I never understood the word “connoisseurship” until the Internet took over. I thought it was some obsolete concept left over from college art courses that referred to years of study in dusty ateliers and museums, during which you compare the chiaroscuro in this painting against the chiaroscuro in that painting, and after 75 years or so you end up like Bernard Berenson, whoever he was. Now, with the carrot of online shopping attached to it, I see connoisseurship for what it really is—the obsessive and exhilarating search for something cool that you might want to buy.
Take me and Piero Fornasetti. He was an Italian designer who started out in the 1960s with a style that was part graphic design, part surrealism. His metier was things like umbrella stands, magazine racks, plates, screens—decorative accents for the home. Even before I knew who he was, I was aware of his style, and I wanted to own something of his. His creations are pretty unmistakable, very post-war Italian. The great ocean liners of the time—the Andrea Doria and the Leonardo da Vinci—were the epitome of this quintessentially Italian look. Today it continues with Armani and Prada and Renzo Piano, who are standing on the shoulders of Gio Ponti and Gustavo Pulitzer—and Fornasetti. (See how much I’ve learned?)
So I started looking online for something by Fornasetti. Something small and affordable. It’s hard to come across anything under $1,000, and many of the items can go for $15,000 or more. But occasionally you’ll find a single plate or knickknack for $300 or $400.
And while you’re looking you’re also learning. You see what the hallmarks of his style are, and they become ingrained in your head. You notice how highly valued certain pieces are—the beautifully detailed and one-of-a-kind screens, the whimsical wastebaskets. You are shown the markings that mean it’s a real Fornasetti and not a knockoff. You learn what the early, hard-to-find pieces are like, as opposed to the later, more common ones. So that when, on one Sunday afternoon when I was attending one of Elliot Bernstein’s auctions up at University and 301 and a Fornasetti tray came up for bid, I knew exactly what it was and was able to get it for $100. And why? Because I’m now a Fornasetti connoisseur.
My graduate school has been a wonderful website called 1stDibs. It’s been around for 10 years or so, and its motto is “the most beautiful things on earth.” The gimmick is they’ve gathered a group of the best high-end antique dealers all over the world, and each one displays pictures and information about their prized inventory, which is all cross-indexed in various ways, so that you can find Fornasetti under “Italian Design” or “20th Century Design” or just “Fornasetti.”
One of 1stDibs’ specialties is the “curated search,” in which experts go over everybody’s inventory and come up with their own personal picks relating to a particular theme. They have “historical searches,” like Art Deco, and “regional searches,” like Scandinavian Modern, and fun, whimsical searches, like Father’s Day (gifts for Dad) or Dinner at Eight (everything from dining room chairs to antique silver toasting forks). My new goal in life is to graduate from connoisseur to curator.
To view the prices you have to register, which is easy enough. Unfortunately, some of the fancier dealers put “contact dealer” for the price on their higher-priced items, which I find a dangerous trend. I’ve already emailed the 1stDibs management with my concerns. You must know the price. That’s one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. The price is what makes it shopping. That’s the problem I’ve always had with museums. They don’t tell you what the stuff is worth. They expect you to admire it for its aesthetic beauty; to me, its true value is defined by, well, its true value.
Many people like to moan about the prices on 1stDibs. And I admit they do seem pretty high. A quick random sampling produces a hand-carved table by Valentino Besarel for $185,000, a pair of chinoiserie mirrors for $28,000, and a painting by a guy I never heard of for $40,000. But keep looking. You’ll find a 19th-century blue opaline lamp—not that I want one—for $390, a very nice Milo Baughman lounge chair—one of the good ones, manufactured by Thayer Coggin—that’s quite a bargain at $775. And how about a Mary Quant make-up kit from 1965 for a mere $75? Who wouldn’t want one of those?
I check in with 1stDibs every couple of days to see what’s new and to explore its corners and niches. They even have curated real estate with multimillion-dollar homes, and a magazine section with articles on designers, pictures of the jewelry Queen Elizabeth wore for her Jubilee celebrations, and something called “If I lived here” in which designers “pretend-decorate” one of the properties from the Fine Homes inventory.
Once you become addicted to 1stDibs you’ll also want to hang out at a similar site called V&M, for “vintage and modern” (vandm.com). It’s basically the same thing but not quite as expensive or elaborate. Ebay is always worth a look, although once you’re used to 1stDibs, it’s sort of like shopping at Walmart. And many people still swear by Craigslist, but I find the Sarasota Craigslist, with its heavily soiled couches from Savon and endless stream of shabby La-Z-Boy recliners, to be the opposite of exhilarating. Shopping used to be so difficult. You were limited to what was for sale where you happened to be, and if that was a small town, forget it. Research on prices and styles was such a daunting prospect that you didn’t even know where to begin. Now it’s all at your fingertips. Everything for sale in the entire world is currently online, usually with pictures. For people like me, it’s the new Jerusalem.