The allure of antiques for some people is as an investment. The is easily the trickiest aspect of antique furniture. Yes, it can be an investment. No, it isn’t always. When isn’t an investment? When no one is willing to pay you more than you paid for an item, of course. But then, you have been able to live with it for a certain amount of time. What is that worth?

But that is not the conundrum I want to discuss. The conundrum is to do with where dealers get their inventory. We buy from other dealers. Had I owned the chair that sold at Sotheby’s London in early June for almost $200,000, I probalby would have priced it at around $75,000. It would have made a great investment for someone at that price. Dealers buy from dealers all the time.

The auction houses have talked for years about how they have been the source for dealers. That is true, but they have made capital out of the fact by luring customers to buy “wholesale” from them. Dealers sell to dealers all the time and the food chain is not always from small dealers to large “name” dealers. If you really want to invest, it would pay to look at dealer inventories closely. There might be something that is not only underpriced but which is also worth living with for a decade or two.

I have heard antique dealers praise the depth of carving on pieces as if it were an automatic indicator of quality, particularly in regards to rococo furniture. For the most part, it is true. The depth of carving can make a mirror or a bracket or even a chair or table, more valuable. Where it isn’t true is when the carver just did not have the experience that enabled him to comprehend the three dimensional task. You might think that most 18th century carvers could do it and for the most part they probably could. However, there are exceptions.

The essence of great carving is in the flow of line and consistency of detail. There is a dynamism created not just by the design but by a carver’s ability to express the design. For example, most rococo mirrors are fairly straightforward having columnar sides, scrolls flanking the columns and one the base, some interlaced foliage and rocaille to fill in the spaces. It is a straightforward formula, but then there are mirrors that sing and those that croak and the depth of carving has little to do with the reason why.

It would be easy to see that great depth in carving has no relevance to a great quality mirror. It does, however, because when a carver can put things into three dimensions, they are just more interesting than those that are in two. I once had a mirror that was very shallow, very little depth to the carving at all. However, the carver really understood design and did a wonderful job at creating a beautiful mirror frame. However, I also had a frame that was deeply carved by a master of the genre. I liked the first frame and appreciated it a great deal, but I loved the second frame and wish I had it still.

Some of the greatest carving you will see for skill is the German Renaissance carving. It is superb, but it would be incongruous on a piece of furniture. Fine, detailed work does not necessarily make a piece of furniture well carved. As I said yesterday, flow and dynamic tension are a function of the skill of the carver and on furniture, it requires the ability to sculpt, design and execute. For an example of someone who did it well, look at Luke Lightfoot’s work at Claydon House.

Getting back to the chair that sold at Sotheby’s London on June 8 for one hundred and eight thousand pounds (I have said that was over $200,000, but it is just under that amount) I would critique it less for its carving than for the chair itself. It is awkward. It is oversized and because of that the proportions are awkward–the legs feel undersized, the arms excessively stiff, the armrests too small and the back is stiff with little curvature either vertically or horizontally.

It is the carving that is the source of value, however. I have to admit to really liking the photograph of the chair in the catalogue. I almost want to second guess my dislike of the chair. However, I do remember it in the gallery and it was not prepossessing at all. It felt prissy, more like a canvas for a carver to demonstrate his stuff on, but an insufficient one. For me, the chair is not a success because the chair itself is not a success and all the window dressing of fine carving doesn’t carry it where the chair can never go.

How often does any antique dealer change their mind about a piece of furniture that they initially do not like? I have attended many sales where items have sold for big numbers and I still don’t understand their allure. I have never changed my mind about a piece that I have purposefully passed on.

The chair I referred to several days ago that sold for over $200,000 at Sotheby’s in London had presence, but I really did not like it. I thought it stiff and over carved. I am reminded of a Gainsborough open armchair that I sold a number of years ago which in my mind was the quintessence of great 1750’s carving and timber. The chair at Sotheby’s was of decent timber, the chair was large which gave it presence, but the lines were stiff and the carving perfunctory. It was not a premiere chair in my opinion.

And yet the chair was raved about by a number of top dealers. Some people might say that this is what makes the world go around. In a way, that is true. We all have different tastes and experience and rate things for different values. However, you might wonder whether the lack of good English furniture is forcing us to appreciate items that might have received less attention in the past than they do today.

The byword of English antique furniture, any antique furniture for that matter, is quality. I remarked on the prices achieved at auction in London in yesterday’s blog and I wanted to comment on the Kedleston bookcase that sold for nearly three million dollars. I did not think it was a great piece of furniture because I felt the quality not to be of the highest standard for furniture dating circa 1770. I know that the Christie’s personnel would debate me on this point and I have to say that such debates are always lively and important. Specifically, what I did not like was the carving. I felt it to be less than the best for the time period.

Notwithstanding what I have just said, does this mean that I think the price to be unjustified? I can’t say in an absolute sense, but I would hazard a guess that it does not. Value, particularly at auction, is decided by the bid plus commission and that is how it should be. What makes the bookcase valuable, however, is provenance and this piece has it in spades. Furniture whose lineage includes John Linnell, Robert Adam and Kedleston House is rare and valuable whether it is a chamber pot or a bookcase.

Provenance, as important as it is when it can be verifiably ascertained, means less to me than quality of construction, condition, color and most importantly, design. When those four converge at the highest level, they are far more compelling to me than where the piece was made for or even by whom it was made.

We all have our preferences.

Summer starts today and I missed the first heat wave while I was in London. The heat wave has arrived in London and their 20th century air conditioning looks good compared to what is happening in Paris. A friend who lives in Paris and who suffers from the heat is ready for a summer trek in northern Greenland.

Reports from the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair are that furniture is selling, but very slowly. People are thinking and thinking and thinking about whether or not to buy. Prices are an issue and that is understandable, sort of. I conditionalize because English furniture is relatively inexpensive as compared to many other fields of collecting including American furniture and French furniture and is positively cheap compared to some of the flat art that is for sale. Furthermore, Christie’s sale on June 9 in London included a George Bullock designed table with a pietra dure marble top that solf for over two million pounds as well as the Kedleston bookcase that sold for one million and sixty four thousand pounds AND a commode that sold for seven hundred and ninety two thousand pounds! Multiply those figures by 1.83 and you will have the dollar amount of those items. A single Chippendale armchair at Sotheby’s June 8 sale in London, not an aesthetic marvel by any stretch, sold for one hundred and eight thousand pounds which is over $200,000.

The two sales were very patchy in terms of quality, and yet the desirable items made huge money. Is it any wonder that dealers, who after all are selling their taste as well as a fully restored ready-to-go article, are gong to start out with their prices high? We, unlike the auction houses, will come down in price if you really want something. At auction it goes the opposite direction.

It has been a week since the opening of the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair, the annual fair that takes place in the ballroom of the Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane in London. I hear that some business is happening but that it is unpredictable. I have to say that this year’s fair is a great spectacle of extraordinary English furniture. My partidcular favorite item(s) was a pair of William Kent upholstered seat and back open armchairs on the stand of Godson and Coles. Godson and Coles are great dealers and very nice people. I hope they sell them and I hope whoever buys them gets bored with them and gives them to me to sell for them. Preferably before the Winter Antiques Show as I have three Kent pieces going on my stand. (If I don’t sell them first.)

There are, or were, some other great things. Hotspur, for example, had a wonderful mahogany commode that is the ne plus ultra in terms of form, condition and color of a piece of 1760’s English furniture. Ronald Phillips had a great pair of mahogany open armchairs with very distinctive carved backs that I remember coming up in New York in the 1980’s. They are a rare and wonderful model that date circa 1765. Apter Fredericks had a marvelous pembroke table with very unusual marquetry inlay. I happened to underbid it which is upsetting because they sold it in the first twenty minutes for a huge sum of money. Kentshire, the only New York based English furniture dealer whose stock keeps getting more exciting monthly, had a very large marquetry inlaid cushion mirror. I have never seen one larger nor, I dare say, has anyone else. Size can matter from time to time.

I don’t mean to ignore the many other dealers as there were plenty of other wonderful things to buy. It is always worth the trip to see this fair as it tends to remind you why you are in the business in the first place.

The search for the perfect antique is rather like looking for Eldorado.  It is in your head and you know what it looks like but it isn’t there when you go looking for it.  We compromise on just about everything.  Should that be upsetting or is it life?  Too many of my customers have walked because I have preached this lesson and I should know beeter.  It isn’t lessons I am teaching, it is antiques that I am selling.

I have found the perfect antique a number of times.  After I have sold it, of course.  And I never regret the selling as I have heard some do.  Pleasure is its own reward and it hardly matters whether it arrives in reflection or in the moment.  This is one reason that I should push, somehow, harder on those customers who think that perfection is attainable.

As I watch the dealers at Olympia peddle their goods, some of them extraordinarily good, I think that what separates them from the Grosvenor House Fair dealers, is how they see themselves as well as a bundle of cash which would enable them to do Grosvenor House.  Time will get them where they want to be and they will be no different from what they are now.  Thank goodness?

London  is a cruel town, particularly when it is beautiful.  A friend asked me yesterday whether he should buy a flat in  Chelsea with a roof top garden that is huge.  I almost wanted to ask why he wanted it except that it was a beautiful day outside and it would be marvelous to have had the flat. London is not a fair weather town, no matter how you slice it and a roof top garden is no temptation for me in this city.

I have always thought that it should be antique dealers doing rip offs of antique designs and offering them for sale instead of designers.  Certainly some designers know a good design when they see one, but it is the dealers who get to own them.  Having had several pieces copied on me over the years, I am extremely leary about letting my rarer chairs go for long visits on approval.  In the end, if you do copy your things, you create competition for yourself and you debase the rarity factor.  Finally, the charm of an antique, or at least part of it, is its survival, a texture that is one of the reasons for buying old things. Some people just don’t get it.

My flight to London this week included a free magazine called “International Smart Home”.  It is a British magazine and the title is meant to convey that to be smart as in chic and smart as in intelligent, you will buy this magazine and stuff  your apartment full of electronic gadgetry.  I love electronic gadgetry when I finally figure out how to use it, not being good at direction unless I really have to and then my pedantic side springs forward and chokes off all creative energy.  In any case, I was reminded of the first stereo I bought at a Bradlees in Trumbull, CT.  It included an amplifier, two speakers and a turntable.  The Fisher amp works quite well – I am talking about thirty odd years later, as do the speakers although they are dinosaurs, size wise.  The Garrard turntable got bashed but survived about ten years.  I dare say that most of the things in “Smart Home” are designed to be superannuated in a relatively short period of time.

This would be a nice seque into why antiques are so wonderful, but I wanted to note the one wooden product available in the magazine, aside from wooden cabinets and counter tops, which was a basin made of Iroko.  Iroko is a West African wood of no great distinction save for its inherently oily nature making it ideal for a basin.  Oddly, a basin is the last thing that I would have made in wood.  I was pleased that were was one wooden product on offer, however, and it gives me hope that “Smart Home” will someday feature products that last a couple of hundred years and which, when you are through with them, get sold by your heirs who whisper their thanks in a whiff of remembrance you probably would not get in any other way.

The trouble with talking about restoration is that it is a very dull subject to discuss without the benefit of, at the least, drawings or perhaps a video or, at the best, a live demonstraation. Suffice it to say that proper restoration is important, really important if you want your antique furniture to retain its integrity as antique.

But there are shibboleths out there. There is false information in the furniture history books that has remained unchallenged for years. For example, the writer R.W. Symonds wrote that French polishing was not used on English furniture until 1815. That is a ridiculous notion. Logic contradicts it as does the evidence. Symonds work was seminal to the field and spectacular for the most part, but he got some things wrong.

There is one furniture historian that is endeavoring to clear up some of these misconceptions. Dr. Adam Bowatt has begun a series of books of which the first is “English Furniture, 1660-1714, From Charles II to Queen Anne”. Dr. Bowatt has approached English furniture methodically and from both a stylistic and evidentiary point of view which of course includes the cabinetmaker’s art. For example, he and a group of students made a marquetry inlaid chest of a style dating circa 1715 and finished it according to contemporary recipes. He told me that the result was different than what he expected according to all the antique pieces he had seen, brash and colorful, not subtle and tasteful.

Gaining knowledge is hard enough, but sweeping out misinformation is even more difficult. Calcification doesn’t just happen to fossils, I guess.