An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 210

Clinton Howell Antiques - Dec. 5, 2022 - Issue 210

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The Art and Antique Dealers League of America (AADLA) and the National Antique and Art Dealers Association of America (NAADAA) are having their third "12 Days of Christmas Show" running on InCollect from Dec. 5-16. (Starting today!) It is a "scroll" show in that 30 dealers will show one item per day that you can scroll through at the pace you are comfortable with--we don't harvest people's emails who visit the site and each item has a basic description with the dealer's telephone and email so that, should you be interested, you can contact the dealer directly. Some of us list prices, some of us do not. It is quick and easy and the participants are top level dealers in their fields which include silver, Russian items, porcelain, furniture, objets d'art, paintings and more. It is actually good fun to see what people post. Please take a look--I believe a new scroll will be added at 8AM every day of the show.

The most difficult part of being a dealer is determining value. Value in a fluctuating market requires connoisseurship. If the person trying to assess value does not grasp the concept of provenance, color or condition, then you might be seen as a snake oil salesman. There is one thing that people do tend to understand, however, which is rarity. Rarity is among the more interesting, and often misleading, sales pitches that you can come across. Similar pitches such as, "buy now before they run out", or, "this is a one time offer" are not talking about the product and yet they are standard fare today (mostly on the internet) as virtually every clothing store in existence is having a blow out sale at least once a month. The word rarity needs to be used sparingly--it has value but only when it is put into the proper context.

To begin with, every object is unique in some way or another. This may make something rare in one sense, but not in another. For example, the kingwood table I wrote about in the last two blogs was extremely rare. But the kingwood Pembroke table on my website (see here) is not that rare. I have owned kingwood veneered furniture before and it is somewhat rare, but the forms usually are quite typical--to wit, my Pembroke. I have several other items on my site which are rare, but the context is everything as one, a writing table, is very rare, unique even, in form and decoration, and the other, a metamorphic table, is rare in decoration AND that it was likely made en suite with that writing table. Without the writing table, the rarity of the metamorphic table, despite the unusual moldings and handles, is less obvious. Suites of furniture are also not that common in English furniture. (If I could add a provenance of someone like Beckford to the writing table, the price would be substantially higher.)

The elusive quality of rarity is, I suspect, just as difficult in other fields than furniture, whether silver, jewelry, porcelain or even paintings when the artist did more than one painting of the same subject. (As, for example, Cezanne's endless paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire.) It is better to err on the side of caution and yet the subjective assessments one can make--color and condition--are more open to being labelled as rare since, quite obviously, it is an opinion and not fact. And if the dealer has great knowledge and expresses this opinion, it is very likely that the dealer is talking truthfully and that it is worthwhile to take notice. Of course, a sales pitch is always a sales pitch, but the fact is that some sales pitchers are more constrained and hew to accumulated knowledge--that is what a buyer should be looking for in a seller.

All of the trademark buzz words that can apply to the sales pitch of a piece of furniture fall by the wayside, however, if the aesthetics of an object just absorb your focus. This is pure joy in my opinion. The feeling is sublime--I once sold a parcel gilt mirror to a client in Pennsylvania who, the moment she saw it, knew it was perfect for the spot she intended to hang it. She brought her husband to see it, it was quite expensive, and she told me that even he had to agree that it would set their entry hall off better than anything else she had tried. She was not an easy customer, negotiations went on for a month or so, but she was effusive about how it looked and it made the experience worthwhile--for both of us. That is what this business is all about.