An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 195

Clinton Howell Antiques - August 22, 2022 - Issue 195

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

There doesn't need to be fisticuffs (see last week's blog) for an auction to be memorable. And it is seldom the top lot in a sale that is the most memorable. My focus as a dealer is to look for interesting and unusual items that may have been overlooked or undervalued or, given the moment, buying something that somehow other dealers don't believe in. It would be very convenient if all a dealer had to do was to buy the best lot in a sale and then put it up for sale in their own gallery. That might have been possible in the 1990's, but those days are long over. Furthermore, auction houses work to please their best clientele and urge them to bid on the best things because, well, they are the best things. Competition for the best things can be very fierce and asset depleting. Dealers do buy high priced lots if they see greater value in them, but most dealers look beyond the top lots.

An interesting side bar to this is, who chooses the top lot in a sale--is this determined by the auction house expert? It has always amused me that auction house personnel are referred to as antique furniture experts. I have a hard time calling myself an expert simply because there is always more to learn. Auction house personnel are usually people thrust into the field through their employ. Some of these people grow to love the subject, take to it and garner expertise and become well respected. Some do not and it is always awkward talking to these people as they learn the vocabulary, but don't have the desire. This is not why I am amused by the appellation expert--what amuses me is what aspect they may be expert in? They are, for example, part of a marketing machinery that gives them credibility without question, but can a 35 year old expert say this is the "best I've ever seen"? The question begs to be asked, what have you seen?

Expertise also has numerous facets. For example, there is marketing expertise and the top auction houses are superb in this field. And in their most lucrative fields, they pay, I suspect, good money to have legitimate, well known experts. English furniture is no longer in that stratosphere, it is more of an afterthought, a rounding error on the bottom line of annual sales. What else does an expert need to know? Recognition of restoration and understanding the impact that restoration has on the value of the piece is, for example, very important. Knowing the singularity of an item is also important--is the color, the provenance, the scale or the carving particularly rare and good? This is the crux of all expertise in the field of antique furniture and if an "expert" doesn't have the knowledge that comes from the handling of great items, then that expertise is compromised. 

Most auctions almost always have more than a few good items in a sale. Dealers look for these pieces in the hopes that the private clientele or other dealers will have missed them. For example, about thirty-five years ago, Christie's had single chairs every once in a while and almost always towards the end of a sale. I remember buying a wonderful Paul Saunders side chair similar to the dining chairs at Holkham Hall in Norfolk that was the last lot in the sale and which no one paid any attention to because the sale was essentially over and everyone wanted to go home. I bought that chair for $1,100 (commission included) and used it as my desk chair until a British dealer saw it and eventually agreed to pay me $12,000 for it. (Ah, the olden, golden days!) The same thing happened with a Chippendale lyre back dining chair although I paid a good deal more for it--that, too, went to a British dealer though not with the same magnitude of profit. And profits are memorable, I can assure you.