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.