An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 219

Clinton Howell Antiques - Feb. 6, 2023 - Issue 219

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

Running a cultural institution like the Met or any of the better known NYC museums (or for that matter any of the cultural institutions in large international cities) can't be getting any easier with time, particularly when not only immersive art but small private museums are popping up  like mushrooms, some of which have a very tight focus such as, for example, the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) located a block and a half from the Met on 84th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, not to mention the Neue which is two blocks north. The assumption, without doubt, is that a large scale museum needs to educate as much as anything else, but that isn't always so easy. Exhibitions such as the one the Met showed of the design work of Alexander MacQueen was educational and contemporary but had little to do with the Met's own collection. And yet it was a huge hit. Should large scale museums be focusing on the contemporary or should their mandate be to examine and re-examine their own collection? I think they have to go where they have to go--the mandate should be to get people through the doors and let them make their own discoveries.. 

I believe that my world of antique English furniture has a similar dilemma to what is happening with these large scale cultural institutions. The items that I sell have, perhaps, a more obscure story than most contemporary furniture--not that contemporary furniture doesn't have a story that may be fascinating. What contemporary furniture offers, oddly, is anonymity in the sense that you can choose to learn the story or not. This may sound odd, but when you go with a flow or a fad--something that your friends and fashion magazines are suggesting is "hot'", you can eliminate any need to explain your choices. It happened when English antique furniture was hot and it is happening now with contemporary furniture. Immersive art is not dissimilar as you are in it, you get through it and you come out saying, wow, walk away and don't think about it again until you meet someone who has experienced the same thing. I want to add that I am not maligning the concept. To each his or her own.

Antiques these days require a story. Just as a museum will have a card by an object, When I do a show like the Winter Show, I am obligated to write a detailed card that reveals flaws and if I can, add a story. For example, I had a set of eight dining chairs on my stand at the most recent show--they are very rare for several reasons--they have a provenance back to the 1740's, I know who they were made for and I know the firm that made them. And this is only part of the story, of course, because in real life they have aspects that are revealing such as the density of the mahogany, their scale, their condition and style--they require an explanation. Some people will be fascinated by that explanation, others throw up their hands and walk away--I understand both camps. So, picture yourself at the Metropolitan Museum where you are reading a card about a commode you might be looking at  and you either give up half way or are beset with questions (the very first question is why is this cabinet called a commode?) that you would like to know the answer to. The situation is similar to what I am faced with by anyone that enquires about a piece on my stand.

It is clear to me that the simpler, the more vertically integrated inventory such as owned by MOMA or the Whitney, the easier the museum has it. (They have variety, but nothing like the Met or the British Museum, the Louvre, etc.)  But even simpler are the small scale museums that are popping up because of extremely wealthy collectors who want, I presume, a tax deduction as well as to boost the value of what they own by touting an artist. Again, this is not a judgment, but there is something to be said for the large scale cultural institution that covers thousands of years of history and tries to flesh out the object's raison de'tre. They require story that is good enough for people to want to hear. I empathize with their plight, but then, a good story has real power--and history--think of the King Tut exhibition--almost any slice of any era, can reveal something that will fascinate us in a way we didn't think possible. It really just requires an interest and some reading.