It would be legitimate to think that my words of yesterday were directed at someone. That is not the case. I view expertise as an overused term that has lost its meaning, unfortunately. I would rather that expertise was venerated, but my point is that as a concept, it is not something the usual buyer can understand. The nuances of great expertise are difficult to define and arer really understood only by the cognoscenti.

There are also various facets of expertise as I said yesterday. There is market expertise which is both important and necessary for the dealer. I have to laugh when Americans go to England to buy thinking that they can beat the market. The market is just not that provincial anymore. Prices for top lots are universal. People buying and selling at auction are equally provincial in their thinking if they think that they can “beat” the dealers.

Real furniture expertise from the understanding of style, construction, materials, condition as well as knowing what to do with something that is in a bad way is very hard earned. It takes a lot of years and a lot of looking to earn it and most of the top dealers in London and New York have it in varying degrees. But this is a tricky business. Just because someone is right once does not make them right every time. I would have to include myself in this assessment.


The delusion that all antique dealers are expert in what they do is a hard one to erase in the mind of the public. Why would I want to erase such a presumption? I don’t really, but in fact, and this is very true in the antiques business, the presumption of expertise is assumed and seldom proven. Does a business that has been around for fifty years mean that the current owners are experts in what they do? I don’t think so.

Of all the businesses I could have chosen to be in, English antique furniture is among the more difficult for the simplest of reasons. I am American and for many buyers of English antique furniture, particularly the English public but also American buyers of English furniture, there is a presumption that the English know English furniture better than anyone else. That is why there is no one in England who knows how to speak French, Italian or any other language.

I got into the business through studying antique restoration at a furniture college in London, England. Specifically, I learned how to polish. (Because it was French polishing, I was obviously not as good at it as the French, but then……) I learned a great many things at the London College of Furniture, the foremost being that there is an exception to most rules when it comes to antiques be it in the construction, finish, hardware or design. We also learned that the antiques trade usually needed advice on how to restore things properly.

There are shibboleths that I have referred to in past blogs that adorn the antiques trade. One is red walnut. There is no such tree or wood. Another is French polish which is shellac and that it was used only after 1810. That is rubbish. Shellac has been used for centuries upon centuries for finishing. Another concerns why walnut was supplanted by mahogany as the primary cabinetmaking wood in the 18th century. It wasn’t because it carved better or took a better polish but because of a tax levied on walnut timber. There are lots more of these and they continue to be sacrosanct to many dealers and that belies expertise. It instead professes ignorance.

The expertise most antique dealers have is in marketing–knowing what to buy and how to sell it. It is a very important skill and I would not undervalue it. Some dealers, the best in my opinion, know that they often need help to reason out why an antique looks the way it does, what restoration has been done, whether it has been fiddled with etc. Having a soundboard to bounce ideas off of increases knowledge. There are many dealers who do not have that interest, however. Their expertise is in finessing the buying public into getting them to believe that they are experts.