An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 156

Clinton Howell Antiques - November 22, 2021 - Issue 156
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
I have been invited to have a booth at the Winter Antiques Show in January, 2022, which will be a return to the show for me--the last time I had a booth was in 2011. The Winter Antiques Show is a big deal, attracting all sorts of buyers from near and far. I left the show because I had no success for three consecutive years. However, that trend has continued. I could almost call the intervening decade, the forgotten decade, as English furniture has not, as a rule, performed well as either a market or as something that is considered fashionable. Did the drop in value make the furniture unfashionable, or was it that the furniture became unfashionable and hence the value dropped? Take your pick as the furniture is still the furniture, fashion or value notwithstanding and I love it as much as ever--and the reason is for the materials, the craftsmanship, often the color and the history the furniture can tell, if you know what you are looking at. Design, too, is always a consideration, but I don't want to sound as if I think every piece of 18th century English furniture is wonderfully designed. It isn't. There are some real clunkers, some made by top shops including (very rarely) Thomas Chippendale's.

Fashion and value are both difficult to understand. It is said that two people who want the same thing will establish the value of an object. This implies that auctions are the best way to determine value as there is an underbidder. I understand the concept, but what if the underbidder is crazy as a jaybird? It has happened more than once. I forget the exact nature of the story, but about 25 years ago, a scientific instrument made millions at auction and it turned out that the winning bidder was close to death, had a grudge against auctions and decided to run up bids at a sale room with a friend. Similarly, when the Chinese entered the market in the 90's, prices went haywire on many items that were not at all rare. A number of auction houses were burned by bidders who, on finding out that their purchase was not as rare as they thought, refused to pay despite the fact that the item was properly catalogued. The theory that the underbidder makes your bid valid is hogwash. Value is what someone decides to pay for something, Period. The seller can ask whatever they want, but asking a price is a long way from getting a price.

Fashion is simply a trend. A trend has no substance and can fade as quickly as it rises. I have just finished reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Leonardo da Vinci aptly named, "Leonardo da Vinci". The final chapter is twenty paragraphs that are headed with declamations on the nature of (Leonardo's) genius that are worth reading again and again. The first is, "Be relentlessly curious" and the last is, "Be open to mystery".  For me they relate to the quirkiness of fashion and why it can, occasionally, be long lasting or a flash in the pan. The pet rock craze that happened in the 1970's was justifiably short lived. Skirt lengths, on the other hand, were demurely set at an inch or two below the knee before the arrival of the mini skirt in the mid 1960's blew away that convention. The same holds true for creating your own taste--don't damn something for being unfashionable--be curious and open to mystery. Sometimes greatness reveals itself straightaway and sometimes it doesn't. And occasionally, it can be right in front of you, you just have to peel away the calluses to see it. Particularly at my booth at the Winter Antiques Show.