An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 214

Clinton Howell Antiques - January 2, 2023- Issue 214

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

I would like to offer tickets to The Winter Show (Jan. 20-29, 2023) which I will be happy to mail to you, or which can be picked up at the show (the "will call" desk) when you come. If you would like them mailed to you, please supply me with your address. Otherwise, I will leave them in an envelope with willcall. I have a bunch of things that no one has seen before and as I write this, I am praying that my restorers get everything finished on time. In particular, I have a really good 1730's mirror with an antique plate--Greek key, shell and dart--no pediment, but a lovely item. Also a great mahogany bench dating around 1850 with great color, a very good tripod table with gallery and a rare occasional table that is Irish with four modified cabriole legs terminating with ball and claw feet--all with good color. There are more new items, but better to just come and see.

The New Year is likely to be as enigmatic as the old year from the point of view of the business of buying and selling antiques. By that, I know I will hear riffs about brown furniture--how it is dead as a smelt, how it is coming back, how it doesn't work for the coming generations--theories abound and none are entirely on point. For people in the business, it continues to be as exciting a world as it always has been, handling items of such quality and materials that cannot be reproduced. There is so much in a great antique, the foremost of which are the aesthetics of a great piece of furniture, but which includes an appreciation for the age as well as the patina and lastly for why and when a piece was made. For me, these are the powerful incentives for living with furniture that offers both warmth and intellectual engagement. It wasn't always that way for me, however.

I remember very well visiting the Furniture Cave on the King's Road when I lived in London in the 1970's. The Furniture Cave was the place where pickers would sell, usually as a last resort, items that they could not offload to dealers around London. You have to imagine what London was like back in that time. There was a significant number of shops in London and they, as a rule, could be found congregated in various areas. Camden Market was one as was Westbourne Grove and Portobello (they intersect), Mayfair, Kensington Church Street, Pimlico, the Fulham Road, Mayfair and Knightsbridge, the lower King's Road and some I likely never knew about. So if someone was not able to sell to any of the dealers in the aforementioned areas, they would often find themselves selling to the Furniture Cave. What is interesting, however, is that pickers would buy outside of their comfort zones partly out of necessity, because they couldn't find what they usually sold, and partly to expand their knowledge. Therefore, someone used to selling mid-Georgian furniture might not be able to sell a fine piece of Regency furniture. It might then end up at the Cave.

I went to the Furniture Cave when I knew very little about any furniture. One item that I remember seeing numerous times was a metal rocker made with spring steel, very similar in design to what the Thonet factory in Austria turned out in wood in the 1880's. It was fascinating to me as I felt certain that it was a fairly rare and unique item. I was wrong as it really wasn't all that rare and furthermore, it was a hard sell because it was long and took up a lot of space--I saw it on numerous trips to the Cave. The level of my knowledge clearly wasn't up to snuff at that time as I remember being offered a serpentine chest with canted corners some time around 1975 with a brushing slide and original handles by a picker outside the Cave for seven hundred pounds. It was a steal, but I didn't know it at the time as seven hundred pounds seemed like an absolute fortune to me. At the height of the market in the late 1990's, I might have been able to sell that same chest, if it really was as good as I remember, for eighty to one hundred thousand dollars. Today, it would be in the range of  thirty to fifty thousand. I am writing about this because the one thing I do realize is that the knowledge that opens up a good piece of furniture to one's eyes is learned, it is not inherent. If anything, this is why the market is currently and will always be, enigmatic.