Friday, February 19, 2010

Carlton Hobbs

Carlton Hobbs (pictured with managing director, Stefanie Rinza) is one of the foremost antique dealers in the world, and it is an astonishing experience to walk through the rooms of the Vanderbilt mansion that are graced with beautiful, museum-quality antiques. Although his connection with such pieces is obviously driven by passionate interest, he is a reticent man who he has come a long way from his beginnings as son of Sid Hobbs, owner of a junk shop on the King’s Road in London.

When I was reading your website I noticed that you described yourself as taking an academic approach—what does that actually mean?

Well it means that you’re often presented with opportunities, commonly at short notice—either through an auction far away where you have to make a decision quickly—or sometimes you have an excellent idea—but in the main it all requires quite in depth research.
The grand staircase winds around a massive giltwood vase and leads up to the second floor.
The first floor crossing combines Italian and German objects including a pair of neoclassical commodes attributed to Giuseppe Maggiolini and a scagliola center table by Pietro Della Valle.
A center table with extraordinary scagliola trompe l'oeil top by Pierre Della Valle.
A late 18th century English side table with 17th century Italian pietre dure top by Thomas Leverton for Woodhall Park.
So when you have to bid on something, if it’s all happening very quickly, how do you speed up the research process?

Sometimes I’ll spend a whole night or two just doing pure research to get a head start. Our own library consists of two-and-a-half thousand books plus literally thousands of specialist articles from journals.

It’s almost like solving a mystery.


It’s real detective work.

Do you ever purchase something on an instinct?


You do, but it’s based on what you see and your assessment of its design quality and condition.
The north room of the first floor is full of large and unusual pieces. A peacock-form sewing box, a pair of Kent chimneypieces from Wanstead house, and a model of Solomon's Temple are just a few treasures.
A large French rosewood dining table, on which the Treaty of Tilsit was signed, sits in the middle of the room. An English rosewood bookcase stands at the far end. 
Clockwise from above: A massive architectural model of the Temple of King Solomon to a design by Thomas Newberry and built by J.W. McKinnon of Messrs. Bartlett, 1883-87; An engraved plaque on a table commemorating its use for the signing of the Treaty of Tilsit by Emperor Napoleon of France, Emperor Alexander of Russia, King William of Prussia and  Frederick Augustus, King of Saxony on July 8, 1807; Another view of the model of the Temple of King Solomon.
A very chic model of the submarine “Surcouf” stands on a gilt-brass mounted writing table with gold travertine top by Louis Majorelle.
A painting of the moon titled “Mond” by Julius Grimm is a selenographic masterpiece, and is complemented by the circular travertine center table by sculptor Henry Moore. An Italian marble term looks over a travertine circular dining table by Henry Moore.
A German gilt-bronze surtout de table rests on the Mecklenberg-Schwerin Library Desk.
A pair of green lacquered cabinets by Giles Grendy flank the fireplace at the far end of the Marble Room.
Have you ever purchased something and realized that you were totally wrong?

Well you get things that are deeply puzzling, like a chair that we recently acquired that baffled most people as to where it could have been made and for what reason. There was a view that it was Continental but I always held to the view that it was English. It’s a really sculptural object, a sort of experimental piece of furniture, so one was very unsure. It ended up being English.

I have a feeling that your clients are not so price-sensitive … everybody else nowadays is looking for 60 to 70 percent off of everything but it seems like your clients are in another league—is that true?

Everyone wants to have good value. They want to feel that we’ve made a special effort for them—especially for museums.
One of three monumental gilt-bronze chandeliers by Peter Bicknell, formerly from the dining hall at Downing College, Cambridge. This expanding mahogany "Jupe" table by Johnstone & Jeanes was the former Astor family dining table. A French painted glass lantern hangs above the dining table, which stands in an expanded position.
A set of 18th century painted Chinese wallpapers hang behind an imposing 18th century English side table from
Linton Park.
The Blass Room, reflected in an early 19th century red painted Italian mirror. A rare and very large English reverse glass painted mirror depicting an exotic hunting scene, circa 1885.
An architectural cabinet is flanked by red painted Italian Chinoiserie mirrors in the Blass Room.
Sure, because the rest of the world can actually see how the very wealthy live. How do the very wealthy live?!

We don’t know!

Is there a typical type of client—are they usually very knowledgeable about what they’re buying? Or do they just want something incredibly beautiful?

[They have] superb instincts, I would say. We always get people who have already been collecting for two or three years.

You still must have clients who are in for it because it is an investment. Is that true?


Um … I think the enjoyment of the piece would be more important. We’re not stamp collecting. We do these very unique statements, which as you said [earlier] brings out a certain passion.
A French tapestry depicting a scene from "Zémire and Azor" hangs above a one-of-a-kind colonial Spanish escritorio, which dates from the mid 17th century.  French tapestries depicting scenes from “Zémire and Azor” hang on the walls above various German tables of scagliola, stone and carved wood.
An unusual German center table from the early 18th century is carved in the form of a boy supported by a tortoise.
The second floor landing is centered by an extraordinary giltwood and mahogany circular center table in the manner of K.F. Schinkel.
What do you think it is about a special piece of furniture that evokes an emotion?

Well we were discussing about a table there that is by Henry Moore and there has been a lot of discourse about ‘What is so perfect about that object?’ to the point where people have been measuring its ration of proportion. And it’s just pure simplicity. It’s about the way that the bevel at the base is cut to make you think that it is only just resting on the ground.

How do you like New Yorkers? Have you gotten accustomed to the blunt New York approach to things?

I find a lot of kindness and sympathy here – [and in] the other work we do with animal rescue, there’s a lot of sensitivity, with people willing to give not just money but time. And they’re very intelligent. There’s a dynamic quality here. And people are incredibly open-minded to these sort of avant-garde pieces in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
Large and boldly carved pieces dominate this space, including a massive Roman baroque chandelier and a pair of mirrors from the Palazzo Cenci.
One of a pair of breakfront cabinets by Thomas ward sits below the largest painting in a set of three unique Austrian works that incorporate polychrome panels.
A unique German metamorphic secretaire à abattant with cork façade, circa 1790 flanked by a pair of English grotto chairs , circa 1740.
An imposing neoclassical bureau plat stands in the center of the room. It originated in Liguria, circa 1785. The sun pours into the south windows of the second floor, illuminating an extraordinary blue Venetian mirror.
Do you think it’s because we’re a new country that people still have a kind of wide-eyed enthusiasm about things that you don’t find in Europe?

Yes. One of the things about American clients is that they’re not afraid to ask questions. They’re very insightful.

Are there any pieces of furniture you have that come with a really bizarre story?


Oh yeah … we had a set of furniture, some of the most beautiful neoclassical furniture ever made and we found a signature on it which said: “Jupiter made this” as if it was furniture for the gods. And it looked like furniture for the gods. [In another instance] deep research led us to this man called Pargfreider, and he made a fortune during the Napoleonic wars in the early 19th century by selling shoes to the Austrian army. He was quite eccentric and he built for himself, in the grounds of this ultra-chic palace—very Deco—a taste of what was to come, and he made for himself a pyramid-shaped mausoleum. He was then obsessed with Field Marshal Radetzky, (there was a personality cult around Radetzky) who was a very pompous, high-minded man. [Pargfrieder] made him an offer that Radetzky should donate his body to Pargfrieder’s mausoleum so that he could be sat next to Radetzky when they were both dead, but he [was] embalmed sitting up in a chair.
On the third floor, a pair of full length South American portraits of nobles hang above a pair of highly unusual side tables form the Palazzo Colonna in Rome, while a German mechanical writing table stands in the center of the room.
A magnificent porcelain and gilt bronze-mounted demi-lune side table  by Alexandre-Louis Bellangé, circa 1822.
A shead-on view of the side table. An exceptionally large pair of five-light Regency Gilt-Brass and Cut-Glass Table Candelabra attributed to John Blades, circa 1820.
The bookcase against the far wall and the armchair in the foreground can both be attributed to esteemed designers Mayhew & Ince.
This room comprises predominantly English furniture, which spans the late 17th through the 19th centuries.
Do you ever feel like you’re channeling Mrs. Vanderbilt by living here?

We like to think we’ve resurrected the house, and restored it perfectly back to its 1929 condition.

Do you ever feel like people are talking to you from the past in here?

I feel a very good vibe in here. Here and our previous house in London came with an atmosphere and an aura, which I do take quite seriously, yes.

• Sian Ballen • photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch