An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 191

Clinton Howell Antiques - July 25, 2022 - Issue 191

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The summer sales held at Christie's and Sotheby's in London used to be the highlight of the season for English furniture and I made a habit of attending those sales in the 1980's and 90's. Now, they are a mere shadow of their former selves as the values of (most) English furniture has dropped and the sales are now called "the Exceptional Sales", a term that suggests that there are great items in the overall panoply of the English decorative arts, just not that many. I would suggest that this is not quite accurate. To begin with, the supply of goods is vastly diminished--some good items come up now and then, but not that many. And importantly, there has been a diminishment of a knowledgable clientele and I would point the finger for this at the larger auction houses who did little to encourage the marketplace when the going was good. It is a little like planting corn in the same field again and again without fertilizing--sooner or later, the possibility of growth dies and the land is barren. There are other reasons, of course, but to think that you buy exceptional items only at auction, and this is intimated by both Sotheby's and Christie's, is a load of hogwash. 

Connoisseurship, a most important part of any high end market, needs to be taught--it is currently at a low ebb. Dealers try to teach and virtually every dealer I know that is worth his or her salt works to explain what it is they are selling and why they are charging the price they have on the piece. There are so many caveats when buying, however, that it can be both confusing and self defeating (for the dealer) to try and explain why a piece is good, better or best, to borrow from the title of Albert Sack's book from the 1950's about American furniture. If we liken the dealer's job to being the analyst at a tennis match or any competitive sport, a good analyst will tell you why and what in a way that the buyer will understand. This process should be enjoyable for the buyer although not every buyer fits with every dealer--personalities clash--but if you have someone who knows what they are talking about, it is worth paying a premium for their knowledge.

An interest in the decorative arts is very different from just about any other collecting category. Stamps, coins, paintings, for example, do not get used. Yes, you hang a painting and look at it every day, but furniture, silver and porcelain get used. Things happen to it--breaking, cracking, denting, re-upholstering--and they inevitably affect the value of it. What does this mean exactly? It means that you may an item for X and that when you go to sell it, you might get 1/2 X or even less. (You could also get more, but that story is not that believable these days although it certainly does happen.) You have, however, been able to use those items and live with them and, if you have made the effort towards knowing the reasons why it was made and why it looks like it does now, you have had the chance to get into the reverie that old things can excite in all of us. I re-visit the Assyrian gates in the British Museum all the time just to have the pleasure of having my mouth fall open at seeing such extraordinary sculptures. I can get the same from furniture and a lot of other old things for that matter--it really isn't hard. 

Just a word to say that I am doing the Newport Antiques Show in Newport, RI which is a weekend show running this weekend, July 30-31 (Saturday and Sunday) with a gala opening on Friday night. I hope you can come and see it. And Newport is amazing in a lot of ways.