An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 197

Clinton Howell Antiques - September 5, 2022 - Issue 197

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

Flying to and from the UK in the 1970's, 80's and 90's was always an adventure (in getting the cheapest ticket) as jet travel had become quite competitive. The variety of ticket deals that came and went are almost unbelievable in retrospect. My first flight to London was on an open ticket that was good for just one year. I think that ticket cost $100 and it was on Pan Am, an airline I loved because it felt like it was run by sensible people who enjoyed traveling and wanted to make travel available to everyone. I don't know if that was the case, it is pure conjecture on my part, but I definitely would fly Pan Am when I could. And, I might add, that first ticket was absolutely terrific as I used it as it was meant to be used, returning to the U.S. 364 days after first getting to England. Of course, I turned right around and went back to the UK and then started attending the London College of Furniture in the fall of 1972. I also left via Pan Am in early September, 1976 with Pan Am kindly carrying a Thonet bentwood rocker (not a small item)  and two chairs that I'd made at  furniture college, in the hold for no charge. Not only that, but they held onto them at the airport for a night while I went to get a car big enough to carry them back to my parent's house. Times have most certainly changed.

The era of relatively inexpensive flying changed the antiques trade--something that started slowly and then opened out in a way that changed the American market in ways that would have been undreamt of in the 1950's. Traditionally, after the Second World War, American dealers of English decorative arts, not just furniture of course, would fly over to England, have a buying trip which could last up to a month depending on how successful the dealer was, and then rent a container or, if you were Alastair Stair, several containers, and bring everything back, often on the boat you might be sailing on. Not only mainstream dealers did this, but decorators and designers also participated in this kind of buying--it was elegant and laid back and, prior to the jet age, a lot less disturbing to sleep rhythms to travel by sea with your goods.

The reality, however, is that no American based dealer had to travel to the UK to buy antique furniture unless you were buying at a very high level. In that case, you might visit the top London dealers for furniture with solid provenances, but if you wanted to buy for less, you bought in the U.S. The quantity of English furniture already in the U.S. was substantial and it often turned up in the oddest of places--sales that no one really paid much attention to--that is until the 1970's. The picker I referred to last week that worked in the Boston area was one of the first to crow about how good the buying was for English furniture in New England. The flood of English dealers that understood this and started coming to the U.S. to buy in the early 1970's has only been halted by Covid--fifty years on. No sale was too small to go to and it wasn't just New England that the English and Irish trade scoured but you could find dealers across the U.S, from Texas to Washington State, from southern California to Florida and everywhere in-between. 

Was it the jet age that caused this to happen? Given that the market was rising and it was worth the travel, yes, the jet age had people flying at the drop of a hat for eight to ten hours in order to see just one item that they might have seen a thumbnail sized photo of in a trade magazine. (I did this once and purchased a really wonderful bureau bookcase in the process.) Other factors have played a part in this re-shaping of the English furniture business which is the inherent desire on the part of every dealer to have something in their inventory that no one has seen before. Even if you have to go to Tasmania (I've been and one of the dealers to visit there is Warwick Oakman who has good knowledge and turns up interesting items) it is great not to be seen buying at a local auction and then asking for a profit that everyone who attended that auction can figure out. Better to hop on the plane and see what the world has to offer rather than be predictable.