An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 199

Clinton Howell Antiques - September 19, 2022 - Issue 199

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

Before English furniture hit the boom of the 1980's and 90's, decorators used furniture as an accent to a life style. Whether the choice was English, French, Biedermeier (check out Vizcaya south of Miami) Italian Renaissance, old oak from just about anywhere or American furniture, the goal was to have it, know just enough about it to talk about it knowingly, and to basically ignore it as it was just furnishings. The car one drove was more of a status symbol, the town you lived in or the street you lived on were considerably more important than simple furnishings. Even the material one used to cover sofas and chairs or the carpeting had more cachet. The world of money didn't really notice whether you sat in a mahogany or a walnut chair or if it had a carved or straight leg. Of course, there were collectors and they most definitely cared about what they bought, but collectors were often seen as obsessive, a rich man's fancy.

All of this is understandable although sometimes you need to remind yourself just how potent the concept of owning something unique has affected the world. Marco Polo's trip to China can be seen as one of discovery or it can be seen as a shopping trip--both descriptions apply. The concept of collecting is, essentially, both intellectual and tactile oriented. The intellectual part is the collector making the effort to understand an item to its utmost degree. You may be scornful of collecting in general--just stuff, someone might say--but the knowledge that it takes to put together a collection is often quite stupendous. I can attest to this after a recent visit to the Munson Williams Proctor Museum in Utica, NY, which has an exceptional collection of modern art that I visited several weeks ago. The curator who put the collection together, knew things in the 1950's that many are still figuring out in the 2020's.

It always surprises me when I walk the streets of New York to see the items being thrown out. I understand the riddance urge--I am getting older and I would love to get rid of a lot of things, but I would also like to place those things so that they aren't just discarded. A dealer friend in London, long deceased, found a cabinet made by Thomas Chippendale in a dumpster in Chelsea in the 1960's. It is a very famous chinoiserie cabinet that Mallett, the great English dealers, sold for, I am told, a sensational sum--well into the six figures--in the 1960's. That was London, this is New York, but the same applies. I see period furniture being thrown out every now and then, usually because of a broken leg--unfortunately, nothing that I have really wanted, but it still upsets me. Another dealer friend of mine saw a suite of late 18th century French furniture in a dumpster (in NY) called a mover, sent it straight to an auction house where it made several thousand dollars--his costs were $60.

It is extremely difficult to understand the value of things, particularly if there is no buzz about them. Almost every enormous sum paid in auction, mainly at the larger sale rooms where they have good expertise, will have at least one item that was underrated. Of course nothing is worth anything at auction until there is a bidder and it won't be a significant price unless there are two bidders. Value, and almost everything has a value, therefore is enigmatic. That makes it difficult to know if you should throw out grandma's sofa that has been sitting in a barn or garage, or whether to find where its value is recognized--and by value in this case, I don't necessarily mean monetary, but historical--this is the dimension that I enjoy as much as monetary value. Some things just sing their value some things barely whisper it. I think one should always check out that whisper, just in case.