The path to connoisseurship is not straightforward. There are stages of development and recognition that require appreciation and critique. The world of 18th century English furniture is rife with furniture that is quite spectacular and there are also pieces that are, for want of a better word, lacking. That lack can be proportion, condition, timber quality, or color, but they all matter tremendously.

Most of the criteria for assessing how good a piece of furniture is are determinate. Timber quality is straightforward as is condition, but color assessment requires more savvy. Proportion alone remains an individual preference which can be argued, but never actually agreed upon. There is a majority view, but the majority doesn’t make one assessment better than another.

This is, of course, what makes a horse race. Disagreement is, in fact, quite fun when determining greatness simply because it requires exacting critique and appreciation. Some people will never see proportional oddity because it actually pleases their eye instead of detracting from it. You cannot argue that they are wrong, just that you disagree.

The idea that myth is as much a part of history as fact is new to me, but it is the essential element of Mary Beard’s history, “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome”. Beard examines the numerous myths of early Rome in the seventh century BCE beginning with Romulus/Remus which was followed by the era of kings also laced with myth, which eventually led to the Roman Republic. Beard, although short on actual data of who did what or when uses the existing archaeological and literary data to weave her story. It is an excellent one, although I found myself floundering when I had to adapt mythic characters as partly real and yet entirely valid and then to understand their interplay with actual events. It makes discriminating between fact and fiction very difficult, which might just be her intention.

As an English furniture dealer, I am no stranger to myth being treated as reality. Aside from the common shibboleths that include misnomers like “red walnut” or the reactionary stance to shellac, a material widely used despite years of denial by the antiques trade, there are other myths as well. Some of these myths are confusing such as, for example, that walnut carves less well than mahogany, but better than pine. Neither is true although finely carved mahogany is usually the most desirable. But not always and this is why many of the myths confound. The most common use of myth is for unsubstantiated provenance. Scurrilous dealers will allude to royal ownership to titillate buyers, but beware, the fiction needs paperwork to substantiate it.

As it happens there was an editorial by Nancy Langston called, “In Oregon, Myth Mixes with Anger” in the NY Times on Wednesday concerning the use of myth by the outlaws who have taken over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The editorial lays out the history of the land and it is clear that the men who have occupied the refuge are not aware of the history of the refuge and prefer their mythical version. Who can blame them? Myth is a powerful tool that is capable of eclipsing rational thought. Indeed, the presidential candidates from both parties are relying heavily on myth even if they have to make it up as they go along. That is, of course, the problem as the non-truth of myth can backfire and reveal itself as deceit or, more commonly, lies.