Monday, September 12, 2005
The Most Expensive Sock Drawer in the World
Hello all. My mind started wandering far afield this morning, and I got to wunnering, as they say in the vernacular. I was wunnering about furniture, as I often do. And the thought struck me: I wunner what the most expensive piece of furniture in the world is?
Now, one of the reasons I make reproductions of antique styles of furniture for you lovely people is that there isn't anything close to an adequate supply of the real article available to the public. Furniture meets with an untimely demise... Wait, strike that thought, anything made of wood, that fires consume and beetles eat, really shouldn't be expected to last longer than your average empire in any great quantities. Michaelangelo's David is made from stone. That's pretty sturdy, even if carrerra marble is soft as stones go; it's still made of rock. But somewhere along the way, even something like that, which was pretty much considered a big deal on the day it was finished, and didn't need 250 years of fingerprints and household dust on it to seem valuable, once had its right hand busted up when someone threw a big old bench out a third story window of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence during some disagreement over which set of Vandals was going to burn Florence to the ground that particular day. You can still see where they glued his fingers back on, if you look closely at his hand, instead of squinting to see his little winkie, and making jokes.
So the fact that any of this stuff is hanging around for a long period is a testament to our interest in it, and the labors of their makers.
Well, it wasn't hard to find out what the most expensive piece of furniture ever sold is. It's something called the "Badminton Cabinet" and looks like it should cost a pile.
You can click on the picture to read the Washington Post article about it. It sold last December for $36,700,000.00, just in time for Christmas, wrapping extra. Ha Ha.
Now, 36 million would keep my wife in shoes for decades, so we're talking real money here. The article goes to great pains to explain what an extravagance it is, and so forth.
But I got to thinkin' about it. $36 mil. Hmm.
The cabinet uses a technique called pietra dure, which is fancy english, or plain italian, for setting colored stones in a mosaic, generally on furniture. The article spells it "pietra dura." Believe who you want, but I have relatives in Florence, and they told me pietra dure is correct. They told me pietra dura refers to the stones they pave the roads with. You decide who knows what they're talking about. And don't bother looking it up in the dictionary. One way, it's "stone hard," and the other way, it's "hard stone." At any rate, I've been to Florence, and there's a whole neighborhood there to this day, with guys making this stuff, usually very big, gaudy tabletops. And they've lost nothing off their fastball since the Third Duke of Beaufort breezed into town in 1726 and ordered this thing to put his underwear and socks in.
And forgive me, dear reader, I wunnered if he got his money's worth, and if the clown prince of Lichtenstein ( I may have misread his title, but got the reality of it, if you know what I mean) got his money's worth when he laid out over $36 mil for it last year. Let's do the math, something NO ONE in the newspaper business EVER does.
Now Henry Somerset, the 3rd Duke, kept good records, so we know what he paid for it: 500 Pounds, in 1726, plus 94 pounds in export duties. Now anyone that's paid a "Value Added Tax" in Europe lately knows the 94 pounds was a bargain, as the current rate of taxation in Europe would probably swap the numbers, and 1726 Pounds would be the tax on a 94 Pound purchase; but that's their problem.
We also know that it took 30 people 6 years to make the thing. Now, artisans in the 1700s aren't like lawyers are now. They didn't feel comfortable billing the customer for just thinking about their badiminton cabinet when they were in the privy, reading a vellum broadsheet about the soccer scores, because the penalty for overbilling a Duke in those days likely involved dungeons and racks and whatnot, with some distant cousin of the offended party as the judge, jury and executioner; so let's take them at their word. And remember, they didn't stop working after forty hours each week, either.
Get out the calculator. 30 people, 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, 50 weeks a year (vacations were in short supply back then, but let's assume the occasional bout of cholera or plague or rickets or something brought a welcome diversion and a few weeks off a year to our trusty artisans), for 6 years. What should we use for a wage? How about $50.00 an hour, in today's money? After all, these weren't guys they just grabbed off the street, just look at that cabinet. The pietra dure tabletops I saw in Florence weren't, ahem, how do I put this, in our price range, so I figure these guys make as much as a bad plumber here in the states.
Now, you're looking at that number like a homeowner who just got a jaw dropping estimate to reface your kitchen cabinets, and the salesman, who hasn't yet picked up on his imminent ejection from your home, with a handful of the back of his collar in your fist, and his feet barely touching the ground, blithely says:
Oh yes, we forgot. The thing is encrusted with all rare, some semiprecious, stones. And the cabinet itself ain't made of particle board. So I guess our Lichtensteinian friend who purchased the thing last year isn't a complete schmuck. At least on this score.
But what about our friend, the Duke? How'd he make out? I mean he's dead and all, that stinks, but he did keep his socks in it for a while, and I assume the assorted dukelets and dukesses through the ages got some use out of it.
The British are nothing if not polite, unless you're in the stands at their soccer match with the opposing team's jersey on, I mean. Quite. Anyway, those crumpet eating Irish annoyers have been keeping pretty good records of the worth of a Pound Sterling, since about 1750. That's close enough to the 1726 origin year to make a judgement. The graph they so politely supplied me on the internet makes interesting reading. The Pound was worth about the same for almost 200 years. By "the same," I mean "a lot." Then, 75 years ago or so, those Welsh worriers and Scots stabbers in London ran it right into the ground, and it was devalued to 1/700 of its value.
And in 2004 money the 594 pounds the Duke blew on this thing is about $133,650.00 in US dollars. So it sounds like it's the Duke that got the bargain. But as I said, the newspaper men never do the arithmetic, but we do.
Let's assume that the Duke wouldn't have buried the money in the yard in coffee cans if he didn't spend it on the furniture. The 1700's were not prehistory, after all, and you could invest money even then, and it would bring a return on your investment. What if he invested it?
So we go to our humble savings calculator, supplied with our crummy Accounting software, which the Duke couldn't buy with all the money in christendom, and we got for forty bucks. Let's be conservative here, and figure the Duke, not having mutual fund brokers down the street, wouldn't have spectacular gains on the money. That is to say, he probably could have bought Canada with it, but nothing valuable. So let's give him a modest 3% return, after taxes. We'll leave inflation out of it, because we figured it in already in the money valuation.
So let's see, 133 large, for 278 years, at 3% per. Whoah. Criminey. Smoke is coming out of the back of my computer, trying to calculate it. Let's take off three zeroes, and add them back after, so the computer doesn't get a hernia.
Now, the Duke might have to borrow money from a Powerball winner from time to time, but that 127 mil would get you by if you clipped coupons and turned off the lights in the rooms in the castle you weren't using.
Now where's the humor in this, you're asking? When's he going to tell a joke? Well, I'm not sure it's funny, exactly, but when I typed "the most "expensive piece of furniture in the world" into Google, the paid ads at the top of the page were: "Cabinet Refacing from Home Depot" and "Affordable Furniture- Great Values on sofas, loveseats, dining tables, and more."
And more, indeed.