Frenzy and Meaning

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.

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