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   Curio-trading—The collector’s friends, semi-friends and enemies—The antiquary, the so-called private dealer, the dealer, bric-à-brac vendor and others of the species—Art critics and experts—Courtiers and other go-betweens.

Madame Rolland writes in her famous Memoirs that one of her greatest objections to a certain suitor was the fact that he was a trader. “In commerce,” said this brilliant victim of the French Revolution, “one is supposed to buy at a low figure and sell at an exaggerated price, a scheme usually demanding the aid of lies.”

Leaving with Mme Rolland the responsibility of such an assertion, it is quite safe to say that the trade in antiques, the flourishing commerce in curios, is a trade, if ever there was one, in which objects are bought cheap and sold at a high price, with a stock of lies as a necessary asset.

Naturally the statement does not imply that every dealer is a confirmed liar, ready to take advantage of the incautious and unskilled novice through misrepresentation. Yet even at its best the character of the trade in our day is such that it is difficult to score success without—what shall we say?—flavouring opportunity with fantastic tales, without firing the client’s enthusiasm with some form of mirage, namely, tricking his good faith to entice him within the orbit of—faith.

Point out to a buyer, for instance, the different parts of an object that have been skilfully restored, and nine times out of ten the customer will drop the whole business.

151 It is incredible the amount of stuff even a good art lover will swallow, if properly offered by a person he trusts, just as it is incredible to see how the enhancing of merits with—grey lies, will help the conclusion of a good round piece of business. One must have had a glimpse at the make-up, have taken a peep behind the scenes to become aware that the more imposing the transaction, the more diverting and genial is the comedy played before the customer, who, at first a spectator, in due time will be called in most cases to take his part in the play, the part of the duped.

There are methods to work up public enthusiasm greatly resembling those adopted by the scheming capitalist in the Stock Exchange.

An English curio dealer of unquestionably high repute realized large profits on Dresden china by the artful way he put before the public an article apparently out of fashion with collectors of ceramics. For two or three years he bought all the Meissen ware within reach until he had accumulated a large quantity at extremely low figures. Then he began sending pieces to noted auction sales, where he invariably sent agents to buy them in after running the objects up to an extravagant price. This trick gradually built up a reputation for Meissen china, some noted collector began to take an interest in it, others followed in his wake. When Meissen ware became the rage and prices were accordingly high, the shrewd dealer got rid of his stock at an astonishing profit.

Nothing absolutely dishonest, one may observe. Yet without stopping to ask whether the action comes within Mme. Rolland’s hyperbolic conception of honesty, it cannot be denied that in the fine art and curio trade what might be defined as the staging part is the most important, even if it finds its greatest justification in clients who follow one another in taste like so many sheep.

The trade in curios may be more specifically outlined by the study of the dramatis personæ taking part in it. It will then be seen that the artifice practised by the London152 antiquary of good repute is rather an anodyne form of misrepresentation. Such trade tricks differ from the commonplace ones characterizing unclean dealing in other branches of commerce; there is a smack of genius about them which might at times plead for the pardon that Draconian laws accorded to well-thought-out and talented forms of theft. A picture of the clever plots and amusing intrigues planned to the detriment of the modern collector would demand the pen of a Molière. Only the illustrator of Monsieur Tartuffe could give the proper colouring to such inconceivable plays.

These plays are hardly new, however. They have been constantly acted and re-acted with creditable success and enlivening innovations. Formerly fools alone were the victims, rarely real collectors. To-day it is different, with the advent of the new type old distinctions have disappeared.

Some among the many art collectors are intelligent in their work, and far from being beginners. They are outsiders, however. Let them look within the penetralia, into the mysteries, the hidden secrets of the trade so carefully concealed from them, and they will learn how little exaggeration there is in the saying that a large portion of the business in antiques and curios is tainted with fraud, charlatanism, etc., and that even some of the best collectors of our time have been deceived to such an extent that they live surrounded by their objects of virtu as in a sham El Dorado.

One of the late Rothschilds, a man known traditionally and de facto as a connoisseur, a type of genuine collector, used to say that all the objects of his collection were, like Cæsar’s wife, above suspicion. Yet by the side of the finest masterpieces there were some in that collection which were, metaphorically speaking, wives that Cæsar would certainly have repudiated.
The Battesimo.

A Bas-relief by Sig. Natali, of Florence, bought by the Louvre as work of Verrocchio. Sig. Natali, a fine imitator of the Quattrocento, like Sig. Zampini, sells his products as genuine modern work even if the connoisseurs decide to believe them antique.


By Donatello.

“I would no more admit forgeries to my collection than I would allow my wife to wear paste diamonds,” was the boast of a well-known collector of bronzes in Paris to a party of connoisseurs lunching with him. “But excuse me,” retorted153 a moralizing friend who was dying to reveal the truth to the “great specialist,” “no one is safe nowadays. There,” pointing to a bronze figure, “that is, what shall I say? a paste diamond! That object is a fake. I can tell you where it was cast. It was offered me very likely by the same fellow that must have palmed it off on you....” There was no trial, however, because the great bronze specialist recovered his money from the dealer—but, alas! not his unblemished reputation.

Such stories are not strange when it is considered that museums are regularly infested by forgeries and spurious objects and that these have been admitted to public collections with the full approbation of learned curators and clever specialists. It is easy to estimate how rampant and keen faking must be now that incredible prices are paid for articles of virtu.

How the antiquary, the dealer, the go-between and other characters in this world of deception may prove to be, according to circumstances, the friend or the enemy of the curio collectors, is readily understood. Discrimination, sometimes too late, will teach who is a helper and who not.

The antiquary is generally a dealer who has no shop, but keeps objects of art in his tastefully furnished house, allowing his private show to be visited only by whom he chooses. He is as it were the aristocrat of the trade, the one who is presumed to ask and get the highest prices. This select dealer’s success is according to his ability, integrity or the reputation for trustworthiness he enjoys among collectors. We would repeat that the “private dealer” belongs to this high branch of the trade without any definite division. Very often he is a disguised trader with the grand air of a gentleman—an air that has to be paid for by the client, who is less likely in such a sphere to attempt to drive the hard bargain that is peculiar to the humble bric-à-brac shops.

The best and most reliable antiquaries and private dealers must logically be reckoned among the friends of the art lover. The latter is likely to pay them astonishing prices, but he also154 pays for security. He knows that the dealer’s experience is absolutely at his service, and that if by mischance an object is not what it has been represented to be, the honest dealer will make it good.

To end with a brief classification, it may be noted that there are dealers whose shops have private rooms in the rear where trade can be carried on in the same way as with a dealer who has no shop. From this double-faced form we pass to the real shopkeeper, the vaster class ranging from the vendor who can afford to fill his window with the choicest samples down to the modest curio shop, the benevolent harbour of the humbler modes of expressing art.

With the exception of the unassuming curio shop, which is still unchanged though less replete with interesting things and quite denuded of tempting “finds,” the disappearance in the dealer of his former artistic sentiment has fomented in the trade the spirit of association. Trusts and alliances have been formed by big firms, though the advantage to the amateur is to be doubted. At one time such a thing was very uncommon, if not impossible, being apparently prevented by the dealer’s originality and artistic temperament.

“Monsieur, je ne suis pas le gendarme de la curiosité,” old Manheim used to say to the novice showing him objects not purchased from his gallery. This was the old attitude of the trade. We do not mean that all behaved like Manheim in refusing to play the part of “policeman of curio-dealing,” others may have taken the opportunity to run down an article sold by a neighbour, but there was no probability of an object passing from one firm to another in search of better success, or going from Paris to London and vice versa to find the proper atmosphere or the suitable kind of knavery. Psychologically speaking this is speculating on a faddism similar to that which induces the Parisian dandy to send his shirts to London to be ironed, and at the same time suggests an inverted game to the London snob who may believe that Parisian starch is without an equal for shirt fronts.

155 The spirit of association and a perfected knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of the modern buyer have led to the discovery that some objects show to better advantage in Paris and that others gain in the sombre grey atmosphere of London, that each background has its peculiar value and may be turned to account respectively in the realization of higher figures. There are even special cases when to fetch the best price an object must be sent to its birthplace where the freakish or immature client’s fancy may be tickled to advantage. The whole of this complex game in modern curio-dealing may be summed up in the single maxim: “Find the vulnerable spot, the Achilles’ heel of your client, and you are safe.” It must be added that the Achilles’ heel of the modern collector may be of a more complex anatomy but is of more extended proportions than that of the Greek hero. As soon as a star of first magnitude bursts forth upon the financial sky to rise upon the artistic one, all the forces of the latter quickly learn dynamic precision, the extent of possibilities. Whether erratic or not, the orbit of the new star will be studied throughout its course with astronomical exactitude. To continue the metaphorical image it may be added that should the new star prove to be of solar magnitude a whole planetary system of cupidity and greedy desire will soon be formed within its golden rays.

From now forward it is of this shady brilliancy of the planetary system of the curio world that we intend to speak. The honest dealer needs neither our praise nor defence, he can take care of himself, and the esteem he enjoys plainly divides him from the sphere upon which we are entering, the precinct of an art and curio inferno which might bear Dante’s superscription: “Through me is the way to the city dolent.”

As the main principle of curio-dealing is to buy at a low figure and sell at the highest price possible, it is evident that when this apophthegm falls into the hands of the unscrupulous, the art of buying and selling takes on most Machiavellian hues.

The infrequency of good bargains, which are becoming156 rarer every day, has lately fostered the activity of competition, making the art of buying a shrewd, unscrupulous game, in which the dealer, with his numerous emissaries, is prepared, Proteus-like, to invest himself with every imaginable part.

If an object cannot be secured in a direct manner, the dealer will indulge in side-play, called in the Italian argot of the trade, di mattonella. When dealers are not admitted and it is important that the object should be inspected before the conclusion of a business transaction, the antiquary or shopkeeper, namely the buyer, is generally careful to hide his professional quality. He is often introduced as a foreign casual visitor interested in art.

If the pretended foreigner does not succeed in obtaining the object because the owner, perhaps a gentleman, has demanded a big price, then other characters, the decoys in the play, may be put upon the stage to say that the object is not worth the price, that it has been injured in restoration, etc. Sometimes the pseudo-foreigner assumes the part of a novice naively confessing that he is not versed in antiques, but should Professor So-and-so give a favourable opinion he would willingly remit the price. The rest is left to the sham professor.

Of the self-disguising tendency of a noted Italian antiquary when in search for the ever-rarer good bargains, the following amusing story is told.

A noble family of Pisa were induced, by financial circumstances, to part with some of their valuable works of art and made the condition that no antiquary or dealer was to be mixed up in the transaction. A certain Florentine antiquary noted for craft and trickery, in particular, was to be excluded.

The said antiquary got wind of the unusual opportunity and managed to visit the palace in the guise of a stranger. He saw a certain work of art and a bargain was struck with Count Z., the head of the family, to the satisfaction of them both. As the antiquary was about to leave the nobleman said, confidentially, “Don’t let anyone know about this157 affair, nor that I am selling things. I have a particular objection to dealers, above all to a certain intriguer and thief——” Here he named the very man he was addressing.

When bargains are made on the plan of exchanging one object for another, they are no less disastrous for the unwary and ignorant owner. There are Madonnas by good Renaissance artists that countrymen and villagers have gladly bartered for cheap modern chromo-like paintings worth only a few............
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