An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 205

Clinton Howell Antiques - October 31, 2022 - Issue 205

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

There are five aspects regarding a piece of furniture that are worth noting--design, color, condition, craftsmanship and history. I am going to explore each aspect for the next five blogs.

The condition of a piece often tells a story of its creation and its existence and will likely predicate whether a piece is worth buying. When I was restoring years ago, a chest of drawers was brought to me that was in terrible shape--veneers lifting, drawers not fitting, a splits in the top and sides--it was a mess. When I looked at why the piece was in terrible shape, it was clear that the manufacture was second rate. The veneers were lifting because the cabinetmaker had used knotty pine as the core timber and it wasn't properly dried before it was veneered--hence the splits on the top and the sides. These facts told me that I was looking at a piece of late 18th century furniture that was probably made by someone "on spec", with the hopes that flaws of the construction wouldn't show. 

Condition can also dictate how well a piece has been looked after. This also matters as all sorts of things can happen to a piece. For example, wood never stops "breathing", absorbing and expelling moisture causing expansion and contraction from one season to the next. There are proper restorations for these issues, a few of which are complex, but unfortunately, more drastic solutions are often taken which alter the look of a piece. Finish issues can also be drastically resolved through stripping and sanding. Indeed, poor restoration is a major problem for the continued life of a piece of furniture. Again, a really well made item made with dried timber will suffer less with fewer consequences from the ever moving wood. Breakage is inevitable as well and proper repairs make a world of difference. Something that is properly repaired with the right materials looks better and is treated better by its owners and with time become a recognized part of a piece that has been valued. How we value old furniture matters a great deal.

Condition, in other words, is a marker that needs to be understood. Some things were poorly made and are, essentially, no hopers. Some will be poorly looked after and suffer drastically and some will not suffer terribly. Years ago, I bought a tripod table at Sotheby's that had been stripped with a lye based stripper that turned the color of the mahogany purple. Mahogany reacts chemically to lye in this fashion, but the stripper did not know how to counteract the purple and went ahead and polished the table top--it looked ghastly. I bought it because I knew it was a good table, stripped the finish and counteracted the purple. That table has sold for considerable sums in the two times I have seen it since in dealer inventories. The piece was fundamentally sound, although one wonders what it looked like prior to the original stripping. It is possible to save pieces from horrendous restoration, but one wonders what was lost (color!!!). Condition matters, in other words, but furniture can also be rescued--at least some of the time.