Not long ago, The Economist ran an article that painted a grim picture of the state of antiques (“Out with the Old” – December 2015). The world had developed irreconcilable differences with stuffy brown furniture and grandmother’s ornate silver. Too precious, too permanent for our casual, digital age. One seems to find corroboration for the claim here on the streets of New York, where antique shop after antique shop finds itself replaced by clothing shops and condominiums. You can still see the wooden “Antiques” sign hanging like a relic above the once sprawling, now vacant Florian Papp on Madison Avenue. Soon that too will be gone. Is it so? Are we few remaining enthusiasts becoming antiques ourselves? I had the opportunity to put this question to Robert Israel of Kentshire Galleries. Robert (or – full disclosure – Cousin Bob to me) should know, having helped lead one of the world’s premier antique galleries for over 40 years and having been the former President of the Art and Antiques Dealer’s League of America.
Can you give a brief recount of how Kentshire came to be?
Kentshire was founded in 1940 by Benson Imberman. Originally known as the United States Silver Company, the firm dealt in Georgian and Victorian silver and silver plate and porcelain. In the early 60’s the company moved downtown to the antique district (the University Place neighborhood) and began importing furniture and decorative objects. Benson’s son Fred and son-in-law Robert joined in 1969. In 1975 they bought an eight story loft building on East 12th Street, giving the company room to grow. They began focussing on 18th and early 19th century furniture and shortly thereafter changed the firm name to Kentshire Galleries.
In the late 80’s Fred Imberman and Bob Israel were joined by their wives, Marcie and Ellen who started a jewelry business. In 1988 they opened a boutique in Bergdorf Goodman for jewelry and decorative objects. Kentshire’s boutique is still on the 7th floor at Bergdorf.
What were some of the major challenges in building Kentshire into such a long-lived success?
We understood that clients appreciated good quality and style but expected to pay competitive prices. We did our best to do just that and present our inventory in a setting where clients could envision how it would look in their homes
When did you begin at Kentshire and what was the landscape like at that time?
Fred and I began in 1969. At the time, Kentshire was an “importer.” We brought in a wide range of relatively inexpensive (everything was relatively inexpensive) furniture and decorative merchandise and sold them to retail dealers from all over the country who visited New York to stock their shops. Goods were plentiful, we travelled throughout England, bringing in about 20 20-foot sea containers a year. Goods were haphazardly presented and prices were not posted.
Prices began to rise and dealers were quite hesitant to pay the increases. At that point, we felt the future depended on selling to interior designers and architects. This necessitated changing the way we did business, operating like a “retail” business instead of a “wholesale” one.
Can you recount the details of a great find you were particularly excited about?
There were three.
While examining a drum table at an estate sale of Joan Payson, the founder of the New York Mets, we found two bound leather volumes. The first a hand written copy of “Captain My Captain” signed by its author Walt Whitman. The second a handwritten copy of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, signed by Abraham Lincoln. We could have just bought the drum table, but thought the family would be heartbroken to lose these treasures, in addition to being less than honest, so we alerted the auctioneers. They turned them over to the family who sold them a month later for over $500,000!
We once bought a magnificent Georgian gilt mirror in a local auction. We had planned to pay no more than $30,000. We paid over $100,000. The mirror was over 12 feet high, clearly made for a fine English home. We found an exact drawing of the design for the mirror by Robert Adams, for Coventry House in London. Ultimately, we sold it to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I visit it every time I’m in town.
We once bought a wonderful large doll’s house with most of its original furniture. It was made for the children of George III. We loved it. No one else did. We tried everything to sell it. We put it in auction in New York. We put it auction in London. After 12 years we still owned it. Then we got a call from London, they were restoring the Royal house at Kew, where the dolls house had stood. It’s there today.
Can you recall a particularly large buying “mistake”?
I can recall many, but that was all part of the fun.
If you could have one object back that you sold early on, what would it be?
Tough question. We bought and sold so many wonderful things early on, its hard to pinpoint just one. And of course, looking back, everything seems better than perhaps it was. So let me duck that question.
What are some of the lessons you learned the hard way?
First and foremost, follow your instincts. An object should have an immediate emotional impact, not just be convenient or inexpensive. If a false note rings a bell,trust that instinct, examine the object very closely to substantiate or disprove your suspicion.
Same is true if you are quickly attracted to an object. Examine it very closely, many get a second opinion, just make sure you are on solid ground before committing.
Did the demographics of the collecting community change over the years or did Georgian furniture attract a more immutable clientele?
In the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s the English Country House look was extremely popular. There were serious collectors and others willing to buy expensive English furniture to decorate.
After 2000 other looks began to predominate: Art Deco, Biedermeier, Mid-Century Modern. Serious collectors remain, others have drifted away.
Fine English furniture, long perceived as a “timeless” mark of privileged taste, is currently in decline. Did you see this change coming?
Yes, sadly we did. It happened slowly but steadily. We absolutely loved what we were doing and rejected the idea of changing. I’ve never regretted that decision.
Did it come on slowly or was it a sudden shift in tastes? To what do/did you attribute the change?
It happened gradually and reflected a change in the way people live today. People used to entertain in a more formal manner. Today life is more casual and relaxed. Televisions that were hidden in cabinets are visible all over the house.
I think it’s a change for the better, but it’s still very possible to integrate wonderful English furniture in a modern setting. An eclectic mix can be exciting.
Is it simply that tastes always change and things out of style invariably come back in style or do current trends seem to portend a more fundamental, long-lasting change in decorative interests?
I thing its a long lasting change. We are in the midst of an environment that improves technologically by the day.
Did your own taste change over the decades and, if so, in what way?
Not really. I always loved a wide variety of styles; early and late Georgian, Regency. I like to think I’ve gotten more sophisticated in my tastes over the last 40 years or so, but who knows.
What do you see as the future of fine English furniture?
People will always appreciate beautiful things. English furniture of the 18th and early 19th will always retain its luster!
Many galleries have navigated the shift by accommodating changing tastes. Is following trends the only viable way to stay afloat in the market?
I think you have to be mindful of a changing landscape. Certainly so much business is being done on the internet today. Bricks and mortar stores are harder to maintain. But a good or great dealer is true to his or her tastes and passions and that must always lead.
Kentshire recently sold its multi-floor gallery in downtown New York. Many other venerable galleries have likewise been either sold or priced out of their long-time neighborhoods. Madison Avenue, once dotted with antique shops, has very few remaining. Are antiques dead?
Antique shops are low volume businesses and must rely on reasonable rents. Shops are more of a challenge than ever before. But, co-operative shops, where many dealers take stalls are springing up. Antique shows become more important as a place to meet new clients and then the internet makes it easy to stay in touch.
The antiques business is far from dead.
Kentshire continues on with its focus on antique jewelry. How was that market different from the furniture business?
Jewelry is available in an infinite variety. Because it is portable it is easier to buy and sell. Furniture is bought to decorate, maybe to collect. Jewelry is bought by women for women and by men for women together and separately. A home is eventually furnished. There is always another beautiful piece of jewelry to buy.
What was the impact of the Internet on your business?
It changed it completely for the good and not so good. People could compare prices, although not necessarily the quality and condition. Decorators could view our inventory in their offices, so could clients everywhere.
Unfortunately, the antique business became more price drive driven. Some clients did not discriminate between price and other attributes, so the upper end of the market suffered.
What was the impact of the “democratization” the auction world on your business?
The auction business brought antiques into the public arena, dusted it off and helped make it more glamorous.
They became formidable competition and we relished the challenge.
What was it like for you to see decades of inventory sell at auction?
It was sad and yet I was happy. I’ve had a wonderful life in this business, but it was time to move on. I was pleased to see how many people bought one or two things. There were 432 lots and nearly that many buyers. People tell me how much they miss us and how happy they are with the things they bought from us. That is very gratifying.
What advice would you give to a young antique dealer?
The only way to succeed in this business is if you love it. If you do, you’ll figure out the best way to design your business to take advantage of all of today’s challenges.
Do you have any advice you could pass along to a young collector who is perhaps intimidated by the often-opaque world of galleries and auctions?
Talk. Talk. Talk. You can learn so much by talking to a good dealer or a knowledgeable auctioneer. Understand how much these businesses rely on younger people entering the marketplace. They should knock themselves out to appeal to you.
Listen to what they have to say. Follow your instincts. Do a little homework. Have fun!
Any closing thoughts you would like to share?
Am I getting paid for this?
Seriously, it is such a pleasure talking about the business I have had a very enjoyable affair with for the last 40-odd years. Thanks for the opportunity.