An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 225

Clinton Howell Antiques - March 17, 2023 - Issue 225

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The list of dealers I have not mentioned is long and I have only mentioned those dealers, apart from Mallett, in the Knightsbridge, Chelsea, Fulham areas and not even all of them. Eventually, I visited all the major shops in London and New York and I started attending auctions even though my purchases were sporadic at best compared to what Bernie Karr (Hyde Park Antiques on lower Broadway) the two Kentshire owners, Bob and Fred on 12th St. off lower Broadway, Devenish on Madison Ave., Mallett, Partridge et al., would buy at any given sale. I remember going to a sale at Skinner's in Massachusetts in the 1980's and seeing a six foot tall rococo mirror that I liked which I bid on--I didn't underbid it as it made $37,000--which sold to Pelham Galleries, owned and run by Allen Rubin. How he knew the mirror was there, I don't know, but he apparently owned the pair to it and so would have paid a good deal more than his final bid. What I am saying is that the word was out and the English furniture trade was looking at sales around the world, scouring small sales from Australia to South Africa, throughout the U.S, and anywhere else that items might turn up. I remember walking by Blairman's window on Mount St. where I saw four of the most wonderful gilded torcheres that Martin Levy (the owner of Blairman) told me he bought in Switzerland. Indeed, there was a sale at Christie's of furniture from St. Helena where Napoleon had his second exile and where he died. English furniture was being tracked down around the world.

House sales were also a great source for the trade. What might have happened in pre-1980 is that a local antiques dealer would be called in to a house and items might be discreetly sold from whence they would travel up the pyramid within the trade unless, of course, they had recourse to the top members of the trade. That model was altered by a number of house sales. Among the first of my recollection at the time was the sale at St. Giles House in 1979 in Dorset. The furniture was, and remains, celebrated for not just being by Chippendale, but by being among some of the best furniture Chippendale made. Indeed, one of the pair of Gainsborough open armchairs and the rococo gilded chandelier from St. Giles sold at Christie's, New York, in the Getty sale last fall. Shortly after the St. Giles sale was the Marjorie Wiggin Prescott sale at Christie's in New York City, clearly not a house sale, but all of the items Mrs. Prescott bought over the years from the London trade, the majority of them purchased at Mallett. These two sales were essentially the starting line that began the race to finding great English furniture, a race that no one in the business could ignore because one could no longer find the formulaic set of dining chairs, dining table, chests of drawers, etc., without having to pay a considerably higher price than they'd had to pay the previous time they'd purchased a set.

The sale that felt (in retrospect) like the launch of the Titanic, however, was the house sale in Kent of Godmersham Park, another Christie's sale in June of 1983. that essentially confirmed the race, the mania for English furniture, had gotten out of hand. The prices at the sale leap frogged prices of items you could find for less waiting to be purchased in dealer showrooms in London and New York. The auction was held in a tent outside with helicopters landing from time to time and a tent with a bar that was popping champagne corks at regular intervals--probably a bottle per minute starting at 11AM. I remember feeling that the euphoria of the moment could not last and yet, again and again over the ensuing years, sales kept racking up enormous numbers. At the same time, dealers were doing their best to have what the clients wanted--dining rooms were high on the list, but also pairs of library open armchairs, partners desks, a good desk chair, pairs of consoles or commodes, pairs of mirrors. The clientele for most of these goods--not all as there were some extraordinarily deep pocketed collectors from Europe, South America and Australia--was American. I can't tell you how many times I was asked which dealers to go to in London, but the requests came in a steady stream. It was the heyday and it is officially over. As it is said, the king is dead, long live the king.