Dick Turpin died this week. I believe that he was 79 years old. I once started an interview with him for Art and Auction magazine but they pulled the plug on those interviews for some reason and Dick, who was by far the most colorful dealer I have known, got left out in the cold.

Dick looked a little like a Cossack except that his eyes were not hard. He had a large moustache that a dealer friend of mine told me a wonderful story about. He was chatting with Dick, Dick’s stories could be quite long, when a little spider showed himself from the interior of the moustache, descended a little ways on his thread and then re-ascended to disappear back into the jungle of Dick’s moustache. Dick was always very intense when it came to talking about antiques. He was the law as far as he was concerned and what he said was the truth, even if it wasn’t. he used to call me the horse and ask me which races I was running in whenever he saw me. I will miss him.

Stephen Joseph

Stephen Joseph died this week. He and his wife Iona of Iona Antiques, the premier dealers in primitive 18th and 19th century animal paintings in the world, were a fixture at the Grosvenor House Fair and the International Show in New York. A warm, modest, charming man with a lovely laugh and a tremendous sense of humor, I will miss him as well.

Vetting is the process used at fairs of looking at an object by a committee of experts to determine both the authenticity of a piece and the accuracy of the label describing the object. It was the cause celebre of the International Show when it was started in New York some fifteen years ago and was supposed to assure the buyer that they were buying the “real” thing. It was enough of an issue to cause the prestigious Winter Antiques Show to adopt the practice despite the enormous amount of time and effort it entails. The Grosvenor House Fair, the Biennale in Paris and Maastricht all subject every vendor to vetting.

I would never want to throw out the baby with the bath water so to editorialize on vetting, the first thing I have to admit is that vetting has raised the standard of quality at various antique shows in the last ten or fifteen years. However, vetting is not unbiased. At times it is political, sometimes naive, sometimes ignorant. The first vetted fair that I was in was a baptism of fire. All of these “old hands” were telling me to just accept what I was being told. As if I somehow knew less all of a sudden. Why had I been invited to the fair in the first place? Indeed, one object that was vetted off my booth–thrown off the floor of the fair–was subsequently accepted at the same fair four years later. Indeed, at the second fair, one of the vetters asked me just what the reasons were for vetting the item off in the first place? It was a perceptive question.

Having talked about vetting yesterday, I should probably talk about how difficult a job it is. The number of permutations and combinations that may have happened to a piece of furniture is endless. Fire and flood, adaptation causing reconstruction (think of it happening on a piece made in 1740 and which was then adapted within the next 130 years), endless tinkering (I have relatives who tinker rather than call a restorer–they are dangerous) replacement of drawers for doors and vice versa, reduction in height, a more a la mode foot, the list is virtually endless. And then there are pieces that were made out of their original period but which look the part. It was thought in the 1970’s that the first Chippendale “reproductions” were made in the 1830″s. Show me someone who claims to know the difference between something made in 1760 and 1830 and I would have to question their knowledge. Production techniques were identical in the two periods and a good quality cabinet shop would copy every detail to the very last millimeter. Indeed, many great Chippendale pieces are thought by a number of academics to have been made in the 1870’s and these pieces continue to cause arguments among experts. Their flaw is usually one of scale, but sometimes it is quite hard to substantiate any real difference from those items made in the 1750’s and 60’s. The pieces weren’t made to deceive anybody and they are old enough to pass as the real thing. Vetting is no fun and it is hell to make a genuine mistake both for the vetter and for the vettee.

The importance of vetting cannot be overlooked. The most disheartening thing for an antique dealer is to have a piece that is truly wonderful undersold by something that is at best second rate and at worst a mongrel of indeterminate background or origins. Worse yet is a dealer playing his piece against yours when the comparison is spurious. Protecting the customer is a happy by-product that helps in promoting antique shows. Few buyers, however, understand how vetting helps them and even fewer seem to care about it. Most buyers make decisions based on the trust they have in the vendor not because a show is vetted. Despite this and despite the fact that vetting is uneven and means different things at different fairs and that it can be political and is also difficult to do, it is very necessary. Non-vetted fairs are an expensive luxury for a serious dealer. It just doesn’t pay to have your goods looking expensive just because they are as they are described on the ticket. Give me the headache and inconsistency that vetting represents any day.

The 18th century was the platform from which the Industrial Revolution took off. The impetus was the wealth of knowledge that was found about the natural world by “philosophers” whose intense interest in everything including meteorology, botany, physics or mechanics and every other natural science that you can think of was like a crusade for understanding just why the world was the way it is. Jenny Uglow’s book, “The Lunar Men”, is about a small group fo these philosophers in the Midlands of England and it details some of the spectacular achievements this one group had. Their group was known as the Lunar Club and icnluded such notables, at least in the decorative arts world, as Josiah Wedgwood and Matthew Boulton. These men would meet once a month, preferably when the moon was out–hence the name—so that their journey home after dark was less perilous than in pitch dark. Their efforts were tireless and many of their discoveries without reward.

Boulton in particular understood that power would be the essential ingredient to make many tasks both simpler and more effective. He helped to design an engine with Joseph Watt for a brewery that would grind wheat at a faster rate than the horse powered grinding wheels could. He had to come up with an equivalence between the two and in turn came up with the term horsepower to determine the capacity of an engine.

What was the furniture like at this time? Inevitably, as power became more attainable, custom furniture became more costly as manufacturing techniques adapted to a ready power source. Custom furniture could only become more expensive given competition that understood how to use cheap power making custom work ever more expensive. The correlation is that progress in one world does not necessarily make for progress in another.

The dining table that I talked about yesterday had a few more clues to offer. The timber of the top was quite good which isn’t much of a clue, but what was even more interesting was that the underside of the top was chamfered around the edge on the pieces that were mounted on the pedestals. The leaves were not chamfered. This tells us that the overall thickness of the top was greater than the standard English three pedestal table.

What was a great help to me in figuring out the table was that I had owned a three pedestal Irish table several years ago. There was a maker of Irish tables that made them out of 7/8″ timber and then added a second piece under the outside edges of the top to give the appearance that the top was actually 1 3/4″ thick. This gave stability to the top and more wieight to the table overall making it less likely to move lest there was an overactive eater pouncing on their food. In any case, the the two pieces were shaped to make a double reed. The tops were inevitably made of two pieces, ie they were two board tops because the dimension of each pedestal along the length of the table was 48″. It was clear to me when I measured the table that the table had been trimmed, inaccurately as it turned out which was a clue in itself, in order to make the table appear more English. Finally, I might add that the Irish tended to use very good timber in their table tops. What a pity that it had been messed with in the first place!

The decisions that I make when I buy an antique are quite simple. What makes them opaque, at least to the public at large, is the amount of experience that I can draw on when assessing something. You have to have seen a great deal before you can understand certain things. For example, I was in a sale room recently that had a nice three pedestal dining table up for auction. The table looked like your standard English table made in 1780 with a top that was three quarters of an inch thick with a moulded, reeded edge. The pedestals were almost brutishly large, but they were sturdy and quite good looking in a masculine way. However, when I walked across the room to look more closely at the table, the first thing I noticed was that the top of each pedestal was made from two boards of mahogany, what is known as a “two board” top. Most English tables from this time period would have a “one board” top, at least thirty six inches or wider. When I measured the tops of the two end pedestals, one was 44″ and the other was 44 1/4″. At that point, I knew not only where the table was made but just what had been done to it. Do you have any idea?