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SHOP TALK with Jorge Arango
Carlton Hobbs LLC
It seems almost too deliberately plotted a trajectory for Carlton Hobbs: boy grows up amidst the dust and detritus of Odds and Hobbs, his father’s Kings Road junk shop in London, then goes on to become one of the most celebrated antiques dealers in the world. He makes his first big sale at the ripe age of nine, to Barbara Hulanicki, founder of the iconic 1960s–’70s fashion store Biba, who he cajoles into buying a desk. “I think I was elated,” Hobbs recalls with characteristic humility. (He is a shy, studious man who answers questions tentatively, as if he is expecting for someone to contradict him.)
But the story would have no dramatic thrust if it dwelt on his knack for selling to the chic hoi polloi. It was one year later, in 1967, that he exhibited the elusive — and in extreme cases, potentially irrational — quality that catapults any fairly knowledgeable shop owner into the ranks of, say, a Didier Aaron, and begins to propel his tale forward. That quality is passion, (ITALS) and it appeared in the form of a sabre-leg Regency chair Hobbs decided he could not live without…at just ten years of age, mind you. “They wanted ten shillings for it and I didn’t have the money,” he remembers. “So I ran round back of my father’s shop to the coal yard — they were friends — and I borrowed it from them.”
Today, the 53-year-old Hobbs is an ocean, a continent and an entire social universe away from the bits and bobs of Odds and Hobbs. His headquarters is a 51-room hôtel particulier on East 93rd Street in Manhattan, erected in the 1930s for Virginia Graham Fair Vanderbilt by architect John Russell Pope — he of the Jefferson Memorial, National Archives and a dozen other of America’s greatest Beaux-Arts buildings — which Hobbs bought in 1987 for a reported $10.6 million. To his enormous wooden door, cut into the imposing limestone façade of the stately residence, come the world’s wealthiest people, its most elite designers, and its most venerable curators and scholars (Hobbs has placed pieces in, among others, the Louvre, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the J. Paul Getty and the Rijksmuseum).
Once inside, this highly rarefied coterie climbs two sets of steps separated by gracious landings, arriving at a sublime 19th-century Italian marble bust of the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s lover, Antinous. Two more steps to the left and they enter the grand foyer. From this vantage point, every sightline is spellbinding. Here, at last, is what they’ve all come for. “Taking clients to the Carlton Hobbs mansion is tantamount to stepping over the threshold of the Morgan Library,” says “billionaires’ designer” Geoffrey Bradfield. “The interior always elicits a gasp of awe. It is a most civilized space, filled with exquisite antiques in a museum-like atmosphere.”
Society decorator Kitty Hawks adds, “He’s got a taste that’s fearless and imaginative on an extraordinarily grand scale, which you don’t normally see except in museums. It’s idiosyncratic, but you have the sense that his taste is his work.”
The idiosyncrasy of Hobbs’s selection follows a single common thread: “It can be anything with a high design content,” he explains, “from the 16th century to the 1960s, and from any place.”
“The first question we ask is ‘Would we like it in our collection?’” interjects his longtime business partner Stefanie Rinza, who Hobbs met in Düsseldorf in the 1980s when he engaged her as translator on a many-months-long trip to unearth treasures in the villages of Germany.
“It’s the only question, really,” adds Hobbs matter-of-factly. He does, nevertheless, admit to a predilection for late 18th- and early-19th-century German furniture. “It was a very radical, avant-garde moment in design.” To wit, one of his most prized possessions: the Mecklenburg library desk. “It avoids classification stylistically,” says Hobbs of this superb 104-plus-inch-long walnut escritoire extensively inlaid with brass, which was commissioned for Schwerin Castle in 1855 from the great court cabinetmakers Gebrüder Reinholdt.
This is Hobbs’s stock in trade — furniture, objets and art made by “original thinkers,” as he puts it. Not for him the de rigueur markers of the status-seeking collector: Empire and gilt bronze in the 1980s, French Deco in the ’90s and so on. He is far more interested in pieces that are almost inscrutably obscure, such as an 18th-century “metamorphic secretaire à abattant,” a polished mahogany secretary with gilt brass mounts concealed inside a cork-veneered case made to look like a ruin. Tap a pedal at the base and the cork disguise springs open to reveal the impeccably crafted piece of furniture (“We think it may be an allegory of the human soul,” says Rinza, “decrepit outside; perfect, sleek and un-aging inside”). Or there is a circa-1815 steel strongbox dreamed up by the Russian Tula factory, armourers to Catherine the Great. Its unexpectedly modern aesthetic is just the first surprise. The second could be fatal: concealed in the housing for the lid’s runners are pistols that fire when it is opened incorrectly. And there are marquetry renditions of German schlosses inspired by the engravings of Matthias Diesel, which are overlaid with various opaque glazes, “a technique we’ve never seen before…or since,” Hobbs says with palpable wonderment.
“Although his taste defies characterization,” concludes Hamish Bowles, Vogue’s European editor-at-large, with his distinctive understatement, “I suppose one could say that there is a quirky magnificence to the pieces he is drawn to.” Indeed.
Hobbs thrives, first, on what he describes as “that intuitive moment” when he senses he’s encountered a masterpiece. Case in point: the day in Ostend in 1992 when, during a visit to the warehouse of a dealer of middling antiques, he witnessed a sumptuous tapestry of an elephant being unfurled by workers several hundred feet away. He bought it on the spot for £1,500. His second thrill comes “when your hunch is vindicated,” as it was when he discovered the tapestry had been woven in the Aubusson factory of Alexis Sallandrouze in the 1840s, and that its liberal use of metallic thread made it one of the most precious textiles to be loomed in the 19th century. (Hobbs, incidentally, is famous for the depth of research he conducts on a piece’s provenance and is often called upon by museums to execute their own investigations. The shelves of his library at 93rd Street groan under the weight of over 2,000 books, and he has recently purchased another decorative arts library in France.)
He eventually sold that elephant tapestry to Pimlico Road dealer Christopher Gibbs. Through a series of events, the textile landed in the hands of a Saudi prince, then returned to Hobbs, who purchased it again years later. “That’s the nature of a great object,” he observes. “You know you’ve succeeded when you covet it back.” It now hangs in the Musée du Louvre.
However, Hobbs still has some unfinished business to attend to. Interestingly, it is another chair, though one of a completely different order from the sabre-leg Regency model he swooned over when he was ten. He chanced upon it at a 1970s auction. When the gavel fell, the 1838 Russian chair — “carved like a skeleton, painted beautifully to resemble bone and holding a pear in one hand and an apple in another” — had sold for £14,000. Afterward, Hobbs approached the under-bidder, a curator for a contemporary art museum, and asked why he would stake such a high price on something that wasn’t even modern. “He told me that he and the other curators found it to be a piece of predictive art. From that point on, I started to collect unusual pieces. He crystallized something for me about very unique, captivating objects.”
Twenty years on, at another auction, the chair resurfaced. It slipped his grasp a second time, despite his $150,000 bid. “Ah well,” you’d think this mild-mannered man might say. Yet Hobbs’s gentle demeanor belies a ferocious tenacity. You can hear the hunger in his voice when he says, “If there’s an object I want to get, it’s that one.” With a gleam in his eye, he adds, “The third time is lucky.”
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