An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 208

Clinton Howell Antiques - November 21, 2022 - Issue 208

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The stories dealers tell about past inventory which they could have/should have made a fortune on are standard fare in the trade. We are imperfect in our knowledge when we enter the trade, this is where second and third generation dealers have a real advantage, and the learning curve can be very steep at times, particularly when the item you have purchased was a "gut instinct" kind of purchase. Yes, I have done that and I have both won and lost on such purchases, but financially, they have been far more successful than not. When you buy on gut instinct, you have two choices--one is to flip the piece for a short profit and the second is to hold on to it and try to figure out just what it is you have committed to buying. There are several other variables to consider before you take either step, however.

The variables, of course, are what makes dealing a horse race. Do you want to own something that is signed and dated, but which might not be well made? Does lack of, or poor, color really make a difference on every piece of furniture? And does scale matter? These questions all factor into calculations about value and can throw you for a loop. But sometimes you can find yourself buying something you normally would walk right by.

I once purchased, in partnership with another dealer, an eight to ten foot long table that was stylistically very odd--it had sort of a moorish feel to it--not really that interesting to me and yet I saw that it was made from solid kingwood. Kingwood is a type of rosewood (Dalbergia) that comes from South America and you often see it sliced into veneers--sometimes across the grain to create "oysters" (this is a generic description for the way a veneer that is cut across the grain looks like) and sometimes with the grain to be used as inlay. (I have a kingwood veneered Pembroke table on my site--see here.)

The use of solid kingwood is virtually unheard of outside of turned or lathe made objects for a variety of reasons. It is extremely dense and heavy and it grows to a maximum diameter of about 15"-16", a couple of inches which are usually white sapwood. Despite the interesting alternating streaks of black and brown and sapwood, the wood comes across as chocolate brown in tone when finished--not the most beautiful tone to make something from although, like all woods, it can develop a patina. But there would have been no patina when it was made--what you would have is an extremely heavy chocolate brown table that is kind of lumpish. I might add that craftsmen don't mind working with hard dense timbers, but they require more effort than the slightly softer timbers of mahogany, walnut or even oak, at least in comparison to kingwood. Solid kingwood, in other words, is an unusual, and quite expensive, cabinetmaking choice.

We purchased this table at a sale in St. Louis in June of 1991. It cost around $3,000. I flew to St. Louis to view the sale and I bought a couple of items, the table being the furthest from my comfort zone because it was so odd--but the fact that it was solid kingwood stuck with me and so I was quite committed to buying it, as was the other dealer. We won the bid and it was about two months before we got the table to New York. I received a call in mid-August from my partner on the table saying it had arrived and that a picker had seen it being unloaded and was offering us $35,000. We sold it and over the next year I heard that the picker had re-sold the table for over $100,000 and that the dealer who bought it sold it for nearly one million dollars. Why should a table be so valuable? I'll try to explain why next week.