An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 224

Clinton Howell Antiques - March 13, 2023 - Issue 224

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The dealers I have talked about thusfar were among the best in the business--by that I mean they ran shops where they bought and sold at very expensive levels, not that they were necessarily the most knowledgeable, although they certainly understood their subject well. There were also a number of shops that I didn't visit that sold great furniture, but then I was still so new to the business in the 70's and 80's that I often felt a tad intimidated as I was just looking, not buying. Walking into high end antique shops is a little bit like walking into an expensive restaurant when you only want to look at the menu. You wonder if they are wondering why you are there. But that wasn't true when I visited Mallett--the industry leader of the antiques trade by a wide margin. Mallett was located on Bond St. and a visit to Mallett was always fun. Their approach to the business was to sell the unique, the unicorns of the decorative arts, whether it was furniture (English, continental and colonial) or decorative objects from around the world. There was always a reasonably warm welcome from one of the staff and there was always something interesting to see.

On one of my earliest visits to Mallett, before the shop had migrated from the east to the west side of Bond St., I had spent the morning at an auction in Pulborough in Sussex. The auction house was located at the Pulborough train station and it was very well attended by the trade--the room was packed. There were some wonderful items--the largest round dining table made of a single piece of mahogany that I have ever seen--it easily seated ten, some great chairs, a great suite of Regency coromandel bedroom furniture and a rent table that I really liked. I purchased the rent table for around fifty-five hundred pounds all in--the pound was worth about $1.14 at the time so my cost was under $6,500. I hopped on the train after the sale was over and, on arriving at Victoria Train Station, decided to go up to Mallett--I'm not certain why. I walked into Mallett and Lanto Synge, who later became President of the company, started to show me around. He asked me at one point if I had seen any good rent tables and I told him I had just bought one. (Of course, he knew that I'd bought the table.) I agreed to sell it to him for nine thousand pounds and I then waited for my money. After about four months, I still hadn't been paid so I called Lanto up and asked him what was happening? He seemed genuinely surprised and three days later, I had been paid and I benefitted from the delay in that the pound had appreciated by about twenty percent. So I made money on the exchange rate which, for me, is a very rare event. 

The place where I eventually met most of the top dealers (some top dealers never wanted to exhibit) was the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair, a vetted fair, which took place in the ballroom, the basement, of the Grosvenor House Hotel, usually in the middle of June. It would begin several days before the end of the Olympia Fair which opened in early June. As important as the Grosvenor Fair was, it is hard to say just how important Olympia was to the Grosvenor House exhibitors as they were at times big buyers at Olympia. To any collector with any sense about saving money, they could have just taken a taxi to Olympia, but they preferred buying at Grosvenor House because of the assurance they felt when buying from their favorite dealer. And that is what made Grosvenor House Fair so important to both dealers and buyers--it was the top of the trade pyramid where you made those relationships of trust with collectors and connoisseurs. Olympia, however, was equally important, particularly as it was recognized by dealers throughout the world of English antique furniture as an event where you could find pretty sensational items at much less than you would have to pay at Grosvenor House. Having said this, it is interesting that many of the Olympia dealers were equally as scrupulous and just as knowledgable in certain areas as their counterparts at the Grosvenor House Fair. Be that as it may, the community of English dealers inevitably congregated every year in June for these events and it was, for any budding dealer, the cauldron where you honed your knowledge.