Michael Smith, one of America’s top interior designers who was commissioned by the Obamas to redo the interiors of the White House, was taken aback when a friend called from London in early 2008 with some disturbing news.
According to a prominent London newspaper, John Hobbs, one of London’s premier antiques dealers, specialising in the most expensive English and Continental furniture, had been publicly accused by his restorer of selling fakes.
Smith had recently acquired two very expensive mahogany chests of drawers — described on the invoice as a fine pair of English commodes, circa 1830 — on behalf of his client, a US financier. Smith thought he had struck a good deal, bargaining hard to knock £150,000 (€168,600) off Hobbs’ original asking price of £365,000.
But workshop records and photographs provided by Dennis Buggins, Hobbs’ restorer for more than 20 years, revealed that Smith’s commodes had been designed and fabricated between 2004 and 2006, using materials stripped from several old wardrobes and a linen press. The construction cost had been about £25,000.
Smith was lucky. Although Hobbs wouldn’t give him a refund, he agreed to swap his purchase for genuine pieces, leaving his client “happy with the resolution”, but he was left shaken by the experience.
“Antiques are the last business based on trust,” he says. “You take things on a handshake deal. That someone would abuse that trust is staggering.”
Fakes and copies are hardly a new phenomenon in the antiques business. But the allegations made against Hobbs, who recently died, suggested deception on an extraordinary scale. Buggins claimed that since 1992 his workshop has handled about 1,875 items for Hobbs, more than half of which involved alterations or outright inventions.
Nor was this all. Buggins declined to name any other clients for legal reasons but, prior to an acrimonious split in 1993, Hobbs had operated in partnership with his younger brother Carlton, who shifted his business to New York in 2005 and now operates from an imposing former Vanderbilt mansion in Manhattan.
Together, and apart, they were two of the most successful antique dealers of their generation, rising from a standing start to scale the commanding heights of the trade in less than two decades.
The common factor was Buggins. He had started working exclusively for the brothers back in 1987 and his association with both dealers was to continue even after they went their separate ways.
Buggins was working for John Hobbs until 2007 and, as documents from the New York Supreme Court attest, had a working relationship with Carlton that was ongoing until late 2005, when he was being paid “approximately £25,000 a month” for restoration work.
Hobbs, who closed up his gallery in London’s Chelsea in the wake of the Buggins revelations published in The Sunday Times, never admitted to commissioning or selling fakes. But in a sale of some of his stock last December, the catalogue said: “A number of items are well and expensively restored examples of their time. Some items, whilst recently constructed, are primarily constructed with timber contemporary to the age of their design style. Finally, there are a number of newly constructed items skilfully manufactured to John’s exacting instructions and design style.”
This may not have come as welcome news to Hobbs’ clients, described in the same catalogue as “including international billionaires, the elite of European style icons as well as decorators”. They might have assumed from the dealer’s original descriptions and the ticket prices at his gallery that they were paying a premium for genuine, unembellished period items of the highest quality.
Hobbs’ clients included billionaires David Koch of Koch Industries, Stephen Schwarzman of private equity house Blackstone, Joseph Safra of the Safra banking dynasty and Galen Weston of the Canadian food empire George Weston.
Then there were the big name celebrities like Sir Elton John, Sting and Jennifer Aniston. This is not to mention a roll call of the world’s top architects, designers and decorators – including New York-based architect Peter Marino and interior designer Bunny Williams, and the London interior designer and socialite Nicky Haslam, as well as the Parisbased interior designer Jacques Garcia – who were all, of course, buying on behalf of their wealthy clients.
It is perhaps not surprising then that the forensic skills of leading London restorer Peter Holmes, managing director of Arlington Conservation, have been in particularly high demand from concerned collectors on both sides of the Atlantic since Buggins went public with his allegations.
“The fact is that when things fetch a high value, they will be copied,” Holmes says. “This has gone on for thousands of years. Buying art or antiques is no different to buying any expensive object. Buyers need to know what you are buying. It is as simple as that. So buyers need to find someone who will tell them – whether it a conservator, a dealer or an auctioneer.
Copies are made to fool the people of their age and don’t tend to stand the test of time, but – as techniques get more sophisticated – buyers have to try to keep up to speed.”
Holmes says buyers should examine an object to assess its authenticity, condition and whether or not it has been aggrandised. “In terms of the calibre of objects, the great ones are those that haven’t been mucked around with. They must have integrity and a reasonable structural condition. Colour and surface are the key factors. This is the history of an object coming with it and it should reflect the passage of time.”
There is no doubt that the quality of Buggins’ work was first rate. Not only did it convince wealthy collectors and decorators to part with sizeable six-figure sums, but it also succeeded in deceiving the auction houses. In June 2008 – just two months after Buggins’ allegations were published – Sotheby’s was obliged to withdraw “a fine pair of German neoclassical ormolumounted mahogany commodes circa 1800” from its New York sale entitled Important French Furniture & Decorations, European Ceramics and Carpets.
The commodes, carrying a top estimate of $300,000 (£206,900) and featured on the title page of the catalogue, had presented something of a puzzle to Sotheby’s specialists. A catalogue footnote speculated that they might have been made in Berlin for the Russian market by a cabinetmaker trained in one of the great London workshops.
Buggins says he had made them between 1993 and 1994 for Hobbs. They were sold to Lars Enochson, a Swedish businessman, for more than £395,000 in 1997. “I’m flattered they were to be auctioned at Sotheby’s. They’re definitely mine. They were made from four or five old wardrobes and cedar from a local timber merchant. Carving the squiggles on the drawers was difficult to get right,” Buggins told The Sunday Times.
Alistair Clarke, worldwide head of English and Continental furniture at Sotheby’s, says: “They are convincingly made and with an intention to deceive. They incorporate elements that appeared to be period.”
Buggins’ allegations also extended to items sold at an auction by Christie’s in 2005 and 2007, all with a Hobbs’ provenance. A pair of “Spanish silvered clear and blue foil-backed mirrors, 18th century,” which went for $192,000 in New York in May 2005, were made using old mirror plates and old pine, said Buggins.
And in September 2007, Christie’s London sold two desks with descriptions that Buggins called bogus, both in a single seller auction, with the seller understood to be Louise Blouin MacBain, the magazine owner and art collector.
Mistakes at this level can be costly. Warren Anderson, an Australian property developer, is understood to have paid Hobbs more than £250,000 in 2006 for an apparently important pair of “Russian” commodes. But when they were put up for sale in Sydney last year, Bonhams auctioneers correctly identified them as having been made for a German aristocrat, but extensively remodelled and embellished between 1993, when they were sold at Sotheby’s, and 2006 when they were acquired from Hobbs. They fetched just A$35,000 (€25,300).
“The Hobbs scandal demonstrates the many pitfalls that can be associated with an unregulated market, inflated prices and counterfeit works,” says Viola Raikhel-Bolot, director of International Art Advisory at 1858, an international art advisory firm providing independent advice to high net worth individuals, financial institutions, corporations and museums. It is currently the global art and design advisory partner for HSBC Private Bank.
“We are there to help mitigate these risks. As an independent advisor, it is our role to hold the hand of a client to ensure that they avoid potentially unpleasant surprises and to provide the necessary market intelligence to make informed decisions. In terms of buying and selling, it is essential to undertake thorough due diligence in respect of authenticity, attribution and establishing a fair market value,” she says.
The Hobbs’ affair certainly shone a light on the sometimes-murky world of antique dealing and demonstrates the importance placed on attribution and supporting documentary provenance. Part of the problem lies with the fact that few original records remain of the commissions undertaken by the great cabinetmakers, while nineteenth- and early twentieth century auctions were not generally illustrated, relying on scant descriptions alone. This affords considerable room for manoeuvre for more unscrupulous operators.
When both Hobbs brothers separately sued Buggins for the return of furniture in his workshops, the restorer took the precaution of hiring Nicholas Somers, an eminent arts and antiques appraiser based in London, to document many of those pieces before they were returned.
Somers was asked to prepare reports evaluating the pieces he had appraised, assessing the level of alteration and giving an opinion as to whether they could be described as original, what their real value was and whether the dealer’s description was accurate.
In his report on Carlton, quoted in The New York Times, Somers said that the dealer and his restorer appeared to have “gone to great lengths and expense to change the original appearance of these pieces by fabricated embellishment so they could be presented as pieces to which the Claimant (Carlton Hobbs) could describe “as ‘rare’, ‘imposing’, ‘very important’ and ‘significant’. In reality the pieces are pastiches worth a fraction of the price of the genuine article.”
Holmes says the Hobbs scandal has had widespread repercussions on the antique market, damaging confidence at a time when changing fashions have already depressed prices for “brown furniture”. But, he adds, that this is exactly the time when smart money buys things. “Buyers must be diligent and, paradoxically, the more something is copied, the more it can push up the value of the real thing,” he says.