An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 177

Clinton Howell Antiques - April 18, 2022 - Issue 177

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The pleasure of finding something rare and unusual that others might have overlooked is, unfortunately, the rarest of happenings. The internet has changed the market completely as people will bid, often quite substantially, on things they haven't seen. Hence, an item that "looks" the part, will get enough play that it can become an expensive mistake if you haven't had the chance to examine it in person. I would submit that almost every dealer has done this and that such mistakes never get talked about. The problem, of course, is that traveling to far flung posts is preferable to bidding blind, but it is not always possible. As dealers, we will watch as an item that caught our eye comes up to the auction block thinking--is it right? If the item takes off, the temptation is to get into the fray. This is a terrible idea. If you can't be certain, you should not bid--it is that simple.

Of course, I have broken this rule. (Picture me slapping the back of my head.) That is why I am writing about it. I have broken this rule more than once, I might add. What dealers are up against is trying to beat a system that is full of landmines--it isn't just the hurdle of traveling to see a piece. The first landmine is determining what a "period" antique is. Chippendale's furniture, for example, has been made again and again from the moment his design book first came out in the 1750's. The reality is that a piece made in 1900, or even later depending on the workshop's adherence to original methods and materials, will hardly differ from one made in 1765. The primary difference is the quality of the materials that were available and the amount of wear one should expect from over 250 years of existence. But just as some people keep looking young, some pieces are remarkably clean. Indeed, Christie's held a seminar a number of years ago about why furniture that has been in Norfolk in East Anglia (the conference was about Houghton House which sold off some of its furniture in the 1990's through Christie's) is exceptionally clean on backboards and chair rails--the explanation Christie's came up with was that Norfolk was agrarian and so didn't have the smokestacks of other areas around Britain and therefore didn't accumulate the same sort of grime that only time can deposit. (Hmmm...,)

Recognizing age is, therefore, difficult, even in person. The telltale parts that reveal age are the areas that are unfinished--those areas that Christie's talked about in their seminar which were not stained or finished and should be more or less untouched over 2-300 years. And yet well-meaning restorers, as well as nefarious characters may have wanted to cover their restorations of perhaps fool people into seeing age (or not seeing newer timber) by covering their work. The Christie's seminar was held to counter the London antique trade's skepticism about some of the Houghton pieces they sold--Christie's was essentially saying that they would back up the pieces that they sold whenever they came back up for sale. That is a powerful guarantee given the market reach of the auction house, but in a way, it still doesn't settle the question about how to determine whether something is old or a later copy? Wood technology can help to determine age--it is amazing what can be done these days and this may be the future for some very valuable pieces, but what about items made with old timber? In the end, not all questions can have a verifiable answer. Indeed, it is amazing how little we know about certain things. (I will touch on this next week.) Experts will disagree more often than you might imagine. This might be why dealers are willing to bid without seeing an item. As long as certain questions are answered, does it matter if all the questions get answered? Unfortunately, this is the kind of question that can keep one up at nights.