An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 256

Clinton Howell Antiques - October 16, 2023 - Issue 256

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

When I was six or seven years old, I went to a day camp where we made many car trips to various places that our counselors thought would keep a bunch of really young kids busy--mostly to beaches and swimming holes, of course, but odd places like a car factory in Tarrytown, NY. I think that factory disappeared in the 1960's, but cars were a big deal to us, even as kids, and although we were unaware of how big a part they played in the US economy, we understood that they represented more than just being a mode of transport. The big three automakers of the day, GMC, Chrysler and Ford vied for our attention--not as kids, but as cars being part of a way of life. This was more pervasive than you can imagine and touched all corners of American life. Jack Kerouac's, "On the Road", was a celebration of the American spirit in a cross country trip, for example, and Robert Moses did his best to make New York City as car friendly as possible, much as LA and many other cities did by ripping out tram lines. It is hard to truly grasp just how central the automobile was to Americans between 1950 and 1970. 

Cars of that era were definitely made for people of different income levels, an antithetical position to the idea of democracy if you think about it. If you bought a Cadillac, a Lincoln Continental, or the racy Thunderbird, you were allegedly buying the best of the best--in the world! It said a great deal about you and your status which, income or wealth wise, was immediately established in the eyes of people that knew about cars. And almost everyone knew about cars, because another major industry of the 1950's, advertising, made it clear to most Americans that driving a Cadillac, for example, made you special. As little kids, being driven by our counselors, all of our eyes were glued to the road in order to spot the expensive vehicles and to ogle the drivers. It was a simple pleasure manipulated entirely by the ad industry, an obsession for what we thought was uniquely good--the Caddy, the Lincoln or the T-Bird. Quality in 1950's America, we believed as kids, could be assessed simply by seeing the item on the road and little else--certainly not by how well the item worked because the question was never raised. That proved to be, in the long run, the wrong measure of value, absent of quality as those cars could be, but it certainly worked in the 1950's. 

The niche market of English antique furniture in the 1980's and 90's is, in retrospect, both similar but also an imperfect reflection of how Americans bought their cars. The similarities were that the market was consumer driven, and status driven as well and the knowledge that was required to make good decisions was decidedly inconsistent--not that many people knew to look for quality or even how quality was represented. Advertising was the key in the car industry, but in the English furniture market, it mattered who you bought from--some unassailable names were the auction houses, Christie's and Sotheby's, and the London trade such as Mallett, Hotspur, Kiel, Jeremy, etc.--these were THE places where you bought your antiques. When the American car industry hit a speed bump in the form of Ralph Nader who made his name with a book about the Corvair called, "Unsafe at Any Speed", published in 1965, it was the beginning of the end for the dominance of the American car on the American highway and the Europeans and Japanese were primed to pounce. English antique furniture, on the other hand, had no Consumer Reports information--the hype was all one way and when a second rate piece of furniture did well on the auction block, the market only looked more impregnable. But high prices, not any Ralph Nader type of influencer, have a sobering affect on the market. Furthermore, the status that English antique furniture conveyed seemed to evaporate overnight, at least in the US, a condition of the whims of fashion which shelter magazines do their best to attempt to drive, although they are usually playing catch up to the market. But there is a  bright side to this tale as American cars from the 1950's are now highly collectible and have considerable value. Look for English furniture to make a comeback as well because, unlike the cars of the 1950's, it was made to last.