One of the things that sets us apart from other mammals is our ability to adapt quickly. And so I watch with interest both world and American politics. Things seem to be changing, but nothing is clear. You have to wonder if change or the status quo matters? I think of a line from the The Who’s song, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

In the 18th century, rulers had no concept of change and/or adaptability. Their divine right was unquestioned. The practical world lent support to this. You made furniture, glass, etc., in a time honored, rule bound fashion. The laws of nature seemed immutable.

There were side affects. People gilding brass or silvering mirror plate came down with mercury poisoning. The Oriental lacquerers were also made sick by their craft. And the delusion of kings, as far as divine right is concerned, was just a passing fancy.

As a species, we surprise ourselves. The Middle East and Madison, WI are both surprises. What is clear is that it isn’t a system that makes a country work, it is a belief that things can and will get better. This is another aspect of humanity, optimism. We are a remarkable group after all.

We would all like to believe that there are absolute certainties. Cabinetmaking, a practical art, has them. However, the certainties in life have nothing to do with how people think and react. Certain stimuli seem to encourage similar repetitive responses on basic levels, but beyond those, we never really know how others will respond in any given situation.

However, when it comes to institutions, which are essentially extensions of people, there is a rigidity that defies belief. For example, there was a New York City club which decided in a vote to cut off ties with a London club that did not allow women in the club unattended. The vote caused rancor and discord and apparently, some members are still not talking to each other.

On the other hand, rules are rules and have to be obeyed. But why do we need rules? In part because of our unpredictability and the desire to mitigate certain behavior but also because we believe that people respond well to rules. Colonel Qaddaffi has had 42 years to believe in this concept, but he is learning that the rules are a two way street. Sooner or later, some of our own Republicans and Democrats might cotton on to that lesson.

But politics aside, why do institutions need rules? They, too, worry about unwholesome activities on the part of their members which seems oxymoronic, but on the other hand they wish to differentiate themselve to other similar institutions.The English call this tradition, others might label it elitism. All I can say is that I agree with Groucho Marx’s comment. “I don’t care to belong to any club that might have me as a member.”

One way to know that the cabinetmaker that made your piece of furniture was merely a good cabinetmaker or a great one is to see if the secondary timbers on the piece are quarter sawn. This is easier to comprehend than death and taxes, so let me explain.

When a tree is cut, there are several ways to slice it up. You can slice it the way you would a salami (only down the length of the trunk with the grain) or you can slice it in quarters and again into eights and so on, maintaining an even-ness of pores on both sides of a plank. This is called quarter sawing and is advantageous for the way a plank absorbs and releases moisture, evenly on both sides.

A piece of timber sliced down its length always has some quarter sawn pieces in a log, but the outside pieces are plank sawn. The consequence of plank sawing on the outside pieces is an unevenness of pores which affects transpiration which will cause warping and twisting in the drying process.

It is not axiomatic that a piece of plank sawn timber will warp in a piece. But if and when it does, it can really affect the function of that piece, twisting doors, drawers, etc. The smart cabinetmaker of the 18th century knew that the best way to avoid the problem was to use quarter sawn timber. That means that the great maker always used it. Life should always be so straightforward.

Death and taxes are said to be the only certainties in life, but as far as I can see the Repbulicans are dealing with the former and spiritualists and scientists the latter. But there are other certainties and that is the need by cabinetmakers for well dried timber when making a piece of furniture. When you work to a tolerance of 1/32″ and finer, you can’t use wood that isn’t dry.

There are several rules of thumb that cabinetmakers used in the 18th century. For every 1/4″ thickness, a piece of timber needed a year of drying. Proper air drying for a dining table top of 7/8″ took at least four years. The repercussions of not taking this time are evident over a long period of time or over a very short period of time when subjected to central heating.

The average humidity in an English home without central heat is 55%–a NYC apartment’s 3-5%. (During the summer it rises.) Since wood never stops absorbing and releasing moisture, great disparities of moisture in the atmosphere will wreak havoc on a piece that was made with poorly dried timber. It will also affect one made with dried timber but much less drastically.

I remarked a breakfront bookcase several blogs ago where the doors and drawers were sticking or out of line. I know the piece suffered many trials, but it was clearly made with timber that had not been adequately dried. That cabinetmaker could not have known that there would be such a thing as central heating, let alone NYC apartments, but even so, the quality of his materials has since been revealed. Maybe death and taxes are certainties after all.

It has almost been sixty years since Albert Sack published, “The Finer Points of Furniture”. Sack understood that dealer knowledge was different to both a museum or collector’s knowledge which is usually far more narrow than that of a dealer. Sack’s book points this out with the plethora of examples that he uses to show good, better and best examples of antique furniture. It is the dealer’s knowledge that he is touting in the book and it is a connoisseur’s delight.

Look-alike antiques are not necessarily about good, better, best. Sack was making it clear that the term “antiques” has multiple meanings to people. A plain country chair made in 1770 was no less an antique than a high style Philadelphia chair, but it was certainly less aesthetically involved. He offers no pejorative of the simple chair but points out that knowing the difference between the two is what makes a connoisseur.

I was asked to look at a breakfront bookcase yesterday. It was simple, made in the country and yet it had been “imporved” with blind fret and fancy dentil mouldings. That it was made by a country cabinetmaker is not a strike against it, but country makers did not age their wood the way someone like Chippendale, for example, might have. To that end, the piece has taken a beating from central heating. No high end dealer would look at it for inventory.

English antique furniture has suffered from pieces like the breakfront. Nice enough, it qualifies as an antique, but it hasn’t survived well. And yet, I can guarantee that the owners looked on it as an investment, which it most certainly isn’t. If there is an investment grade of antique furniture, it is furniture made by great craftsmen and the furniture was well cared for. Any antique buyer in the market today must know this.

The market is in a conundrum. Beset with pieces that I would call good furnishing goods which might inspire future buyers, these pieces, when found in shops, are still too expensive. The high end pieces are extremely expensive, because they are good and command great prices. No one wants to buy something that has little or no future and not everyone can afford the great piece. Someone needs to take Albert Sack’s lead and write another finer points.

The vast majority of what gets sold in auction or what can be found in antique shops is what I call look-alike antiques. These are pieces that have somehow been abused through bad restoration, altered to fit some other purpose, or stripped or re-carved or in some way changed and are not now what they were when they were made.

To strip a piece of furniture must seem the most benign activity, and it can be if done properly. However, when the stripper then feels he has to sand the wood surface, that is where the damage really starts. When a piece was made in the 18th century, it was sanded to perfection. It never needs re-sanding. The piece is altered when it is sanded and is no longer what it was when it was made.

Reducing the height of an etagere or a bookcase may seem benign as well, but you are altering proportion at that point. Tipping the legs of chairs and tables is also deleterious to the originality of the piece. Again, the piece is no longer what it started out as and has become something other than an 18th century piece

There is also 18th century furniture, most of it made post 1780 or so, that is not well made or well designed. This furniture, although genuine and at times with a beautiful surface, is not interesting for scale or the materials that were used and, very rarely, is poorly made. These pieces fall far short of being great. They are what I would call furnishing goods.

The description of great furniture through the negative lens of describing altered or second rate furniture does not tell the story of why or how something is great. That story is best told by looking at lots of period furniture. When you really start to understand what that story is, there develops a snobbery for the beauty and proportion of great pieces. That’s okay, it is what the story of 18th century English furniture is all about.

I was discussing the English furniture market with a collector the other day. He was not surprised that the record for a piece of English furniture was recently broken. He feels that the entire market is undervalued and that English furniture is extremely inexpensive at the moment.

I had to disagree. From my vantage point, almost everything of quality that turns up in auction, wherever that auction may be, seems to make good money. But I look at the market differently from a collector. I look to buy fine quality pieces which I think still have a profit in them.

But there is an aspect to what he says that is disturbing. There is a level of antique furniture that isn’t selling, or when it does, it sells very cheaply. These pieces can be confused with being antique but the difference between them and what I am buying is night and day.

There is a lot of second tier English antique furniture out there. These are pieces that have been poorly restored or in some way abused and which have lost, if they ever had, that which set them apart and made them great. It can happen to any piece, I might add.

So what may look like a great piece in a photograph is often not. And if it makes $3,000 and I have a similar looking piece for $30,000, I look usurious. The knowledge of the differences of the two items is what I live on, however, and I will continue to do so. My customers know the difference.

There aren’t many people I wish to do obituaries for, but David Wilson deserves one. A former antique dealer and restorer and most certainly a cussed fellow at times, he was always straightforward to the point of orneriness. He adored the antiques trade and the majority of the people in it. When Christopher Mason was writing his exposes on John Hobbs, David had no problem saying what he thought about the furniture he had seen that Hobbs had sold. He also defended antique dealers that he felt were honest and hardworking. As a restorer, he well understood that not every piece was perfection. In his words, almost every piece needed a little “wilsonizing”.

David once gave me a bid on a barometer at Stair Galleries in Hudson. He faxed me the lot number and the amount he was willing to spend. When I got to the sale, the lot number he gave me was not a barometer. However, there was a barometer three or four lots earlier and I bought it for well under the $1,500 limit he gave me. When he got to the sale, I showed him his successful bid and he looked at me, deadpan, “that wasn’t the lot I wanted”. I showed him his fax, however, and the look on his face was absolutely priceless. I was laughing for the rest of the sale.

The equanimity that David showed in the face of his illness was extraordinary. Two operations to remove cancers, one from his lymph nodes and one from his lung, two radiation and chemotherapy treatments, not to mention the diabetes that he suffered, and never a word of complaint. I saw him eight days ago, swollen from edema, clearly uncomfortable but in good spirits. He died yesterday, an exemplar of courage, a man who lived every day as if it was his last.

The frenzy for European antiques strikes this country about every thirty years. Starting just after the centennial celebration in 1880, Americans found that they could purchase used European furniture for less than new furniture and so they did. In around 1915, there was an Adam revival that swept New York and provoked another wave of buying. It happened again in the 1930’s, 50’s and 80’s. The frenzy reached fever pitch in the early 1990’s and has since abated, but it will happen again. The frenzy for Chinese things has never abated.

The only problem with such frenzies is that a great deal of stuff was uprooted from whence it came without a thought about who made the piece or even why it was made? I just saw a chest of drawers in auction, made around 1650, with front panels made of laburnum with mouldings in either holly or boxwood. The colors the piece must have had when it was made must have been stunning. Clearly, it was made especially for someone, but that information is no more.

In many ways, the move towards contemporary furniture is a reaction to the lack of information we have on so much furniture, at least in the English market. As a dealer who tries to make hits in small auctions, that is finding great things severely undervalued, the provenance of many of the pieces that I buy is less than transparent. But contemporary furniture does not have that problem as people often know not only where, when, why and how something was made, but most of the famous people that ever sat, lay down or otherwise used the piece.

When I was very young, three or four perhaps, my father salvaged a pine beam that had been used in a pier, brought it home and made a bench of it. It is the only thing I know that he made with his hands. It is not special for the way it was made nor for the pine, southern yellow, I believe. And yet, I always get a kick out of seeing or sitting on that bench. I would like to believe that the cabinetmaker of the chest in auction had a reason for making such a singular looking piece and that the chest had the same pull on someone that my father’s bench has on me.

Creating a brand seems to be the essence of making a success. The banks that nearly failed were saying that you can’t live without us, mostly because we are already here and you know us. Hosni Mubarak is saying the same thing. That is also true with processed foods and political parties. We find comfort in brands which offer a continuity. I happen to really like Will Shortz’s crossword puzzles and spend $2 on the NY Times everyday to do them.

English 18th century furniture was not branded as we might know it although Thomas Chippendale changed all that when he published the first edition of his “Director” in 1754. But the concept of patronage was different then and being the go to cabinetmaker for an oligarch who paid his bills every three years was no picnic. And yet by the end of the 18th century, the burgeoning middle class had largely changed that as the middle class paid their bills more readily. Debtors prison was a reality.

Contemporary branding of English antique furniture is something else altogether. Very few people who run small businesses in boutique marketplaces are able to control their own branding as it is essentially fragile and easily undone by rumor and innuendo. Furthermore, the inventory is always unique. To critique any of the antique businesses I know would take someone both knowledgeable in furniture and in the market. There aren’t too many people like that save for other dealers. Ergo, branding yourself almost always comes out as a negative about other members of the trade.

Do I need Will Shortz’s puzzles? No, I don’t really. There are other puzzlers out there who do very interesting puzzles and at times, I find his puzzles sort of aggravating. The same is true about political parties, processed foods, banks and quite obviously Mubarak. So why do we allow ourselves the complacency of believing there is only one way we should be doing something? I readily admit that I fall into the trap as easily as the rest of the world. Sometimes, we are all a little blind.