An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 269

Clinton Howell Antiques - January 15, 2024 - Issue 269

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

Vetting, takes place, once again, the day after tomorrow at the Winter Show. Vetting is the process of looking carefully at every object on a dealer's booth to see that it is labelled correctly and that the piece is show worthy and properly restored and finally, of the period that the dealer believes it was made in. That is a lot to cover when you think about it. Some disciplines are easier to vet than others because there is definitive aspect to their manufacture. English Silver, for example has hallmarks that tell you the maker, the location and the date of manufacture. This, of course, does not automatically mean that the piece is right, but it does start you on a path that allows you to understand the piece better than one without marks. So a silver vetter might want to ascertain that the marks are original and that the piece has not been overly restored. This won't forestall disagreement among dealers and vetters, but then that is why there is vetting.

Vetting is not about finding fakes. You would thing that is precisely what vetters want to rule out of the show. And, yes, sometimes fakes are found at shows, but very rarely, at least in English furniture. The reason is that a great fake that fools a quality dealer--and such fakes are very rare--who is showing the piece, is likely too difficult to determine as a fake in the time that a vetter has for close and thorough examination. But in English furniture, these days at least, faking is largely a dead issue as there is no value to faking a piece of English furniture unless the faker is aiming at creating an undiscovered masterpiece by a great maker. It isn't worth the time to try and fool the market in such a manner. 

Show worthiness is far more important to vetting committees. There was a dealer at the Winter Show fourteen or fifteen years ago who brought a magnificent marquetry chest of drawers, but it was not in good condition. It needed some complex restoration to put the marquetry into shape and to match missing oyster veneers. It was a great chest. On another stand that same year was what I would refer to as a B+/A- marquetry chest that was in superb condition. I would not have wanted to own it, but someone was going to love it. The show worthiness of the first chest was not up to snuff despite that it was an A+ chest of drawers--it was imperative that the restoration was done prior to the show. It wasn't, so it was removed from the dealer's stand. The other chest stayed. This is an obvious example of show worthiness and almost every object is judged along similar lines. Few dealers coming to a major show such as the Winter Show make this kind of mistake, but again, that is why there is vetting.

The subjective side of vetting is the knowledge that a vetter believes they have. No one can know the depth of someone's knowledge, but that doesn't matter as most of the vetting gets done through the eyes of the alpha vetter. The alpha vetter can be, but isn't necessarily, one person on a committee, it is the person who feels most strongly about a given item. Someone who thinks they know lacquer well, for example, will be the alpha vetter for all things lacquer (or japanned) because of their experience. This does not mean they are always right. (I know business partners who have violently disagreed, so it isn't a personal thing.) Who is right? In the end, if they believe a piece to be wrong, they will push until a piece is removed from display making it, in essence, the alpha vetter's decision. That really isn't how vetting is supposed to function.

My answer to the problem--allow the vetters to look at separate stands, apart from each other without the full committee in attendance. The committee would then get together to compare notes and if a piece shows up on at least three vetters notes as a problem, then look at as a group. That way, each vetter makes their own assessment--this might, although it isn't guaranteed, ameliorate the sway, and the dangers of the alpha vetter.