Tuesday, November 15, 2016


Anyone who has had to listen to me discuss Vizcaya, a ravishing historic house museum and garden in Miami, Florida, USA, would not be amiss in perceiving it was something of a first love for me. It certainly is a significant and early contributory factor in leading me in the direction of the career I have had for over 30 years now as an appraiser, consultant and broker of European decorative arts and antiques.

Vizcaya was built for the wealthy industrialist James Deering who was of the International Harvester fortune. Commenced just as WWI was beginning in Europe, the house was officially inaugurated on Christmas Day of 1916 and the museum is, in fact, in the midst of very lively centennial celebrations. The house made the transition from private residence to publicly opened museum in the 1950's.  Ever since, generations of administrative and curatorial staff have availed themselves of the rich original archival material in the museum that includes all manner of original records that reveal much about the years during which the house was under construction as well as the vast correspondence between James Deering and his artistic director and advisor, the discerning and debonair Paul Chalfin.  Of course in the museum's early years, the identification of much of the historic period furniture and appointments in the house were based on this archival material. But, as the years evolved, as did scholarship about the decorative arts, it was found that much in the house has needed to be identified anew and correctly assigned a different age or country of origin. I personally have always wanted to delve into a very notable piece of furniture that has intrigued me from the first day I saw it as a teen in January 1973 which is in the Adam Library seen below.

I refer to a desk that requires further investigation. Traditionally it was always believed to be a Neoclassical French desk, ca 1800 and often described as Directoire.

It is unique in its blocky shape, which according to either archival or perhaps just oral tradition, was due to the fact that it was the counter for a very posh Parisian candy store or pastry shop where the doubtless elegantly dressed sales lady sold her sweet delicacies. Often cited as a feature that makes the desk exceptional - and exceptionally pretty - is the 3 painted panels in the manner of Angelica Kauffman. The one on the front of the desk is seen below.

Indeed these panels, depicting merry frolicking scantily clad children,  really are animated in their vibrant polychrome as they are charming. They make the piece distinctive in the most effective way imaginable and the bright lively painted panels create a rich and vibrant compliment to the sober mahogany case with ebonized decorated bands and gilt accents. The other two of the three panels are seen below.

There can be no doubt of the desk's assertively Neoclassical demeanor. But neither the late 18th to early 19th Century French attribution really seems sustainable. This suspicion was confirmed by a highly and widely acknowledged expert in French 18th Century furniture, the New York dealer Anthony Victoria who shared his impressions in a letter after a visit to Vizcaya to me in the mid 1980's in which he cited it's "clucky" aspect that would not be likely to hold up as a viable or credible example of French Directoire - or even Consulat design.

The more I look at the desk and consult other world renown colleagues whose opinions are crucial in helping arrive at a plausible explanation for the accurate attribution of the desk's age and origin, I am now of the opinion the desk is very likely English. The noted expert in French 18th Century furniture Thierry Millerand was kindly allowed to examine the desk by Vizcaya's current highly accomplished curator Ms. Gina Wouters in 2014. Messr. Millerand was certain the construction details revealed by examining the drawers betrayed clear English construction methods of the 19th Century.  The more I look at the desk I am more and more reminded of the work of the Regency period cabinet maker George Bullock and see his influence here is concurrent with that of his French contemporaries during the later Empire and Restauration periods. 

For instance, the assertively gilded animal capitals on the pilasters are very much in the French manner. But the assertive bands of ebonized decoration lending prominent attention to such motifs as the anthemion are pure Bullock! Here is an English cabinet in the Bullock manner of the same period in the 1st half of the 19th Century. Notice the similarities in the brass inlaid bands in this cabinet below and compare it to the ebonized decoration on Vizcaya's desk. The similarity is glaringly obvious.

In conclusion - and hopefully to be continued because much more investigation is in order - it's safe to suggest the desk is English, probably 19th Century and very likely a bit later in the Century as late as the 1820's to even 1830's. Additionally, it may be possible the delightful painted panels that give the desk so much of its charm may possibly be a later addition applied to the desk later in the 19th Century. The panels themselves may also be early and perhaps earlier than the desk itself. But they may have been later added by an antiquaire eager to "marry" the components to make something really quite decorative and unique. Of course this is only my theory. And it's a tentative one at that. What is needed is a conservator's contribution to examine the desk and it's insides to ascertain if any traces of such an addition or "marriage"  could be revealed by an intense inspection of the carcass.

Until then, no one can argue it isn't a lovely piece of furniture! And I, for one, would never want or could imagine The Adam Library, in which the desk has been placed since 1916, without it!


In 2010 a regular client who engages my company LFAS to advise and liquidate estates invited me to assist his client to handled the private brokerage of the contents of a ravishing Miami Beach waterfront residence en bloc to a buyer who would be willing to take the good, the not so good and even the mattress in order to have the house ready for a closing that was less than  a fortnight away. It was a daunting task!  It took 3 loading vans working all day for many days to do the job. But the result was satisfactory for all parties and the buyer, once he sorted out the good from the less desirable, had made some good acquisitions for his antiques gallery.

On the occasion of my first consulting visit, I was haunted by a nagging feeling of déjá vu.  It looked familiar from photos of smart stylish interiors of my youth in the 1970's... The carpets, the accents, the window treatments all bespoke something very elusive and a "look" that was so familiar but to which I could not attach a name... Then finally, the lawyer who engaged me was in the next room in conversation with the maid of the deceased. As a long time experienced appraiser, broker and liquidator, I learned a long time ago, getting friendly with the servants of these affluent clients is vital to get crucial information the client is not longer around to provide. This deceased resident of the house was a local personage of great distinction. But he was dead and unable to shed light on much. But the maid said the magic name which I could hear from the adjacent room... DAVID HICKS!!!! Then it all made sense!

David Hicks was THE interior designer of the Jet Set and Beautiful People in London and abroad during the "Swinging 60's" and well into the early 1980's. His English clean and crisp approach to design respected traditions and also pioneered the use of things like chrome and lacqured Parsons tables, geometric patterns on carpets and fabrics of his own design and it was always hopelessly chic and seductive.  This is my favourite photo of him which originally appeared in an article in "Town and Country" in 1980 depicting Hicks in a devastatingly smart French Empire bergère in front of a stunningly theatrical canopied bed draped in shimmering crimson glazed chintz. The photo seen below is actually the one selected for the dust jacket cover of the definitive monograph on Hicks by one of his children Ashley Hicks.

As I explored this house which had already been stripped of much by the time I got there,and from which a staggeringly important collection of old master paintings bequeathed to a major museum had already been dispatched to their new home, the place still bespoke the hand of Hicks just about everywhere one cast a glance. It was a complete time warp from 1969 when it was originally commissioned... And it was a privilege and a joy to handle!

In the foyer, one could espy the original 1969 chocolate brown linen box shaped skirted table with black braid for which Hicks had selected a pair of stylish French Neoclassical bouillotte lamps.

The dining room had a mix of Regency and Italian Furniture with Asian accents and some outstanding George III and Qianlong porcelains.

And those curtains with the Regency inspired pelmets!!!  Quel chic!!!! All intact they were too!

The living room had 4 of the most inviting Louis XV/Louis XVI transitional style bergères`a la reine with the most romantically and ever so gently worn chocolate brown velvet!

There was also an outstanding George III writing table in the manner of Bullock.


And the carpet.. David Hicks original design with the original label of the French weavers he used to engage to weave these deep luxurious carpets which, as with this one, were executed in white on white with raised sculpted designs.

Another ther view of the room...

The library had ravishing David Hicks wall to wall carpets and upholstery on the chairs which were surprisingly well conserved.  See some views of the room below which includes handsome and versatile antique Jacobean benches used. as well as occasional tables and a striking Louis XV lacquered Chinoiserie bureau plat with a leather upholstered fauteuil de bureau. 

Very grateful for this unexpected and enriching opportunity to handle this memorable collection that was conceived by such a legend!