An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 209

Clinton Howell Antiques - November 28, 2022 - Issue 209

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

Why was our table worth a huge amount of money? If it was simply a rarity, I would charge more for rarer items. It isn't just about rarity, nor is it about an item having the best of every aspect, although one aspect, provenance, can be of huge importance. I remember back in the 90's when Sotheby's offered a stand up writing desk dating circa 1720 that was in poor condition--the top was scarred and and covered in ink and other kinds of stains. It did have nice color, but it also had a plaque that attributed it to having belonged to Richard Steele, a founder or co-founder of numerous publications including, "The Spectator", "Tatler" and "The Guardian". Without the plaque, it might have made under $5,000, but with it, I seem to remember it sold for between $30-40,000. The value was in the provenance, in other words.

The solid kingwood table that we bought in St. Louis clearly had a significant provenance that I knew nothing about. The table itself was a stylistic hodgepodge which should have offered a kind of clue to me. I just never picked up on it. Instinct purchases almost always relate to something we intrinsically know even though you can't necessarily figure out what that thing is. In my case, it was the timber that clued me in, but what I should have done is gone to my library and looked for similar examples of the table. Ultimately, on reading through a short book that I had on William Beckford, well after having sold the table, I saw the exact table, made of oak, in a photograph. How did I miss it and how can there have been the identical table made in oak?

Most cabinetmakers that are asked to make something from an expensive material will make a model first. Whether it is true to scale or smaller is a function of the client's wishes. It is highly likely that the maker of the kingwood table made the oak table to get approval of his work before working with the kingwood. The kingwood version would be the piece de resistance, of course. At least, this is what I suspect must have happened. That it ended up in St. Louis is another story. It is true that Americans have been buying European art (and Middle and Far Eastern art) and decorative arts from the 1850's and so America is seen as a potential treasure trove to the European trade who have been coming to buy items back for at least one hundred years. (Which the Chinese are doing now.) I suspect the kingwood table had been in St. Louis for quite some time.

The value of the kingwood table, as I said, is in the provenance. So why is something that was made for William Beckford so valuable? Beckford's biography is interesting and Bard College did an exhibition and published a book on him (see here) that explains his influence on the collectors of both art and the decorative arts. One of those collectors influenced by Beckford was Sir Richard Wallace (there are loads of others including J.P. Morgan and the late Gene Thaw) and after a recent visit I made to the Wallace Collection in Manchester Square in London, it was clear that Beckford is the paradigm that true collectors emulated. Furthermore, he continues to be a revered figure in the collecting world. Thus, if you are a collector in today's world who admired and wished to emulate this man for his exceptional taste, owning his table would be a coup de grace--a very important coup de grace I might add. In other words, gut instincts are fine, but you always need to look a little further.