An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 185

Clinton Howell Antiques - June 13, 2022 - Issue 185

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

There have been a couple of stories in the news recently about animals attacking humans. One comes out of Yellowstone where a woman was gored by a bison. Apparently the bison, particularly during mating season, gets rather grumpy if and when you intrude on its territory. The other story comes out of Florida about a man's body showing up in a lake near a disc/golf course where he was apparently searching for lost discs in a lake that was by the course. The lake, like most lakes in Florida, was rather shallow and he could, apparently, walk around and feel the discs with his feet which he then sold back to people playing the course. If it sounds like an Elmore Leonard novel, it most definitely is--who would dare to intrude on an alligator's territory in bare feet, as it happens, during mating season? Hang gliding with only half a lesson is a form of ignorance (see last week's blog) but tempting fate as this fellow did is beyond that.

The sense of territory is not restricted to wild animals. Human beings have it as well, whether you are talking about crime syndicates or grocery distributors or, for that matter, antique dealers. The nature of "territory" is more amorphous in the antiques world and is manifested more subtly. A great example of this is the chain of events that led to the once popular International Show (that show was eventually swallowed up into TEFAF) begun in NYC in the mid to late 1980's by the antiques association, NAADAA (National Antique and Art Dealers Association of America) and Brian and Anna  Houghton. For years, the British antiques trade wanted to penetrate the New York market and this show allowed them to do so as they had been effectively barred from the Winter Antiques Show. And to demonstrate their care for that market, they brought with them the concept known as "vetting", meaning that every single object on offer on every stand, would be looked at for show worthiness and authenticity.

The principal of vetting is excellent--I am all for it. You want your customers to feel assured in knowing that what they might want to purchase is genuine. No dealer has a problem with the premise of vetting, but vetting is done by humans and that means that it is always going to be less than perfect. Why? Specifically, every group, or pack of people, responds to the alpha in the group--the psychology of it is fairly simple. It doesn't mean that anyone else in the group is less important, intelligent, knowledgable or talented, it means that there is someone who will take the lead. If the leader in a vetting committee is fair minded and knowledgable, you have the best of all possible worlds. From my perspective, that means a proper description of an item--an acknowledgement by the dealer/owner being vetted of the flaws of the piece. Pretty simple concept, but it becomes complex when a vetter invokes opinion as rationale. I know this because of a piece that was vetted off my booth for not being of the period (1775-85) at the very first International Show (here). If you follow the link, you will see that the commode was part of a very famous collection begun in the 19th century (Leopold Hirsch) and sold in the 1930"s and yes, that is my commode on the pages of Country Life which reviewed the sale in 1934. And to throw the cat among the pigeons, it is described as French. The point is that opinion changes, knowledge is reassessed and what was once seen as a fact is no longer factual. 

The vagaries of vetting, mistakes notwithstanding, do not outweigh the principal of vetting. It is highly important to vet, but it should also be acknowledged that vetting is not a final say so about any item. Does this contradict the value of vetting--not in my opinion, but vetting should be done to protect both the buyer and the seller. There are too many stories of inaccurate vetting for this not to be the case. And, while I am at it, the re-labelling of items to include terms like "re-gilded" or "refreshed" (to do with painted surfaces) should be abandoned. In truth, you might just as well say re-polished if you are going to say re-gilded. (There is no such thing as original gilding--just dry stripped surfaces and they are not original.) I think what I am getting at here is that perfection is not part of our world when it comes to knowing all there is to know. Anomalies are neither the rule or the exception, but they should not be cause for rejection, particularly if they stem from opinion which may, in fact stem from the desire to protect one's turf. We are all animals in the end.