. 

P.S.   In “Going Upmarket in Stormy Weather,” we talk about Richard Florida and his semi-pop book on what the ‘creative class’ is currently all about.  The key challenge for civic leaders today is to hatch a creative hotspot which roughly means a locale in the country where knowledge professionals and high-techies want to come to.  A region’s economic fortunes depend on attracting a flock of such people.  Florida is not very good at figuring out how hotspots happen: we will tell him.  It depends on globalprovincials—patrons such as the Medici, the Willings, and the Ginters—who make places dynamic and cosmopolitan enough to matter.  Several high-tech-wannabe counties around the U.S. have missed the boat, because they have led the horses to water but have not been able to make them drink.  That is, they’re lacking culture, to include horticulture.  Regional planning and development associations don’t quite understand what it takes to make it all happen. 

P.P.S.  One has to love Philadelphia, even though it is a ghost town.  There reside wonderful museums, the Liberty Bell, and much more.  But its citizenry is not up to its riches, its wonderful town squares—it’s the most British city physically in America—and other hidden delights are always under-used.  Its sticks and stones are much more interesting than its people.  Stage a party with Philadelphians and New Yorkers, and you know who will be talking, and who will be listening.  Something happened to this important town after the Revolution: historians note that somewhere the Quakers turned inward and Philadelphia retreated from the world stage. 

P.P.P.S.  As time goes by, we will get organized and do something here on furniture restoration and other varieties of conservation.  Americans now are light on conservation and maintenance.  But we are running short on resources, open space, and even human capital: we have to make more out of what we have in hand.  Waste has finally become uneconomic.  It’s all right to use and re-use things that have a pedigree.

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