Is there a need for price guides in the world of English antique furniture? Our corporate culture likes to think that everything can be quantified as long as we have enough information from which to draw a conclusion. However, I don’t think English furniture lends itself to this analysis.

I have expounded many times on the five aspects of a piece of furniture that make it unique. The foremost is design because it is the form and shape of the object that is of paramount importance to the buyer. The second is condition. Condition is tricky as sometimes a piece is in terrible shape and can be restored without affecting value. In other words, good color may exist under a bad finish. Or, in regards to gilded things, a mirror might be dry-stripped, a process that rids the mirror of subsequent gilding repairs while essentially retaining the original gesso, clay and if you are really lucky, gold. Experienced dealers make money off of these situations because they know what can and can not be salvaged. The third aspect is craftsmanship. There are poorly made antiques and they don’t earn a great deal of money in auctions because of their dubious quality. The fourth is the materials from which a piece is made. A dumbwaiter made of mahogany is a fairly common object, but one made in rosewood, indicating that it is probably Chinese made, is a great deal rarer and commands a higher price. The fifth is provenance which is likely the trickiest of all to prove unless you have a signature on the piece which happens very seldom in English furniture. There is also another category which is more difficult to define and it is the odd piece of period furniture that does not fit the norm. For example, you would be very hard pressed to find a narrow console table with cabriole legs that is over three feet wide. It goes against the proportional mandates of the 18th century cabinetmaker and yet such oddities do turn up and can be quite valuable.

How can a price guide factor in these elements? I don’t think it can.

The powerful force that is inertia can perpetuate a quasi-cotton wool state that endangers the use of common sense. I often think that politicians (take either side) revel in the glacial like movement of the US government which does not seem to want to reflect on its position at any level, from local to international. I would not say that it is ineffective, but I would say that its ability to apply reason to a given problem is compromised because of the force of the status quo.

This is true for a great many buyers of English furniture. Dealers are often branded for a host of reasons. It may happen because a browser who is influential tells a friend how expensive a dealer is and the word never dies. More often than not, the negative brands can be considered gossip. Seldom do positive brands sustain a half life but when they do, they are hard won from many years of experience. Changing a negative brand is not only difficult, but quite often impossible.

Inertia wins most of the time. Convincing people about what they should or should not buy or where they should buy is an uphill battle. The English dealers, for example, are generally more expensive than the New York dealers for items that are of comparable quality, but a certain segment of the buying market is not so easily convinced and go to London almost as a reflex action. (Do people actually believe that you have to be English to know about English furniture? Heaven forfend!) But the status quo is a comfortable, powerful and, in the end, easier course of action. It just happens from time to time to belie common sense.

Michael Kimmelman’s article in the Dec. 8 issue of the New York Times, “Regarding Antiquities, Some Changes, Please”, outlines the problems facing museums that buy looted art. As Italy is the current country raising the fuss, though Greece has also been in the fray since Melina Mercouri demanded the Elgin Marbles be returned to the Acropolis from the British Museum, the storm is currently focused on things in the Metropolitan and the Getty Museum.

Kimmelman’s article deftly covers the situation where museums are being faulted for knowingly purchasing looted items as well as the countries whose laws invite illegal smuggling because of the consequences that landowners face when finding antiquities on their property. His argument for the reform of the laws and museum policy has a great deal of merit.

What is lacking in my opinion is the understanding that there is so much out there. A culture that encourages the proper excavation of sites, including payment to the landowner for the temporary use of his land as well as returning it to its former condition once the site is completely excavated, is one step. However, the next step is legalizing the selling of items. Kimmelman cites British law that allows British museums first dibs on any article found or excavated, but at a fair price. That sounds great to me. If a museum does not want the article, then the owner is allowed to sell the item–legally.

Nationalism is at the root of these countries wanting looted items back. And the fact that many things were illegally obtained is a fair argument for their return. But nationalism is the world of 2005. Our desire to be French or Nigerian or Peruvian is a recent phenomenon. When I look at things made thousands of years ago, I don’t think of them as being Italian, Iraqi or anything else. They are made by a culture that once existed and no longer does and, in an odd way, belongs to mankind. The temporary custodians should realize just that–they are temporary. And as custodians, they should be doing the best job they possibly can of preserving them.

The best place to find art, antiques, archaeological artifacts or anything that a museum or a government might be interested in is in a warehouse. An article in the New York Times yesterday wrote that there were three thousand institutions in the United States with 4.8 billion artifacts needing conservation. If I were a young curator wanting a job with a museum, I would want to see what they have in storage before I did anything else. It would scare me to know that I had a conservation issue that might cost many millions if I was, in fact, inclined to do something. If I wasn’t inclined to do anything at all, would I be sued for negligence if I allowed the problem to exacerbate? Not my idea of fun at all.

I have to wonder about the Italian prosecutor who is putting heat to the feet of several American museums. I wonder what the Italian storage facilities look like? Is there perhaps more stuff waiting in the wings than is possible to be shown in several life times of exhibits? My guess is that there is quite a bit. Multiply the problem in the U.S. by all the countries that have substantial museum holdings and there must be many billions of things sitting in storage. The new archaeologists will never have to go out into the field.

There is a solution, of course. Let it out on the market. Sell the stuff. Yes, some of it will be lost and/or destroyed, but some of it will be conserved better than a museum could. Why not create a culture of caring for things rather than packing them in boxes and placing them in a room that might get an infestation of something or a flood or a fire or any other such natural disaster? We have become hoarders and that is about as exciting as watching grass grow.

I think I saw a man steal two newspapers yesterday. He could have had an arrangement with the owner, but the shop was locked and the man was thumbing through the papers outside picking and choosing. I felt I should say something, but I just wasn’t certain about what was happening.

It is easy to say that the theft of a newspaper ranks as a lowly crime. It is, but I think there is a certain self absolution made by people committing certain types of crime. Politicians, for example, are always making deals. Of recent, there is one particular lobbyist that seems to have purchased a great many politicians. How do these politicians live with themselves? White collar crime is equally amorphous in that we see no direct victims. The victims, of course, are us and the fabric of American society.

I have had things stolen from my shop. The things stolen were never major as, after all, I am a furntiure dealer and it can be difficult to maneuver a settee out the door without my consent. The feeling I have had after each theft runs from outrage to acceptance to belittling the loss as if it didn’t matter. It does, not just for me but for all the victims. It really does.