Dear Mr. Molloy:
My husband is a cardiac surgeon and has just been appointed head of cardiac surgery at a major hospital. He was given this position because he is a surgeon with a wonderful record. The doctors with whom he worked appreciated him because if someone in their family needed cardiac surgery they sent them to him.
We live in an affluent area. While we have gotten along with most of our neighbors I never felt we were accepted by others. Possibly that is why some of our friends went to other cardiologists. This was particularly true of old money people who I feel looked down on us. Nobody ever said anything. We were invited to parties at their homes so why they chose others over my husband I will never know.
Since we are going to be leaving in seven months because of my husband’s new position I thought I’d ask a neighbor and a friend who is a leader in this community if she could explain to me why we received this treatment. Her answer was simple. She said people who have money all their lives think of themselves as a superior group and actually believe they are smarter than the rest of the world. She said, in fact they’re not, but if you wish to be successful with them you have to adopt their lifestyle. She said we should furnish our new home with antiques and art on the walls. That will announce to them we are sophisticated and will convince them that my husband is probably good at his job. Is she right?
How can we in seven months develop the expertise to buy antiques and art?
A Doctors Wife
Dear Doctors Wife:
The lady who advised you to purchase antiques and art was giving very good advice. She is a leader in the community and understands it. In fact, I say she is very insightful.
In the early 80s I was hired by an association of dentists and their accounting firm to find out what it took for their members who were attempting to sell themselves and their services in social settings to be successful. As soon as the study started it became evident that the wives played an important role in their husband’s careers and part of that role was maintaining an upscale home and knowing how to entertain.
Once I told them that, they wanted to know how they should dress and how much they should spend on clothing, automobiles, furniture and other items. They had a basic understanding of the problem because they wanted also to know what types of items would add to their status. The accountants were particularly interested in impressing people with money including old money.
This study went on for almost 6 years because I told that group, they could get it done much more cheaply if they allowed me to run their study work in conjunction with other studies. They were asking for too much information. I explained to them that the information I would get would be useful to me and therefore I would do the research at a reduced price if I could get their cooperation. I also insisted they send us photographs and videos of their homes, country clubs and other places where they met potential clients.
That study produced so much information there is no way I could outline results in this blog. However, I will hit some of the highlights and answer as many of your questions as I can.
If you are selling yourself or your professional services in an upper middle-class or upper-class area, your image will directly impact the perception of your competence. If you do not come from a privileged background I suggest you get a copy of my “Dress for Success” book. It will teach you how to buy upper middle-class clothing for both business and social occasions. If you still have difficulty doing this, in every community there are usually several stores dedicated to selling expensive, conservative, traditional attire to the elite in the community. Usually you can trust the taste of the buyers in the stores but if they go against my basic advice find another store.
Since what is worn by members of country clubs varies depending on the nature of the club and the area, I suggest you sit outside the club and photograph the members as they enter. Do this during the day and in the evening.
If you visit any club in the area you would like to join you should pay careful attention to what the other women are wearing including their jewelry. People are invited to join clubs where the members think they will fit in.
As for purchasing art and antiques, you are right, you cannot becom expert in either of those areas in that short period of time. You’re going to have to hire experts. All experts are not honest so before you hire one you must study books on antiques and art and be able to identify the characteristics of different periods and schools. It is not necessary for you to be able to identify a legitimate piece from one designed to fool the buyer that’s why you hire an expert. In addition by checking the prices paid at auctions for various pieces you should have a pretty good idea of what those pieces are worth. Unfortunately, if your approach or conversation tells some dealers you know nothing about antiques or art you’re likely to be taken.
Keep in mind all experts are not experts. We have a 1840 rosewood dining room set and we hired an expert from Orlando to appraise it. We had it appraised before so we knew exactly what it was, we were only curious about what it was worth at the time. She announced that it wasn’t from 1840 but 1890, it wasn’t rosewood because rosewood boards were not that wide and it wasn’t exactly a set because some of the chairs didn’t match. She didn’t know early rosewood boards were that wide and when a family in 1840 purchased a dining set they usually bought a table and four chairs. When additional children came along they purchased a chair for each one. Since all furniture at the time was handmade the new chairs didn’t exactly match the old ones. When I asked her to leave and said I would hire someone else from Orlando she told me she was an instructor for antique appraisers in Orlando. We haven’t had it appraised yet.
Unless you are willing and able to spend a fortune on art I suggest you stick with more traditional material. While the great modern artists are wonderful some of the lesser-known ones are often simply related to someone in the field. For example, many of the people who run art museums have friends and family members who own stores around their museums. And believe it or not they also have friends or relatives who are well known modern artists mainly because their works are displayed in the museums they control. Never was the phrase “buyer beware” more appropriate.