An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 221

Clinton Howell Antiques - February 20, 2023 - Issue 221

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

Learning about English antiques furniture (all old furniture for that matter) varies according to how or where you start from. Auctioneers, for example, have little interest in expertise--not that they can't become expert as they often do--but their aim is to have an accurate label (so that there are no returns) and they want to sell--that's it. Dealers are far more choosy. Dealers, fi they are experienced, always want the best that they can find--a lofty goal and one that isn't really achievable all that often. How many breakfront bookcase cabinets, for example, are there like the extraordinary one sold by Christie's at the Getty Sale last October? (see here) There is that one and the one in the collection of the Crown--does that mean you will never buy a bookcase to sell? Of course not, but that is the dealer's plight--you don't always get to sell the best. And there are, of course, connoisseurs, some who collect and some who don't--the ones that don't just opine and the ones that buy English furniture have a different point of view altogether--they can choose to trust someone, but in the end, they have to trust their own instincts--sometimes those instincts are good and sometimes not. Finally, there are the restorers who determine the viability of an item and occasionally, if they are lucky, will see something that others miss--usually because of previous bad restoration. I would say all these points of view are valid, but for anyone wanting to buy, they need to understand their own desires and try to take all these perspectives into consideration. 

I learned the dealer's point of view from the very best dealers. What was most interesting was how candid they were about what they thought had been done to a piece they were trying to sell. They would, as a rule, tell you all that they knew--that is if they could figure out everything that had been done. Old repairs can be hard to see--particularly veneer repairs. For example, if a restorer re-veneered the top of a chest of drawers using a nice old piece of mahogany, you would not know that anything was done--you could suspect, but not know. Any top dealer will tell you that some old repairs just cannot be seen and likely will remain undetected forever. But the best dealers always are open about repairs just because most repairs reveal themselves in time and secondly, the dealer likely bought the item knowing the repair was there in the first place. This is important in that if they believed in the item enough to buy it with the repair, they will believe it enough to sell it as a quality piece of furniture. In other words, the concept of perfection was and is not an issue that defines every piece of furniture. Condition is in other words a subjective assessment that a dealer must explain to a client--that's how collectors are made.  

I often used to leave the London College of Furniture, where I was learning the restorer's point of view, to go and have lunch with a dealer on the Fulham Rd., named David Kenrick where I could learn the dealer point of view. David had a shop half a mile west from the cluster of dealers that used to have shops near Marsden Hospital, the best known of those dealers being Apter-Fredericks. Bernard Apter and his wife, Carol, took over the business from Carol's father and turned it into one of the top English antique furniture shops in London. David often picked (bought) things with Bernard in mind, meaning that David, who had a house in Warwickshire, used to go to shops on the weekend to find things to buy for his shop in London which he thought he could sell to Bernard. David and I would often go to Bernard's shop to discuss items that he thought Bernard should buy. But David also worked with Mallett who were also very active buyers on the Fulham Road (as well as elsewhere). I didn't realize just what I was seeing at the time, but this was the established route that a lot of antiques took to reach their ultimate destination (if they were good enough) and their highest perceived value. Visually, that route looked like a pyramid that started with a house call or small auction (most likely) by a dealer in the country with the item changing hands a number of times before it ended up at some level of the pyramid. Furthermore, every person along that route--the auctioneer, the restorer, a succession of dealers and the collector--could learn something from that piece if they bothered to notice.