An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 241

Clinton Howell Antiques - July 10, 2023 - Issue 241

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

Value is a topic that comes up in the world of antiques all the time. It is not only problematic, it is THE problem facing all sellers of used stuff--how much is my grandmother's suite of furniture worth? There was an article in the New York Times  about the discovery of a Tiffany window found in a church in Philadelphia that was about to be torn down several months ago. The man who sold the window feels that he was treated unfairly by the buyer because the buyer knew perfectly well what he was buying. It is a standard refrain by anyone who is on the short side of a transaction and it is very understandable. On the other hand, someone who works to gain knowledge will, most likely, have overpaid a number of times for items that he or she later learned were less valuable than they thought. In that case, the seller has no regrets and may even know that he got away with something that he shouldn't have. It is, as I say, the refrain du jour, one that I can be sympathetic to on both sides.

It might sound odd that I sympathize with both sides, but it is true. Learning about furniture has, for me at least, included some magnificent wins and some appalling losses over the years. This is a tough business and even though I might be able to buy something privately for less money, I prefer buying at auction because auctioneers have a mandate to sell no matter how much they think what they are selling is worth--the worth will be established by the bidders. Auctioneers want to draw in bidders and if it means giving a low estimate on something that they think is good, then so be it! They aren't trying to cheat anyone as it is an open sale and, if they have advertised the sale well enough, they should get enough eyes on the product for the piece to make, generally speaking, what it is wort, which is usually but not always a wholesale, not a retail, value. That is absolutely fair. What is not fair is for a dealer, or anyone else for that matter, to know that someone is vastly underselling something and accepting their lack of knowledge as fair game.

The man who sold the Tiffany window, it was intimated in the article, was preparing to file a lawsuit to make a claim on any proceeds from the sale of the window. I think that is a mistake. If the man who bought the window recognized its value, or even if he didn't, I would think that he should revel in his good fortune and feel some obligation, not a large one, but something, to the seller if it eventually does sell for a hefty sum. (There are, as a rule, many costs before profit is realized.) The story in the paper made it clear that the seller almost destroyed the window so he was clearly impatient and luckily found someone who either knew what he was looking at or knew to research just a bit further. All of this, however, makes it clear that value is not a fixed number. It isn't with the window from the church, and it isn't for furniture of any period, nor for any art. However, I know people dealing in contemporary and modern furniture who are making good money simply because the market is like the wild west--largely opaque and hard to understand. But with the riddance urge that sellers often have on one side and the knowledgable buyer on the other, there is (alleged) happiness on both sides. But if the sellers knew what the buyers were making, would they be? The wild west sooner or later gets a sheriff in the form of greater knowledge, greater opacity and generally broader understanding that those items you were ready to throw out are actually worth a substantial amount of money. For sellers that get upset and sue, the only winner can be the lawyers.