An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 271

Clinton Howell Antiques - January 29, 2024 - Issue 271

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

I have yet to find out how the Dutch auction fared. Do I think it is a great idea? No, I don't, but it certainly got him ink in the NY Times for which I give him a lot of credit, as in my experience, when I was part of the AADLA Spring Fair at the Armory, the Times wasn't giving much free ink to anyone. Rightly so, I guess, when you think that they recently passed ten million subscribers. The sway that the Times has is, of course, commensurate with the number of subscribers they have which is the natural order of things despite the fact that I have to scratch my head about some of the things they write about. The Dutch auction, for example, is a publicity stunt and yet it is in an editorial! And, I can assure almost anyone who wants to know, that it is not the coming thing simply because auction houses need commissions that are earned from their sales. A Dutch auction undermines those commissions.

Dealers of art and antiques mostly understand that their lives would require a great deal of hustle if there were no auction houses. We live and die over every auction that we want to bid on. As I said, I do not resent (doesn't mean I like paying) their commission--a rate that continues to go up--and for what, exactly--not that much, in fact. And, as I mentioned in a previous blog, I have to bid on things I don't see, relying to some extent on auction house expertise. Auction house expertise is essential for bidders who are willing to pay large numbers for something if they are unable to attend the preview. The level of that expertise, of course, varies from one auction house to the next. And it's maddening when they miss fairly obvious flaws such as, for example, the mirror I purchased that was shortened in width.

The truth is  that the relationship between the trade and auctioneers is symbiotic, with resentment on both sides of the equation. As much as people would like to think that the internet would be a great place to sell antique furniture--it isn't. That's because it is the high end dealers who know the ins and outs of trading good, better and best types of furniture. Two chairs made to the same design in the same workshop can sell for different sums depending on how they have made it through time. In the English furniture world, I would suggest that there may be as few as thirty people and as many as one hundred who can look at a piece that dates between 1670 and 1840 and know what it is, the quality and condition, the possible design source and/or the recent provenance. So when auction houses, which tend not to want to pay single subject experts (i.e.they will have a European furniture expert, not an English expert, which is like asking your cardiologist to diagnose your earache) the trade ends up doing the auction house's job (not in all cases, but in many).

This is not to say that some auction house experts don't quickly learn on the job, They do and the smart experts quickly earn their title, whereas some never learn. I like many of these people and enjoy their output and I am not being sarcastic, but as I said, I make my living through miscataloguing. I might add that I don't believe that I always know better than they do as I don't look at everything, just the items that I might wish to buy. Cataloguing is a hard job and I can well understand why some experts go into a kind of robotic trance writing description after description. I have to catalogue my own goods and I often find the vocabulary for this job more than elusive. My point, in the end, is not that auction houses make mistakes or screw things up--they do, because expertise is elusive and most every sale, no matter how good the auction house, how good the expert or how good the buyers are, has some screw ups. I would like to think that Penny Pinch understood all this, but he has had his fifteen minutes. And the auction world didn't even notice. And the commission rates, despite it all, keep rising.