An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 194

Clinton Howell Antiques - August 15, 2022 - Issue 194

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

I have attended some memorable auctions over the years. About twenty or so years ago, there was a sale that was advertised in "The Art and Antiques Weekly" (also known as the Bee or the Newtown Bee) that was in New Haven, CT. There weren't any auction houses of note in New Haven at the time and yet the sale was advertised as being the goods of a former President of Stair and Co., the venerable English antique furniture dealer that was located on 57th Street (later on Madison Avenue between 74th and 75th). No one remembered this fellow as everyone believed that Alastair Stair had always run the company. But no, someone said that he had hired someone to be President of Stair and that the man had either purchased items or accepted goods in kind for his work.

A dealer friend of mine was in from San Francisco and we decided to attend the sale. When we arrived, we found out that the auction was being held in a place that was one step up from a three car garage. It was grimy and not well lit, but it was clear to me that there were good things, even great items, in the sale. Furthermore, we were not the only dealers in attendance as virtually all the high end dealers in New York were there. Among them was the irascible and volatile Tom Devenish and the lawyer turned antique dealer, Jim Meers, both of whom had considerable assets for bidding. My friend and I decided to stay and bid on a few things, as that is what we do, even when we don't think we have a chance of winning a bid. Sometimes, people are looking the other way and you never know.

This sale, however, was not one of those sales where anything was missed. Tom and Jim immediately clashed--I don't really remember what they fought over, but the surprise on the auctioneer's face when he realized that he had a winner of a sale was plain to see. He acted almost as if her were drunk with each five figure sale that occurred. He did not understood what he was selling, but he had done an excellent job of getting the word out. One reason why I remember the sale so well is because there was an interesting little mahogany Pembroke table, circa 1785 that I liked. I was bidding on it and it was towards the end of the sale and the auctioneer decided to knock it down to me because, as he said to Jim and loudly enough for everyone else in the audience to hear, "you've bought enough tonight". It was clearly a pity sale to me.

That isn't quite the end to the story, however. I was loading my car when Tom and Jim tried to land a punch on each other. I didn't see  it, but passions ran high in the days when inventory was hard to find. A couple of times when I went to a sale, I would get super tense in the expectation that I was going to have to pay more than I wanted. And I usually did have to pay more, occasionally going way beyond my limit only to underbid something. (Underbidding is a little like looking at the cake and never getting a bite) That Jim and Tom were ready to square off at the auction is understandable, but Tom was also an insult king and he kept needling Jim. (I'm sorry that Jim didn't connect.) I ended up with the Pembroke and a dressing chest which was large and ungainly, but beautiful color, which I sold right away--the Pembroke hung around for years. You never know, even when you think you do.