An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 176

Clinton Howell Antiques - April 11, 2022- Issue 176

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

I am writing this while at the Winter Antiques Show. (Postponed from its January time slot for this one year.) In retrospect, it is hard to draw a direct line from now when I think of where I was in 1977, freshly moved from Washington, D.C., and starting a restoration business  without much of an idea about dealing or even buying or selling antiques. The Winter Show is the ultimate show for decorative arts in the U.S.--there are other very good shows, but this show is really at the top of the heap and it has taken almost its entire existence to get to this position. During my career, the show has been run by a succession of people who have done the best that they could do to make it work, but I think it is fair to say that the show has needed new and different leaders for it to improve. But what about the people that are in the show? That is what is particularly interesting as the cast of dealers changes ever so slowly from decade to decade, allowing for people like myself to be admitted. I have to say that I never even considered doing the show in the 1980's--it was beyond my ken. I would guess that there are a number of people like me in the show, whose aspirations were undreamt in 1980 and who are now at the best show in the U. S. 

By 1981, I was starting to sell furniture and cutting back on restoration. Many of the very charming older clients that I made in Westchester and Fairfield Counties gave me items to sell. I often referred them to Christie's and Sotheby's, but after a while, I realized that the market at auction was uneven at best. The early 1980's was the start of the boom for English antiques and yet results could vary vastly from sale to sale. I remember buying an Irish bureau bookcase at Doyle Galleries for $2,000 that I sold for $6,000 within a week to another dealer who sold it on to yet another New York dealer who then sold it to an English dealer. I know this because I followed it and was fascinated by the way it kept gaining value. If I had been able to chart how items went from auction to dealer to dealer, few people would credit how many people the industry was supporting.

The things that I bought and the things that I missed or didn't bid enough for could fill a book. I misread the date of an auction in Massachusetts once and showed up as the lot I was interested in was being sold. It was a bench from Kenwood House in London and it sold for $7,000. Fast forward to around 2015 and a pair of Kenwood House benches sold at the Masterpiece Fair in London for a high five figure sum. The world, particularly the United States, was full of English furniture, some of it "important", some of it just beautiful in terms of condition, some of it with extraordinary, although hidden, provenance and some of it incredibly rare. For example, I attended an auction in St. Louis in 1991 where I found a table made of solid kingwood. Kingwood is from the rosewood family, very dense and doesn't grow beyond 12"-15" in diameter. This is, and was, the only solid piece of kingwood furniture I have seen. It also was an unusual design and yet I felt that it was English, but a one-off, something unique. As I eventually discovered, it was unique, but that the design was made twice. I discovered this when I read a small book about the English aesthete, William Beckford. Pictured in the book was my table, only made in oak. It was clear to me that my table was the one Beckford owned as the material was richer and more in keeping with Beckfordiana--he only had the best of the best made from the rarest materials, I made a nice profit on it, but so did the next two dealers who owned the table. I heard that the final sale price was close to a million dollars. We learn as we go along.