An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 196

Clinton Howell Antiques - August 29, 2022 - Issue 196

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The characters I have met in this business have been many and varied. I have met dealers who really aren't dealers, just gifted salespeople, usually with great charm and often with an English accent. I have also met dealers who find it hard to ask for a profit, though of course they have to. But among the most interesting characters are pickers, those people who don't want a gallery but who have good knowledge and try to leverage that knowledge in selling to dealers mostly, but not always. Picking in the U.S, is slightly different from picking in England, although with the diminishment of shops in London, picking in London has also changed dramatically in the last twenty years. But, back in the 1980's and 90's, picking in the U.K. was a time honored business as clever pickers knew which dealers to borrow an item from and who to try to sell that item to--a skill that is nonpareil at its finest and which, every once in a while, leads to a substantial profit. 

I had a client in the 1990's that was interested in purchasing a specimen marble top center table which is a table that usually has a wooden tripod or platform base that can support an Italian specimen top that was likely made to order for someone on the Grand Tour. The earliest specimen top table I know of in the UK dates circa 1640, but that table is a rarity and would command a huge sum on the market at any time. The most common specimen top center tables date from 1790 onwards and yet they are not as common as you might expect. (There is one on my website, however, herewith.) On a trip to London, I set out to find such a table. As it happened, I learned about one in a shop on the Fulham Rd. I went there only to find that a picker had taken it to sell that very day. I found out who the picker was and then found out that he'd sold the table for a 10,000 GBP profit. It took me a while, but I found out who bought the table and this dealer had flipped it to another dealer for a 25,000 GBP profit. He, too, sold the table to another dealer and when I found that dealer, the table was outside of the range of my client' s budget. This all happened within a span of three or four days. Several pickers did very well in that progression.

One of the better American pickers I knew was not American, but from Europe. He'd worked for Phillips Auction House in London and come to New York to work for Christie's. He did not flip items the way pickers in London did--the trade in New York City has never been as robust a presence as in London, but prices were high in New York, just as they were in London, and the British trade came to New York to buy items that their clients in London would know little to nothing about, even if they subscribed to most of the major auction house catalogues. This picker found pieces in shops around New York and put them into Sotheby's sales where they made very big prices. He made a substantial amount of money, many hundreds of thousands, because he knew his trade extremely well and understood the fact that, in the U.S., few dealers went to visit other dealers and some galleries they wouldn't enter at all. (That is another story altogether.) I worked with this picker very early on in my career and I remain hugely respectful of the way he leveraged his knowledge.

Another great American picker I knew operated in the Boston area in the 1960's through the 90's. His knowledge of English furniture was reasonably good, although his focus was more on American furniture, but he saw that in the 1970's and 80's, there were very few people buying English furniture at sales in and around the New England area. He started buying English furniture and, instead of offering it to American English furniture dealers, he offered it to dealers in England, often doing half shares which yielded substantial margins he could not dream of getting in the U.S. This picker knew, as has the subsequent waves of English dealers who have come to the U.S. to buy, that the chance of finding something really great that has been overlooked or undervalued, is much higher in the U.S., simply because there are fewer people with good knowledge looking for English furniture here. But Covid has changed that dynamic and the English trade are making far fewer trips, and I can assure you that the odds of finding something rare and unusual now, whether in shops or auctions, have appreciated considerably. Then again, you need to know what you are looking at.