An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 265

Clinton Howell Antiques - Dec. 18, 2023 - Issue 265

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

It is difficult to describe the real life experience of being a dealer. You have to buy to continue in business--it is the first rule of being a dealer. I do most of my buying on the internet at auction these days. As I have stated before, I don't like buying from private individuals unless they have a price in mind for what they are selling. I have seen dealers who have no compunction about bargaining for the lowest price imaginable--that's their right, I just don't feel right about doing that. Ergo, I am an auction buyer and, from time to time, I am blown away by how inexpensively some things sell. In other words, auction houses hang the stuff on the line and if it gets a bite, fine, and if it doesn't, that's also fine. You would think there might be a better system, but none has revealed itself to me so we are where we are. 

Buying on the internet has many pitfalls as you really can't see everything about a piece that you need to see. Indeed, years ago, any dealer who didn't closely examine an item was assumed to not know the difference between period and non-period items. But today, more dealers than ever buy without personally examining something because of time, the cost of hotels and airfares and the prevalence of bacteria in crowded spaces. Hence, the market has depressed as many dealers don't mind taking a flyer at $2-3,000, but a flyer for twice that gets a little more serious. The sellers, therefore, are at a disadvantage right from the start. 

I was listening to the NPR program, "On Point" the other evening and there was a discussion about failures--how they are seldom discussed by people. Buying on line can be a recipe for repeated failures. Recently, I bid on a mirror that I didn't (couldn't) examine in a sale in Los Angeles. As it happens, three of us saw the mirror and decided to buy it together. We all had in mind the same amount that we would pay--$3,000. In fact, that is what the mirror sold for and we spread the risk just in case something about the mirror was incorrect. As it happens, the frame of the mirror had been reduced in width--the mirror is an overmantel and most overmantels have three mirror plates and this only had one which should have tipped us off, but there are always exceptions to the rule. (Remember the unicorns!) What happened is anybody's guess, but that modification disallows the frame from being shown at the Winter Show. The purity of the object as an antique, in other words, has been compromised. That is a failure.

The real life experience of dealing also includes a lot of underbidding. At least forty years ago, I saw an exhibition at the Frick Museum about ormolu mounted porcelain. Most of the ormolu mounted pieces in the exhibit were Chinese, I believe, with French ormolu mounts. When I saw a pair of Chinese celadon crackle glazed vases with ormolu mounts at an auction in Hudson, I thought they would be terrific on the extravagantly rococo mantelpiece I am taking to the Winter Show this year. The estimate was ridiculously low at $1,500-2,500 and I knew would be exceeded quickly so I hoped that perhaps $5,000 would be the right bid. I never had a chance as they sold for $16,000 which is close to $21,000 net--probably the right price as one of the vases had an old break in the neck. As I never saw them in person, I couldn't get as excited as I might have been in seeing them in the flesh, so to speak. That is where you learn just how good something is as every object, as I said in a recent blog, speaks a language of some sort. I suspect these were seen by whoever bought them as the price is right in line, to my way of thinking, of what they should have made. In any case, this too was a failure. Dealer lives have a lot of this kind of thing, but we learn to live with it. There is the hint of sadomasochism to what we do.