We do wonder if people like antiques dealer Niall Smith will exist in the years to come – easy company, humane, funny, a voracious reader, a raconteur utterly without pretension who says what he wants to say, knows history but is not unconditionally in love with the past. He’s SO Irish: brogue, booze and books (another ‘drinking’ interview) — it’s fabulous. And for someone who deals in stuff, he rarely buys anything for himself. He loves the things he has, albeit in a careless sort of way. When he discovered that one of his dogs (now in ‘doggy heaven’) was regularly peeing on a Chesterfield, even as the dye stained a pricey rug, the rug went, not the dog (‘that bastard Bobo’ was his name). His eye for a piece, though, is unerring and we fell in love with the furniture in his apartment. “Mica Ertegun,” he told us, “says, ‘Niall, you’re going to have a wonderful funeral pyre. You’ve such lovely wood.’”
You’re looking at the tape recorders very suspiciously – we’ll be nice!
[laughs] Do be nice! Seeing myself in print is never been what I said … it’s all been slightly out of context.
Since you don’t have a computer, you never have to look at this. It will be lost to you forever.
Exactly! I don’t have a TV. I don’t have a computer. I don’t have a cell phone.
Because I read. And if I had these things I wouldn’t be reading.
So I found this quote about you and reading and it says: ‘He is shown in a photo reclining on his Biedermeier daybed reading. Beside him is a low table with a teacup and teapot, behind him is a pile of books about four feet high at the base of which is composed of six, probably more, separate piles all stacked and leaning together. It is a glorious sight.’ Is that true?
That’s true. The Biedermeier is just there [indicates it] and the pot of tea there, and the books [which are indeed in piles about four feet high] are piled there.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve a stack to read at the moment! [gets up to get the book he is reading and returns with ‘The Anglo Files’ by Sarah Lyall] It’s very amusing. The first couple of pages are magic. I finish books that I start but basically I only read biographies.
What I was curious about when we knew we were coming to interview an antique dealer is, well, do antique dealers cultivate a persona in order to separate themselves from other dealers?
Oh, of course.
And how would you describe your persona?
My specialization, I specialize in Neo-Classical furniture, so I’m only into Neo-Classical, I only buy what I like myself.
But as personalities, they are often larger-than-life types aren’t they?
Antique dealers are a strange bunch. I think they’re misfits of life [starts to laugh] Practically every antique dealer you meet started out doing something else. I didn’t know I wanted to become an antique dealer until I was in my late twenties.
How did you know when you did?
I was a hotel manager by profession and I came here but my degree wasn’t recognized and they wanted me to start all over, so I worked as a waiter. I used to haunt antique shops and I said, I can’t stay a waiter … I took my inheritance money and I went to Europe and I bought a container load of furniture and put it in storage … and I didn’t have a clue how to mark things up or anything. My interest in antiques was that myself and my sister, we were dragged to every preview of an auction in the south of Ireland by my parents, who were inveterate.
Nobody wanted Biedermeier then, is that right?
Nobody wanted it. ‘The Age of Schubert’ at the V&A, that is what got Biedermeier back on the map, which was about 1976 or something. I had six secretaires, from $350 to $1100 and I couldn’t give them away. That show opened in London – within two months I had sold the six secretaires.
I do wonder about people buying antiques – it can be an instant access to looking like something more than you are, that it is ‘a trade that feeds illusions’ to quote V.S. Pritchett.
How can you justify that? I mean the person that goes to Bloomingdales and buys the
$10 000 couch as against to the person who buys the $1000 couch, it’s the same thing. I don’t think that you’re buying …
You are buying history, but you’re not buying class.
What is then, the distinction between consuming and collecting?
Collecting is not a word that I particularly care for. I would never consider myself a collector because it’s a very serious thing. Basically I bought functional things and I use them all, whereas a collector is a completely different mindset. It’s a scholarly and it doesn’t matter whether it’s functional or not to them.
And consuming, how’s that different?
Thank God for consumers! [laughs]
I’m interested in the psychology of collecting, especially when it tips over into the madness of hoarding.
It can, but not necessarily but it quite often gets to that stage. I would say more than fifty percent of collectors become … they can’t stop.
Do you have clients like that?
Yes, yes … and I encourage them all the way! [hoots with laughter]
Does dealing in antiques mean that you’re putting a monetary value on the passage of time?
Excuse me … I am not putting, someone else is putting it before me, the person that I’m buying it from. The majority of stuff comes on the market through auction and it’s not one person at auction who bids something up – it’s numerous people. I am basically not creating the price.
My question more is to do with something becomes older and gathering value …
Not necessarily at all. You can have Renaissance furniture, something hundreds and hundreds of years old and it’s for pennies. It isn’t age …
It’s fashion in America. In Europe it’s a completely different thing because you have basically primogeniture in Europe and the elder son inherits the place with the furniture and he adds to it, he doesn’t take away from it so it stays in the family. America is all to do with fashion, and this is what creates a buoyant economy as well. In and out … you do Biedermeier for ten years and then you go on to the 1950s or whatever. The whole idea of America is change. It took me 30 years to realize this. This is what makes especially New York exciting.
Except that they are an intensely conservative people as well.
They are very much in the minority.
Do you believe in ghosts?
I’ve never experienced one.
I just wondered if you spend so much time dealing with old things …
I think you have a problem with old things! I mean ninety-five percent of the population, if you gave them an antique, they would not want it. It’s secondhand furniture to them. They have to have new. That keeps everything going as well!
What do you buy new?
I bought a lamp at IKEA, my one and only time. I went over to Brooklyn. I saw things at IKEA which I thought were wonderful, but there was only about less than five percent good design. Ninety-five percent of it was schlock but anyone with a good eye going in there could do a sensational house or apartment, but you’d have to fine-tune it.
Did you grow up in a posh house?
No … it was a large house, there were three reception rooms. But it was completely Deco. There were six bedrooms and only one bathroom … and we never had a bloody problem!
Were you an academic boy?
Not at all – I’m lucky that I can read and write!
You’re a very unpretentious man really. Are you a confident man?
I’m happy with my lot in life. I don’t want to do anything else. I have everything that I want in life. I consider myself very fortunate. When my assistant and I go driving uptown in the morning and you look at the people in the street, I mean 80 percent of them have a face a mile long. They hate going to work. I look forward to going to work! It’s a blessing!