An Antiquarian's Tale Issue 26

Clinton Howell Antiques - February 19, 2018 - Issue 26
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
The auction scene in the early 1980's was a free for all. There were auction houses everywhere and staying on top of them all was almost impossible. As it happened, I was tapped to write reviews of English furniture sales by "Art & Auction" magazine. Daniel Zilkha had started the magazine because the art market was, by 1979, becoming a significant source of economic headlines. I don't remember the exact sequence of artworks that started to sell for over a million dollars, but by 1985, the art market was hot and the furniture world was part of that surge. French and American furniture were the hottest furniture markets, but English furniture would periodically churn up prices that startled even the dealers in the business. Two sales set the trend that I remember, the first being the Marjorie Wiggin Prescott sale in February of 1981 and later the Godmersham Park sale in June of 1983, both held by Christie's. I went to tea at Mrs. Prescott's house and she clearly enjoyed the prestige I extended to her for the items she had purchased over the years. It was an excellent collection. Godmersham Park had been put together in the 1920's and, although not as select a collection, it included some extraordinary furniture. The sale was also a sign of the times as helicopters brought nabobs and, while lots were being sold for huge sums, an endless number of champagne corks were popping in the hospitality tent. The art market was, of a sudden, hot.

But the place for small, upcoming dealers was not at either Sotheby's or Christie's main sale rooms. New York City and environs had sale rooms everywhere and because sales were so frequent, you had to go to all of them in order to see what was available. As I was still restoring, it was difficult to stay on top of all these sales. The smartest people I knew would visit the NY sale rooms, buy in one of the lesser rooms and then give that piece to Sotheby's or Christie's. I adopted this method and, for a while, was feeding both auction houses on a regular basis. It wasn't truly being a dealer, however, and the lead times for buying, restoring and putting something into auction became less and less attractive to me simply because I could sell items for more in my own premises. To be blunt, the free for all was, at times, hugely rewarding, and at other times a great deal less so and that the best way to deal with this was to concentrate on being a shopkeeper.