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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.