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  1. Wealth
February 25, 2009

A Winter’s Tale

By Spear's

Oscar Humphries on the peculiar mixture of gloom and excess, schadenfreude and swagger that has characterised the past few tumultuous months

Oscar Humphries on the peculiar mixture of gloom and excess, schadenfreude and swagger that has characterised the past few tumultuous months

London wouldn’t fare well in a nuclear winter. Snow brought London to a standstill. Half of Bond Street was closed and the contemporary-art private view at Sotheby’s near empty. I saw a few art-world movers and shakers there — some of them in Wellington boots.

Things have thawed, but this winter actually felt like a winter. It was cold. Depressing, a literal and economic chill biting at anything exposed — skin and assets. A new American president is reason to be optimistic as we slide towards warmer months. Last summer seems an age away. Before everything changed.

The conversation I had with my godfather, in which he told me to buy Lloyds shares, seems a very long time ago indeed. Thank God I only passed his advice on to my friends and family, and didn’t take it myself.

Even for someone who writes a column called Euro Flash, I’ve been travelling too much. Travelling too frequently takes the fun out of it; even upgrades can lose their novelty. Collecting frequent flyer points gets boring after a while and I’ve resigned myself to never getting past Blue in the BA program — they make it near impossible to climb the greasy poll to the Concorde Lounge.

The most interesting thing about jetsetting at the moment is not how empty the planes are but how the credit crunch feels different depending on where you are in world. Americans are more vocal than the British when it comes to money — more likely, perhaps, to boast of their success and inversely more likely to bemoan their failure. New York was gothic with gloom.

And the sales, the sales. Everywhere I heard Madoff’s name spoken — he was the man of the moment, Jack the Ripper, as told by the New York Post. Shrivelled Floridians who’d lost everything sulked on the front page, finally giving this economic crisis a sympathetic — if Botoxed — human face.

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As the list of his victims grew, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the man. Detatched from reality, surely he hoped, as all gambling addicts do, that he could turn things around. New York felt like the eye of the storm.

Aspen seemed immune. The slopes were pleasantly empty but locals put on a happy face for visitors. The restaurants were full and the kitsch art galleries bustling with women in fur coats prodding bad sculptures.

Matsuhisa Aspen didn’t have a table free. It is a sort of franchise and were Nobu Matsuhisa dead — which he’s not – he’d be turning in his grave. Japanese minimalism meets yokel incompetence at Aspen’s most trendy restaurant. My black cod was lukewarm, while our spider crab rolls tasted more of spider than crab.

When in Aspen it’s best to look for cowboy charm and mountain good living — not caricatures of urban sophistication. We came back from Aspen with a suitcase full of clothes we’ll never wear again. Cowboy boots; red suede gloves; a belt with a gaudy silver buckle.

The ‘Aspen look’ is infectious and is resistant to the antidote of fiscal prudence. It’s the chilly equivalent of coming back from St Barts with pink and yellow linen shirts and a shell necklace you rip off in the shower before your first day back at work.

Paris seems to be oblivious to the prevailing mood of economic depression. Perhaps they are all talking about it — but I can’t speak French so I wouldn’t know. L’Avenue, like Matsuhisa, was packed, with everyone appropriately dressed in black. Ivana Trump sat opposite our table and I felt as if I were in a 2007 timewarp.

I’ve made three visits to Paris this spring. The antique dealers in Saint-Germain never seem to change their stock — a sign that despite a stronger dollar American buyers have yet to return to Paris. ‘We miss them so much,’ one dealer told me.

My last trip, in February, was to the Yves Saint Laurent apartment on Rue de Babylone. Christie’s is selling the contents. Saint Laurent was a true collector, not a speculator.

In anyone else’s home the Picassos and Mondrians would have been status symbols — and they likely will end up that way. But in this Aladdin’s cave of deco and baroque objects and furniture, they appeared to be a testimony to his love of beauty.

Coming home to my gloomy hovel in London, I felt rather down, consoled only by the fact that in the 1960s and ’70s Saint Laurent was able to build a truly great collection that would have been impossible to acquire in the 1990’s and 2000s. Perhaps, in the coming years, spectacular objects will once again be accessible to the rich — not just the very rich.

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