An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 198

Clinton Howell Antiques - September 12, 2022 - Issue 198

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The great mixer upper, market-wise, in the story of English furniture world over the last forty years has been the auction world. I am not putting a value on that sentence, meaning that it isn't necessarily good or bad what auctions have caused, but they have definitely had an outsized influence on trends both upwards and down. The boom and bust of the English furniture business in the time that I have been in it has definitely made the business side more difficult and so dealers are never happy with the influence that auctions can have--unless it is a slow and steady rise in the value of the market--an impossibility in fact. Buyers come into the market who only buy at auction--and there is a cadre of them--and they can briefly affect this niche market quite dramatically, particularly if they clash with each other. For dealers, it is hard to know what is or isn't a temporary bump, something we have more or less started to accept, or a solid rise in the market. 

Part of what I am talking about is in reading auction results too closely. The two things most difficult to determine about a piece of furniture in auction, if you are using the catalogue photograph as your guide, are quality and condition. I don't know why it is, but auction houses seem reluctant to show the undersides or backs of items--you usually have to ask for them. This is where the major sale rooms can shine, because they have the personnel to examine and post great photos--the problem is that the job is usually given to an intern who doesn't quite know what to shoot--you'd be amazed at some of the photos I have received that bear no relevance to anything--a brass knob, for example, or pictures of each caster. The point being that someone who can't get a feel for quality or condition won't bid, even if the piece of furniture is absolutely wonderful. The opposite can happen as well, particularly with unexperienced bidders and a few rash dealers. 

The lack of consistency of all auction sales of English furniture--dealer sale prices are an unknown save through large sites such as 1stDibs and they keep that information to themselves--give the market the appearance of total inconsistency. I think this is, for the most part, a good thing. I really don't want to see the market go crazy the way it did in the 80's and 90's. I also think it is, for the most part, a good thing that dealers set the base value of items that are up for sale at auction--at least on the items that are proper antiques. Cash flow and inventory will determine the strength of that dealer bidding and it is an indication of how healthy the market is. Of course, a big sale of high end English furniture at Sotheby's or Christie's could change all that in a heartbeat. That kind of boost to the market is rather like a drinking binge that lasts for a couple of months--momentary highs with solid hangovers.