Sometimes here at the HOUSE column, we feel we’re interviewing the last of an exquisite kind and Philip Hewat-Jaboor, an independent art consultant might well be one of those. We did keep accusing him of being an aesthete and he didn’t seem to mind at all. If he did, it would be hard to tell because he has manners as beautiful as the objects that are his passion. Throughout the interview, he often referred to himself as “one”, not in an affected way but in order to be self-deprecating, to avoid the egotistical “I’. For some reason we found this fascinating. He also still calls things “ghastly” and modifies statements with “rather”, phrasing and words soon to be lost to us, alas. Perhaps we should have mentioned that he’s British. He divides his time between his lovely house in Jersey and, just to upset the apple cart, and this brownstone full of good things in Harlem, a home he shares with his partner, milliner Rod Keenan.
I’ll tell you what I want to start off with … I found this quote by you: “I help people who have achieved a certain economic status to buy adult things.” And I thought – Why can’t you just stay “I help rich people buy stuff”?
[Laughs] Well, one could obviously! That is what it boils down to except that it actually turns out to be really rather more than ‘stuff’ in the end. And that is what I find exciting because most of my clients start off not as collectors, except as you say, ‘rich people wanting to buy stuff’ but I have to say that in every single case either the husband or the wife has found an area about which they particularly excited and they turn into serious, informed collectors.
So you want that enthusiasm?
Have to have it otherwise it’s not fun. Passion is vital.
So I would think people come to you because they want more of the academic, advisory side rather than just going to a decorator?
Yes. One hopes the depth of knowledge is there. One has been doing it for so long and that one knows how to find things. I get offered a tremendous amount from private collectors who don’t want to go to the auction rooms.
Why don’t they want to go to the auction rooms?
I think if you’re selling something you have to be very careful about how you approach the sale. For auctions there are certain things that work incredibly well.
What types of things?
At the moment … I suppose the obvious things, pictures, Chinese things. But some things are quite difficult, things that require a more intellectual approach like a really important piece of furniture. I just sold something to a museum here, a fantastic piece of furniture but it is very much a museum piece of furniture and not so appealing for somebody to use at home. If I were to put that up at an auction, one would possibly have not got a good price. Museums don’t have the time to buy things at auction because they go through such a lengthy process [in order to acquire objects]. It’s a very curious market altogether at the moment.
Yes, why is that? When was a good time for antiques and collecting?
The market is very patchy. When it’s working it’s strong. In the 70s and 80s there seemed to be a huge volume of things for sale. Also there weren’t so many collectors in those days. Nowadays the number of people who collect is vastly greater. I can remember we did a survey in the 70s at Sotheby’s where there 100 millionaires all over the world who collected—now we have perhaps 1000 billionaires who collect. And they’re buying across different fields.
When you talk about the collectors, you seem to be frequently talking about the men, the husbands. When we talk to decorators, they generally talk about the wives as being the ones they deal with.
In my experience, and there are notable exceptions, it’s the men who turn into the collectors.
Why is that?
I don’t know … it’s sort of historically so.
I was always brought up to look at things with an eye for beauty. My grandfather was quite a serious collector of Chinese porcelain and whilst frightened of him as young boy, he showed me these extraordinary bits of Chinese porcelain when I was about eight or ten years old and it was all about touch and the look and the line. It was not so much to do with where it came from and certainly had nothing to do with what it was worth. When I first started listening to opera I was told not to read the score, just let the music go over you. If you don’t have that immediate emotional response to something …
But do you really think beauty is an unpopular trend?
I think it’s changing back again but there has been a moment where ugly things have taken hold because they’re contrary to mainstream.
Can you give us an example?
Well, motor cars in general. I find a lot of contemporary art ugly – I find some of it very, very beautiful. I mean there were ugly things in the 18th century and they still are ugly!
Can you bear to watch Antiques Roadshow?
I occasionally watch it. We started them off at Sotheby’s and we did a marvelous one at Longleat. A man dropped dead in front of the table and his wife continued to ask about the object—I can’t remember what it was.
How are American collectors different from British collectors?
I think they’re more willing to learn. They come with less pre-conceived ideas. And they’re prepared to pay for advice.
How has Britain changed in the time that you have been advising and working with and collectors?
Well, there’s a much more lively and open art market. And there’s been a generation change with the old guard and what is really exciting is that a large number of our great old estates are now in the hands of a much younger generation who have made money and have a better understanding of how to use their estates as a money-making project.
Are there still penniless aristocrats hanging on in dusty, faded old piles?
There are, inevitably. That’s what’s astonishing about England. You come across estates that you’ve never really come across before full of wonderful things.
Does dust preserve furniture?
Um … better than cleaning.
When you go to sleep at night, do you have dreams full of beautiful objects?
Um … no. Although I have been recently because I’ve been buying some things, rather awkward things … about two and a half thousand kilos of rare colored marbles, many of which are ancient fragments. They’ve come from Florence. I have to get them to my house in Jersey.
Why are aesthetes so easy to parody?
Well, I think they are. There are those wonderful Gillray cartoons … I’ve got one somewhere. I think it’s because we’re pretty self-absorbed, pretty selfish and probably too sure of one’s own taste … ghastly word taste. I don’t know, I think one creates a rather a lovely, sort of jeweled world that is both intellectually and visually stimulating. It is a sort of cocoon, a shelter … an escape really.
Is it escape or is it embracing a passion?
Is that not one and the same thing?