Memorial Day in the City – New York Social Diary

Monday, Memorial Day, 5/29/23. The long holiday weekend has been sunny and warm with temps yesterday in the mid-to-high 70s, although no humidity, and very pleasant. The city has been very quiet, which is typical for this holiday – the first long weekend of getting away from the city. 
One of the benefits of everyone leaving town is the abundance of places to park on the street – almost any street. Finding a parking place in any neighborhood can be an ordeal unless you have unlimited time and nothing pressing. Besides that, New Yorkers tend take up more parking space then necessary leaving 2 to 4 feet empty both front and rear.
It’s a habit now, not even a consideration. What they are doing is protecting their front end and back end from getting too many scratches and markings from another car trying to take up a space. Once upon a time, cars were made with “bumpers.” Every car.
On this holiday we usually consult our earlier Diaries to see if there’s anything interesting or memorable to relate to now. However, this year our research of old Diaries came up with a story that has nothing to do with Memorial Day specifically. And it even takes place in England, both city and countryside. It is such a fond memory, and too interesting to resist another go of it.
May 27, 2008. Memorial Day in the City. A beautiful weekend, blessed and glorious. Sunshine and breezes, little traffic (except – cabbies told me – in Times Square). The parks were highly populated and so were the museums but it wasn’t any of that New York hustle-bustle. It was pure leisure. We were all very fortunate to have had these lovely days for our time off
I had dinner on Friday night at Le Cirque; the place was full up by 8 p.m. On Sunday night I had dinner at Amaranth, the very popular Euro-bistro on East 62nd between Fifth and Madison. It was crowded but even moreso, I was told, at Sunday lunchtime. With a very international group: such as Kika Pagliai, widow of Mexican businessman Bruno Pagliai; international interior decorator Pierre Scapula and Umberto Penci; Irene Aitken; Katina and former Senator John Tunney who’d just returned from visiting Ted Kennedy.
Kennedy and Tunney have been friends since they roomed together at UVA. Also at Amaranth lunch: Nina G. and Leonel P. (if you don’t know, don’t ask); Maestro Zubin Mehta and Mrs. Mehta, the once upon a time movie actress Nancy Kovack; Princess Caroline of Monaco and Hanover’s son Andrea Casiraghi; international art dealer Larry Gagosian and a Chinese artist; former governor Elliot Spitzer and an unidentified man; the great American couturier from LA, Jimmy Galanos.
Dora Ratcliffe’s Repast. A popular topic among gilded cognescenti in these circles is Christopher Mason’s article in the New York Times this past Thursday about one of London’s top antiquaires John Hobbs, and a lawsuit filed against him by a British furniture restorer, Dennis Buggins. The suit has implications that are rocking the world of antiques, auctions and interior decoration.
Mr. Buggins has been doing business with Mr. Hobbs for more than 20 years. Mr. Hobbs, according to Mason, has many big name clients such as Oscar de la Renta, David Koch, Valentino, Leslie Wexner, people who can pay – and do – for the best of the best to decorate their gilded halls.
In the last 16 years, he told Mason, his workshop has “handled about 1875 items for Mr. Hobbs, more than half of which involved major alterations or outright inventions.”
I emphasize those last words because according to Mr Mason, Mr. Hobbs sold some of these pieces to obviously wealthy clients for prices like $450,000 and $1.2 million, indicating that the client thought he or she was getting authentic antiques of exceptional value. The 450Gs item cost, according to Buggins about $55,000 to put together. (Hobbs, according to Buggins, referred to the original pieces as “blank canvases”). So that’s quite a bit of jack for something not-so-old. The shock of the new has taken on a new meaning.
The lawsuit has come about because the very talented Mr. Buggins claims Mr. Hobbs is in arrears to him for $840,000 and this debt has hobbled him financially forcing him to sell property including the buildings that housed his workshops. Mr. Hobbs has filed a counter-claim and questioned Mr. Buggins’ veracity. However: Mr. Buggins has quite a bit of photographic evidence of the process of “making” these precious antiques.
Fast times bring big bucks. A lot of it is spent often with little knowledge of history, provenance, or outright value. The era of risk-free speculation that appears to be coming to a dramatic ending for all of us, spawned all kinds of extravagances. I was reminded of a story told to me recently about a Wall Street banker who was having a confab with some clients one Saturday afternoon at his house in Southampton.
The boys were all sitting around the dining room table with their pads and their pocket calculators, furiously writing down the details of their deal when the host’s wife suddenly interrupted him. She needed a word with him privately. The man went into the kitchen where his wife asked if they could put something down to cover the dining room table since she’d paid $150,000 for it when they decorated the house. “150 grand?!”  The banker was shocked. He apparently never knew how much he laid out to dine in his own house. He wrote a check for a budget and so great was the decorating budget that 150G’s must have been a drop in the bucket.
Back in the early 80s, I made my first trip abroad, to London, invited by an old friend Stan Mirkin, who had an antiques business in Pound Ridge, New York. Stan made several buying  trips abroad every year, and he always invited a friend to accompany him as he wasn’t in great health and liked to have someone nearby. “How would you like to go to London, all expenses paid, first class, for two weeks?” was how he asked. Then in my struggling writer mode, what could I say but “yes.”
Stan was a great travel companion. He loved England, he loved to eat, he loved to tour, and he loved to laugh. He was also a shrewd and successful businessman.
He rented a spacious three bedroom flat off Kensington High Street for 100 pounds a night from two American dealers,
Every morning at 8:30 a “courier” (a car and driver hired specifically by antiques dealers) would pick us up and drive us out to the countryside where Stan would make the rounds.
Stan was a great success for several reasons, one of which was he knew his customer and he always bought with them in mind, and sometimes even specifically. The first expedition we made on this trip was to a great old revived Victorian pile out in Essex called Durwards Hall which was owned by a crisply chic octogenarian woman named Dora Ratcliffe. We arrived shortly after eleven in the morning and Dora met us in her library – a large room with towering bookshelves and an excessive amount of 18th and 19th century furniture. The whole house, I later learned was a storeroom (or showroom) of Mrs. Ratcliffe’s furniture.
Shortly after meeting, we all sat down and a maid wheeled in a cart with a large silver tray that was filled with Smoked Scottish Salmon, the garnishes, caviar with garnishes, hams, turkeys, breads, cheeses and Bloody Marys. And so there we sat on this chilly and grey November day, in front of the crackling fire in the marble Victorian fireplace, enjoying Dora Ratcliffe’s repast. While Stan and his hostess talked about “what” he was looking for.
He had a list. Mrs. Smith out in New Canaan needed a Queen Anne dining table with twelve chairs. Mrs. McNaughton over in Wilton wanted a Chinoise secretary, Mrs. Noonover in Greenwich wanted a George II bureau plat. Uh-huh-uh-huh-uh-huh, went Dora Ratcliffe (well, not uh-huh, but something like it).
Presently, luncheon over, Bloodys swilled, tea drunk, we went out to “the stables” to have a look.  The stables were several brick one story barns a couple hundred yards from the big house. They were once for the horses, and the carriages, and later the automobiles. Now they were for the workmen – craftsmen, actually – who “created” furniture for Dora Ratcliffe’s inventory and her clients. And Mrs Goodbody over in Darien who wanted the Regency commode for her guestroom.
It was fascinating to see. Stan explained that these very talented men would take old (antique) furniture pieces acquired here there and everywhere – all over England, and restore it or even remake it, using original pieces and adding whatever needed to be added to make it whole again (or for the first time). A kind of glorified re-cycling, they took something broken (but formerly wonderful) and put it back together again. Even more wonderful was that when Mrs. Smith ordered her Queen Anne dining room table, she had the perfect length for the perfect proportion of her soon-to-be perfect dining room in New Canaan.
In the almost two weeks, we covered much of the countryside all the way to Yorkshire and down to Cornwall visiting antiques dealers of all interests and styles. There were many other dealers, I soon learned, who employed Dora Ratcliffe’s accommodating techniques in their own workshops with their own brilliant (or at least very talented craftsmen). Not everyone we visited operated this way, but quite a few did. It wasn’t a secret; it was the way men and women kept their businesses alive.
Stan Mirkin was a jolly and generous fellow. If he had a very good client who was especially enthusiastic about their houses, he’d sometimes take them along on a buying trip. On my trip, we were also joined by a beautiful, raven-haired wife of a very famously successful New York fashion photographer who had lots to spend. Her name was Linda Horn and her interest became a passion and her passion eventually became a very successful antiques business here in Manhattan. Linda saw everything that I saw. And probably more.
I learned on that trip, thanks to Stan, the inside workings of the international antiques business. There are different levels of price points – and different levels of high clientele – from the low five-figures to the high seven-, eight-, and nine figures that people pay for the things they like. No matter, all of it is basically very expensive furniture. This is not to be confused with the furniture that you might find in the Wrightsman Collection at the Met. That is priceless furniture. I’m talking about the stuff that the rich (very often newly rich) buy for their houses today.
Thorstein Veblen explained it succinctly in 1899 in his The Theory of the Leisure Class:
“While men may have set out with disapproving an inexpensive manner of living because it indicated inability to spend much, and so indicated a lack of pecuniary success, they end by falling into the habit of disapproving cheap things as being intrinsically dishonorable or unworthy because they are cheap.”
A century later, has anything changed? Well, yes, the technology has advanced to stages where detection is easier and so is high toned amalgamation. But the heat to acquire has not lessened.
I met John Hobbs several years ago when there was some suggestion of his advertising on the NYSD. He was then the boyfriend/ companion/partner of a friend of a friend who I was told was also going into business with him. I was told he was a major dealer although it didn’t mean much to me because of my meager frame of reference.
I met him at his friend’s apartment which was chock full of furniture (brown, they call it), presumably antiques and presumably very valuable. My impression was similar to the impression I have of many men and women in the business of purveying art and antiques: that bed of roses is no life. It only looks it. Because it’s always about hustling, racing, keeping the wolves from the door, and the rats out of the office, always a kind of race against time. This may be just my vivid imagination but theirs is not a life of leisure. Or class. Or carefree.
Years ago my late great friend Lady Sarah Churchill had a pair of 18th century grisailles that had belonged to her American grandmother Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan (once the Duchess of Marlborough) that she wanted to sell. Mme. Balsan had many grand houses and they were filled with grand and valuable antiques and objets. When she died her granddaughter inherited much of the collections and over time divested herself of them, using the proceeds to build her own houses and fund her glamorous lifestyle.
Sarah was living in Los Angeles at the time she wanted to sell these pictures, as was Patricia Harmsworth, otherwise known as “Bubbles” the Vicountess Rothermere. Bubbles was doing a big new house on a mountaintop in Beverly Hills and the grisailles were perfect for her pale pink living room overlooking the Santa Monica mountains and the Pacific. The grisailles  also had hung in the Paris hotel particulier of Mme. Balsan. What was good enough for Mme Balsan was good enough for Bubbles. And so she bought. I don’t know what she paid – but it was in the low to mid-five figures.
Six months after Bubbles moved into her new villa and the grisailes were hanging on her living room wall, someone told her they weren’t the real thing. Some expert. So she called Sarah and told her.
Sarah disagreed. “I told you they hung in Mme. Balsan’s house in Paris, and they did” was Sarah’s self-defense. She had the pictures to prove it. That meant they hung in some room alongside some of the greatest 18th century French furniture in the world. Gilt by association.
Nevertheless Bubbles Rothermere went to a lawyer, a man named Greg Bautzer who was famous as the lawyer of many big names in the world including Howard Hughes. Mr. Bautzer wrote Sarah a letter of some kind of veiled threat. But Sarah, formidable as any Churchill could be, didn’t budge and wouldn’t return the dough.
And so years went by. The two women did not speak again. A few years later, Bubbles, rarely spending much time in Beverly Hills, died of a heart attack on a chaise lounge by a pool overlooking the Mediterranean, a swain by her side and her grisailles still sitting in Greg Bautzer’s office. Eventually Greg Bautzer died, and so did Sarah. The grissailes, now very valuable by today’s prices, restoration or re-pro, are sitting somewhere waiting for their next assignment. Or Godot.


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