Furniture Restorer’s Allegations of Deception Shake Antiques Trade
MICHAEL SMITH, a prominent decorator in Los Angeles, was staggered when a friend called from London in early April with the news: John Hobbs, a London antiques dealer known for superb English and Continental furniture, stratospheric prices and wealthy American clients, had been accused by his longtime restorer of selling fakes.
Mr. Smith said he was panicked at the thought that two very expensive mahogany chests of drawers he acquired for a California financier in September — described on the invoice as a fine pair of English commodes, circa 1830 — might not be worth anything close to what he had paid.
His fears might have been justified. Detailed workshop records and photographs provided by Dennis Buggins, Mr. Hobbs’s restorer for 21 years, indicate that Mr. Smith’s commodes were designed and fabricated between 2004 and 2006, using materials plundered from several old wardrobes and a linen press. The cost, Mr. Buggins said, was about $55,000. The asking price was 365,000 pounds ($736,000 at the time), a retail markup of more than 1,000 percent, although Mr. Smith managed to pay $450,000.
Since last month, when The Sunday Times in London published Mr. Buggins’s initial allegations and Mr. Hobbs’s adamant denials, what began as a bitter financial dispute between the two men has become a source of anxiety for collectors and interior designers around the world.
Fakes and copies are hardly a novelty in the antiques business. But, if true, the allegations being made against Mr. Hobbs — whose clients include David H. Koch and Leslie H. Wexner and the fashion designers Oscar de la Renta and Valentino — suggest deception and audacity on an extraordinary scale. In a telephone interview, Mr. Buggins claimed that since 1992 his workshop has handled about 1,875 items for John Hobbs, more than half of which involved major alterations or outright inventions.
On April 7, the day after The Sunday Times reported the dispute in two articles (written in part by Christopher Owen, one of the reporters for this article), the British Antique Dealers’ Association suspended Mr. Hobbs’s membership. On May 6, Mr. Hobbs resigned from the group.
Moving vans were parked outside Mr. Hobbs’s shop in Dove Walk, off London’s Pimlico Road, for more than a week in late April, sparking rumors among dealers in the area that he might be emptying his store of fakes or closing it down. But Mr. Hobbs insisted the timing was incidental.
“We’re taking this opportunity to redecorate, that’s all,” he said. “I’m not going out of business.” Mr. Buggins’s accusations are “just ludicrous,” he said. “He never made any fakes for me, ever.”
The dispute between the dealer and the restorer began in September. According to John Hobbs’s son, Rupert, it was a result of his father’s attempt to intervene in an ongoing legal battle between Carlton Hobbs — John Hobbs’s brother and former business partner — and Mr. Buggins. “Dennis then decided that John and Carlton were colluding against him,” Rupert Hobbs wrote in an e-mail. In any case, money stopped changing hands.
Mr. Buggins said he was obliged to lay off the 30 subcontracted craftsmen he had working on projects for Mr. Hobbs, who for 18 months had been his only major client. He was also compelled, he said, to sell his 13th-century farmhouse in the Kent countryside and adjoining buildings that housed his workshop.
The two men are now embroiled in a lawsuit, and Mr. Buggins claims that Mr. Hobbs owes him about $840,000. (In December, Mr. Hobbs filed a counterclaim in the amount of 2.7 million pounds, about $5.3 million, against the return of antiques and works of art and damages.) Mr. Buggins came forward with his allegations, he said, because of his anger at the treatment by his longtime employer, and his discovery that Mr. Hobbs was misrepresenting his handiwork as authentic antiques.
Since the Sunday Times articles appeared last month, some collectors have approached Christie’s requesting appraisals of the authenticity of items they purchased from John Hobbs, a spokeswoman for the auction house said. In late April, David H. Wilson, a leading furniture restorer and appraiser based in New Jersey, flew to England at the behest of a handful of private clients to inspect their collections, he said.
“Several pieces gave me cause for concern,” Mr. Wilson said, “so the suspicions of my clients were well founded.”
In New York, gossip about the allegations has spread quickly along Fifth and Park Avenues.
“Every rich person was buying things from John or Carlton or both,” said Thierry Millerand, a New York antiques dealer and former worldwide head of Sotheby’s European furniture department, referring to Mr. Hobbs, 62, and his brother, 51, who now sells antiques in New York. The brothers had a falling out and dissolved their partnership in 1993.
“John has held himself up to the public as such a high-end dealer,” Mr. Wilson said. “That’s why people are so shocked. People were paying a premium, assuming that by doing so they were getting the very best.” Several high-profile New York decorators have spent large amounts of their clients’ money at Mr. Hobbs’s store, including Peter Marino and Bunny Williams, who declined to be interviewed for this article, and Juan Pablo Molyneux, who sidestepped questions about the accusations leveled at Mr. Hobbs.
“John’s things were always exceptional,” Mr. Molyneux said, “with the kind of humor and fantasy I like, instead of boring brown English furniture. I’m very confident that I bought what I paid for.”
Mr. Molyneux seemed unperturbed when told that Mr. Buggins had identified as fake a pair of side tables that he had purchased believing they were antiques, for a Russian businessman’s London apartment. (An article in Architectural Digest in 2005 listed Mr. Hobbs as the source for the tables. Mr. Buggins, shown a copy, claimed to have made them from scratch, using old wood.)
“They’re very beautiful,” Mr. Molyneux said. “When I’m shopping for my projects, I’m not buying for investment. I buy a piece because it tells a story in the room.”
“I have a clause in my contract saying I’m not responsible for the antiques we buy,” he added. “I know a lot about antiques, but I’m not an expert.”
Another New York decorator was less sanguine. “It’s very nerve-racking,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he anticipated lawsuits from clients. “I’ve spent millions at John Hobbs. Now I expect I’ll be in striped pajamas.”
But he is unrepentant about his aesthetic choices. “John Hobbs puts on an incredible show — no one else came close to his place in Dove Walk,” he added. “A piece of furniture might be $4 million, but it’s presented superbly.”
Mr. Smith, the Los Angeles decorator — who canceled his commode purchase, leaving his client “happy with the resolution,” he said — was shaken by the experience. “Antiques are the last business based on trust,” he added. “You take things on a handshake deal. That someone would abuse that trust is staggering.”
And Robert Couturier, a leading designer based in New York, described himself as incredibly angry at Mr. Hobbs. “It’s such an abuse of confidence,” he added. “Nobody questioned his honesty. It’s very sad.”
MR. HOBBS insisted that he used Mr. Buggins only for restoration and making authorized copies of antiques.
“He made replicas occasionally, once every two years where maybe there was a set of 10 chairs and a client wanted 14,” he said. “But it would be at the client’s request. They wouldn’t be fakes, they’d simply be replicas.”
Records from Mr. Buggins’s workshop appear to tell a different story. Photographs illustrate how he transformed plain, relatively inexpensive pieces of furniture into high-end antiques.
“It’s basically recladding,” Mr. Buggins said. Starting with an inexpensive item, “you use the best materials you can find and literally clad your new design onto that carcass.” Period wardrobes with beautifully aged patinas — known as breakers — were the staple ingredient. “You take the doors and panels and thin them down to 2 or 3 millimeters to use as veneer,” he said.
As John Hobbs’s demand for the production of new “antiques” grew, Mr. Buggins said, it became necessary to rent a barn five miles from the Kent workshop to store his raw materials.
“The barn was massive,” Mr. Buggins said. “It was stocked with 500 wardrobes. John bought stunning ones, absolutely the best. He called them blank canvases.”
The creation of one of his most astonishing inventions — a mahogany partners desk — was documented in 2006 with photographs taken before, during and after. The later images match a desk that John Hobbs recently offered for sale, with a photograph and an accompanying description printed on his letterhead that heralds the desk as “large and important gilt metal mounted mahogany pedestal partners desk, early 19th century in the manner of Marsh and Tatham.” This furniture maker, the description explains helpfully, “was highly successful in attracting royal and aristocratic patrons, and in common with other leading makers, they seldom identified their work with trade labels or stamps.”
Mr. Buggins offered a different explanation for the absence of vintage markings: “I actually designed that desk,” he said.
The cost for labor and materials, Mr. Buggins said, was about 100,000 pounds, or $180,000. Mr. Hobbs’s asking price was 1.2 million pounds (about $2.4 million), a figure that might seem implausible even if the desk’s history were not in question, except that the record price paid for British furniture at auction, 1.76 million pounds for the Anglesey Desk at Christie’s in 1993, was for a desk attributed to Marsh & Tatham.
Mr. Buggins insists that until the time of his lawsuit with Mr. Hobbs, he was unaware that his works were being offered for sale as antiques. “I’m absolutely stunned,” he said.
Through Rupert Hobbs, who runs the London store, Mr. Hobbs declined to comment on Mr. Buggins’s allegations about the desk or the other pieces he was asked about in an e-mail message.
Mr. Buggins said he was also surprised to find, in preparing evidence for his lawsuit last fall, that some of the “antiques” he had manufactured were posted, along with fictional descriptions, on Mr. Hobbs’s Web site (www.johnhobbs.co.uk).
As of Wednesday, the Web site displayed a pair of walnut pedestal cupboards that Mr. Buggins claims to have fabricated using columns that he salvaged from the Tate Gallery in London.
The same columns, he said, were used to create another desk recently offered for sale by Mr. Hobbs, described in a memo on his letterhead as “an unusual double-sided walnut pedestal desk, English 19th century.” The description goes on to suggest that its design would “indicate a commission from a gentleman scholar with an interest in mechanics.” Mr. Buggins said it was fabricated for a fraction of Mr. Hobbs’s asking price of 195,000 pounds ($390,000).
Mr. Hobbs also recently offered “a pair of painted geometric mirrors, Italian 19th century,” priced at 58,000 pounds (or $115,000). Mr. Buggins, on seeing the memo for these pieces, claimed that they were originally plain frames and that he had added the decorative panels, corner plates and lozenges.
To support this allegation, Mr. Buggins supplied a photograph to reporters that showed a mirror propped against a white van outside his workshop, halfway through the process of being embellished with adornments like those described by Mr. Hobbs’s memo. The resemblance between the incomplete mirror in Mr. Buggins’s picture and the one on Mr. Hobbs’s presentation sheet was striking.
Last week Mr. Buggins’s allegations widened to include pieces of furniture sold at auction by Christie’s in 2005 and 2007, all with a John 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, was made using old mirror plates and old pine, possibly from a church pew, Mr. Buggins said.
And in September 2007, Christie’s London sold two desks with descriptions that Mr. Buggins called spurious, both in a single-seller auction, “From City Chic to Alpine Retreat, Holland Park and St. Moritz.” Christie’s declined to name the seller, but experts familiar with the collection and the peregrinations of its owner identified her as Louise T. Blouin MacBain, the magazine owner and art collector. Ms. MacBain did not respond to three requests for comment made through her personal assistant.
A spokesman for Christie’s, Toby Usnik, said: “We take such allegations very seriously and will be reviewing any consignments which give us cause for concern and taking such steps as we consider appropriate.”
Mr. Usnik declined to elaborate on whether Christie’s had a policy of alerting the buyer of a piece of furniture when the authenticity of a piece was questioned by its alleged creator. “Our dealings with our clients are confidential,” he said, “but we will take such steps as we consider appropriate depending on the outcome of our review.”
Mr. Buggins said there were more revelations ahead. He claims he is considering setting up a Web site making records available for every substantially altered or fabricated item that passed through his workshop — not just those for John Hobbs — over the past 20 years.
Along with designers and clients, Mr. Buggins’s allegations about John Hobbs appear to have caused discomfort for at least one other dealer: Mr. Hobbs’s estranged brother, Carlton, who sells furniture from a former Vanderbilt mansion at 60 East 93rd Street, which he bought in 2002. On May 7, Carlton Hobbs issued a press release offering “an independent and accredited expert assessment, at no cost to clients, of any item purchased from the firm in the last 15 years.”
The document, posted on the Internet, made no mention of John Hobbs. But anyone familiar with the situation could hardly fail to grasp what was meant by the reference to “concerns recently expressed in the London antiques community about reproductions and replicas of historical pieces alleged to have been misrepresented as authentic period artifacts.”
The press release also offered a refund for any item “found to have an issue of authenticity or degree of restoration,” though it left the criteria for establishing that vague.
One reason Carlton Hobbs might want to reassure his clients is his own history with Mr. Buggins. Although Mr. Buggins declined to name any of his clients except John Hobbs, citing legal reasons, records for the New York State Civil Supreme Court show he filed a lawsuit against Carlton Hobbs in October 2007, in a dispute over the ownership of several pieces of furniture. An affidavit for that case given by Stefanie Rinza, a managing director of Carlton Hobbs LLC, describes a 20-year working relationship between Carlton Hobbs and Mr. Buggins that was in force in late 2005, when Mr. Hobbs was paying Mr. Buggins’s firm “approximately 25,000 pounds a month” for restoration work.
Mr. Buggins declined to comment on the lawsuit, as did Drew Biondo, a spokesman for Carlton Hobbs — though Mr. Biondo did deny that his boss had had a working relationship with Mr. Buggins that involved the creation or sale of fakes.
Told of Carlton Hobbs’s legal and professional involvement with Mr. Buggins, a few decorators have expressed dismay. And his dramatic press release, intended to assuage collectors’ fears and to distance him from the allegations against his brother, seems for some to have raised the possibility that Carlton Hobbs might somehow be involved in selling fakes.
Mr. Couturier, for one, seemed distressed.
“I’m a much better client of Carlton than I was of John,” he said. “With Carlton it’s a lot of money. If it’s true, it would be dreadful.”
But presuming it isn’t, Mr. Couturier is still worried about the short- and long-term repercussions of the Hobbs scandal. The real fallout, he worries, may be for the antiques trade as a whole. “People are nervous,” he said. “People will say they don’t like antiques because half of them are fake anyway.”