An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 200

Clinton Howell Antiques - Sept. 26, 2022 - Issue 200

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

I was visiting a friend a couple of weekends ago who is quite curious about the antiques world. She has bought antiques in the past and she has sold many of the things she has purchased. The high end market intrigues her although she will never buy into it--her purchases have largely been accent pieces such as barometers, clocks, woolies (pictures made with yarn) some caddies (if I remember correctly) and other smalls. The high end market is not one she wishes to step into because of the investment, given how poorly many of the items she has sold have done. (That could be another story altogether--the middle market can be the most expensive market to buy into.) Nevertheless, I was at her home on the Cape and a pair of chairs came up for sale in an auction in South Carolina that a dealer friend suggested we bid on.

The chairs had upholstered backs and seats with four carved cabriole legs that terminate in paw feet. It is what the English call a "saloon" chair, meaning that it was a chair that might be used in a saloon, a kind of sitting room, often up against a wall when not in use, but placed around the saloon when in use. They are comfortable chairs and the chairs in the auction appeared to be by the maker, Giles Grendey. Grendey is a well known maker partly because he did a lot of export work and that work was usually labelled. Also, the cabinetmakers that worked in his shop often stamped their own initials into the rails. I didn't see the chairs in person so I don't know if they had these markers, but I felt reasonably confident that the chairs were by Grendey as he has a trademark flourish of a scroll that comes off the top end of the carved knee, almost making the carving on the knee look like a cartouche. 

Identifying the maker of a piece of English antique furniture is of importance, occasionally considerable importance. There is a reference volume for English furniture called, "The Dictionary of English Furniture Makers, 1660-1840", and, at times, one can identify a maker by markers such as the ones that you can find on Grendey chairs. I have come across a few labelled pieces in my time, but the English makers tended not to sign or label their goods. (They did when exporting, however.) In essence, you learn, roughly speaking, the "look" of a maker and then see if the piece you have lines up with other pieces the maker may have made and then search for your piece in old advertisements or books where it might have been used as an illustration or in part of an illustration of some country house. I have identified a number of the items I have sold in that manner as has my researcher (many more than I have ever found by a long shot).

I was reasonably certain that this pair of chairs was by Grendey. I have had pairs of Grendey chairs before, but the ones that I have owned had scroll feet, not paw feet. The paw feet work far better in my opinion as the scrolls can get knocked off--they usually had casters, but people have removed them over the years leaving the scroll foot even more vulnerable. The paw feet do not have that vulnerability. The Grendey chairs I have owned have never been quick sellers, however, so I was reluctant to pay a lot for them. The chairs were estimated at $2-3,000 and my dealer friend asked me for a number to bid to, but I demurred. I decided I didn't want to own them. I showed them to my hostess and asked her how much she would pay for them. She had no idea--there is no reason she would--she turned the question back on me and asked what I would bid if I really wanted them.

The difficulty of answering this question comes down to knowledge. Which house were the chairs from? Who owned them? Are there sets of them anywhere? Were they actually by Giles Grendey or perhaps another well known maker? Answering these questions all lead to greater confidence in bidding and I didn't know the answer to any of them. Feeling nervous, I said $10,000, but I added a caveat that if I had any of that information and it was positive, I would get more aggressive in my bidding. As it happened, the chairs sold for $20,000, not including the buyer's premium of another $4,000, plus, of course, shipping, etc. I presumed that the buyer had enough information to feel confident and, if it was a dealer, all the information that would allow him or her to put a substantial profit on the chairs. My hostess was somewhat stunned at all that I told her. She did say, however, she felt she had a glimpse of how the antiques world operated.