An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 211

Clinton Howell Antiques - Dec. 12, 2022 - Issue 211

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The "12 Days of Christmas Show" is still on and if you haven't looked at it yet, please follow the link herewith.

The movement of art, antiquities and antiques is a time worn activity. Mankind has coveted and stolen, bought and traded for items around the globe for as long as civilization has existed. As I stated in one of my blogs, Marco Polo was, in essence, on a shopping trip when he travelled the silk road to China. Up until recently, sometime in the last forty to fifty years, a vast swath of this movement of goods was largely ignored. Melina Mercouri's demand for the return of the Elgin Marbles in the 1960's was initially seen as rhetorical bluster, not as a meaningful effort to get the marbles returned, although she was dead serious. However, out of little acorns do big trees grow and I might suggest that at some point, an agreement will be hammered out that sees the return of the marbles to Greece. That is the political reality and the art world always finds itself at the mercy of the political world.

I disagree with most of the political machinations designed to curb the art world and so I am pleased that English furniture remains largely unscathed from being traded, save for the foofaraw connecting antique ivory with elephant extinction (a red herring of the first order) and the occasional requirement of an export license (unless you're buying in Italy where export licenses tend to be the rule for everything). Hence, the finding of rare items from the annals of British furniture history are more than possible in the United States or any other place where British furniture was admired and/or purchased for export. Ergo the table I wrote about several blogs ago that ended up in St. Louis. Because the United States is (still) considered one of the better hunting grounds for British decorative arts, I have often encountered British dealers roaming the airports of America, desperate to find the next Chippendale masterpiece that some dealer or auction house has unwittingly mis-described.

These dealer nomads, pickers in fact, have diminished in number. Covid, of course, is one reason, but another reason is the improvement of the internet which has made dealers far less likely from hopping onto an airplane. Auction houses have realized that a raft of photos will make some dealers feel comfortable enough with vetting goods electronically and so a great many pickers have since chosen to stay home and buy from the internet. That, of course, is still a form of speculation as it is without physical examination and so the trade is treading lightly in buying blind--it is a tricky proposition not unlike buying on gut instinct--sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. And sometimes you win and then find out how much something costs to ship and you realize that shipping, along with restoration, has become a primary cost factor. In any case, the diminution of trading means that there is more British furniture staying in the United States than there was twenty years ago and potentially more pieces of Chippendale (et al) furniture to unearth. Unless and until, of course, politics intervenes.