By Paul Vandekar
The president of Earle D. Vandekar of Knightsbridge Inc. in Westchester and Manhattan, Vandekar is an expert in English ceramics and Chinese Export as well China Trade watercolors. He’s also become one of the most knowledgeable specialists in sailor’s woolworks – wool pictures made by sailors and marines in the 19th century, which collectors call “woolies.” Recently, he took time from his busy schedule to answer a half-dozen questions from WAG on the relationship between antiques and historic homes:
1. Tell us a little about how you got into the antiques business. I know the company still bears your father’s name.
“I am a fourth-generation member of my family company. The family originally began selling antiques in Amsterdam in the late 1800s. My grandfather came to London in 1916 and then my father joined him after the Second World War. We were located on Brompton Road in London for 40 years. I joined the company after college in the early 1970s, initially to help out one summer. I had intended to make a career working for an international aid agency. But I became fascinated with the history of the huge selection of ceramics I came in contact with in our shop and became intrigued with how the objects were used and why the designs were created. As a psychology major, I also was fascinated by the international nature of our clientele. On any day, we used to get clients in from the Middle East, Portugal, Japan, Germany and the United States. Each was interested in different types of items and for each we had a different type of interaction. I was hooked. I opened a branch of the company in the United States in 1978.”
2. Are clients becoming more sensitive to using antiques in their homes?
“Not really. One of the wonderful things I love about dealing in antiques is helping clients build collections, especially those who have period houses and who wish to add objects appropriate for the house. In fact, ever since I’ve been in the States this has been the case. I exhibit at the Philadelphia Antiques Show, which is one of the longest-running world-class antiques shows, where the majority of the dealers specialize in antiques for the period house. And in December in Norwalk, the Fairfield County Antiques Show provides a venue for an amazing collection of items. As prices for American furniture rose through the stratosphere, many collectors were pushed out of the market. But that is no longer the case with prices coming down significantly during the latest recession, providing homeowners now with opportunities to add wonderful period pieces to their homes.”
3. How would you assist a client who wishes to complement an historic house with objects from the same period?
“We work out what types of items they need. I have or find pieces that complement the house. I use a network of friends and associates around the world that I’ve built up over time. I recommend clients to visit antiques shows, museums and read books and publications to get a feel for the variety of objects available and to find something that appeals to them. You must become passionate about the pieces you live with.
“The Internet today has helped everyone become instant experts with sourcing items and it obviously helps one find new sources. I just sold a set of China Trade watercolors to a new client in Italy who saw them on my website and then visited me to see them in person to buy them. But generally, the Internet is no substitute for building a personal relationship with a dealer whom you like and respect and who uses a lifetime of knowledge to advise you. Even one mistake buying by yourself can be very costly. I have been in business for so long, have a great inventory and have membership in leading trade organizations such as The Art & Antique Dealers League of America (AADLA) and am one of the few American members of The British Antique Dealers’ Association (BADA). All these provide a sense of security to my clients. Thomas Schwenke in Woodbury is a leading dealer in Federal furniture and Roberto Freitas in Stonington, Conn. is extremely knowledgeable about 18th century American furniture.
“One of the changes I’ve seen is that in the past clients would visit shops and shows and bring children on a regular basis. Over time their eye became familiar with forms, shapes and the objects themselves. This happens a lot less today and as a consequence the older pieces just look ‘old-fashioned’ to many younger people. One of my roles is to help these clients educate their eye.”
4. What are the trends in using antiques in historic homes? Are clients interested in purity or eclecticism?
“Obviously, every client’s needs are different, but eclecticism is definitely the look today. A house doesn’t have to be all antique. A mixture of pieces of different periods can look very exciting. Remember when we look at the great country houses in England, we see a collection formed over centuries reflecting a variety of owners’ interests formed over time. They weren’t trying to form a ‘collection’ but just great objects that reflected their taste and were the best that they could find. When they bought Chippendale furniture it was new. But it worked wonderfully with their Roman objects and other possessions.
“I do a fair amount of business with Brazil, and there one will walk into a house and see 17th- and 18th-century tapestries on one wall, modern Brazilian and Portuguese paintings on another, with an 18th-century Chinese Export porcelain soup tureen sitting on an antique commode below and all looking stunning. One must remember not to be intimidated by a piece. Lack of knowledge deters so many and it shouldn’t. My clients and I see me as a source of information, an educator, a role I relish as much as being a merchant.”
5. Is there a lack of American antiques and are we depending more on European imports – or is this simply a matter of taste?
“It’s a matter of taste. Remember in the 18th century, many families had English objects in their homes prior to the Revolution. George Washington had First Period Worcester porcelain on his mantelpiece.”
6. How valuable are antiques compared to newly manufactured pieces?
“One must always consider the intrinsic value of an item. Most new pieces lose most of their value immediately. An antique has a monetary value through time and will hold and increase that value. It has a value, because it can be a beautifully crafted object. But it also has an intellectual value. I look at an antique as a time machine – a witness to different times and hundreds of years of its journey, change, location, ownership and use. As I use or even look at that piece, I find a joy in it, thinking of its manufacture, its first owner. I think about its many later owners treasuring it and realizing that I now am one in that long line of people who are part of its life. I often handle antique botanical porcelain decorated with exotic flowers, so familiar to us now, but its first owner was looking at flowers that had never been seen before and which brought color to a dark candlelit dinner. Or a Chinese Export porcelain object decorated with Chinese figures, which to all but a few seemed like seeing “the man on the moon” with the figures dressed so differently, using objects never seen in the West. These pieces still possess the ability to create that awe if we let them talk to us. Sitting down to a meal with antique porcelain plates and glass transforms an everyday event into an experience. That is the value of an antique.”
For more on Paul Vandekar and antiques, visit vandekar.com, http://www.tumblr.com/blog/earlevandekar or http://paulvandekar.blogspot.com/, or like him on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/vandekarantiques for updates on new acquisitions and free show tickets. You may also call (212) 308-2022.