An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 179

Clinton Howell Antiques - May 2, 2022 - Issue 179

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The first bona fide antique that I purchased was a butler's tray on an x-frame stand that, as far as I could tell, retained the original leather straps straps that held the x-frame--the stand that creates the "table" on which the tray could sit. These tables were among the labor saving devices, I use that term broadly, designed to help household staff in their everyday duties. The butler's tray could be loaded down and the butler could hook the x-frame over his arm and when he got to where he was going, he could set the x-frame up with one hand, provided the tray wasn't overloaded, and create a serving area. There were lots of iterations of the tray--that one had a brass releases that allowed you to fold down one end of the tray, I'm not certain why unless it was designed so that the butler could let down the side and allow people to take cups and saucers without having to awkwardly lift them up and out over the sides. This particular tray was made with a beautiful piece of mahogany and I knew enough not to touch it. I bought it in Hurlingham, London, for seven pounds and then drove it to a shop on the King's Rd. and sold it for fifteen. Profits were measured differently in the early 1970's, but I was also very new to the business. If I had bothered to remember the $100 my brother's best man and the grooms put in to buy a brand new butler's tray/coffee table in 1969 (I think we totaled eight so that was $800) I might have realized why the antiques market was so attractive. I should have had that in mind and held out for twenty quid.

Profits in our business often seem usurious. If all you have to do is go onto an auction site and bid, pick up the piece and then sell it, why should a dealer be asking anywhere from twice as much from that winning bid to fifty or even a hundred times as much? This is a great question. If all I had to do was buy stock low and sell high, then I would be both smarter and richer. Clearly, there are hurdles in the buying and selling business of antiques. The purchase of that butler's tray is an ideal sale--essentially I bought it and half an hour later, I sold it. It graced my back seat briefly, hardly a costly storage fee, and I made eight pounds at a time when my soon to be brother-in-law was making five pounds per week as a lawyer in training. Would that all transactions were so straightforward.

The problem, of course, is that what I did is the rarest of transactions. It has happened since, but not that many times. The process these days includes insurance, transportation--usually multiple trips, restoration, trips to the restorer to see how an item is coming along, photography, lots of computer work to enter the item formally onto a website, negotiations with potential buyers, sales tax (or not) and finally, shipping. I have not mentioned research nor have I mentioned the sales pitch which is based on years and years of experience looking at vast volumes of furniture in museums, country houses and, of course, auctions. How much does this add to the ultimate price? That is a good question as sometimes, it is not too much, and sometimes it is crushingly expensive. (For example, upholstered furniture requires new upholstery and usually quite good material, but as you can't examine the rails under the upholstery, be prepared for surprises.) And the really big profits, the fifty to a hundred times cost? That's a fantasy we all have which keeps us looking. Hen's teeth are far more common.