An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 274

Clinton Howell Antiques - February 19, 2024- Issue 274

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

My impression of the Winter Show, three weeks after, is a blur. It seems so long while you are in it, and so short once it is over. I find that the intermittent boredom (when it feels endlessly long) and spurts of activity (when you  make a sale or are pitching something to receptive ears) are hard to level out. One moment you are yawning and wishing for a nap and in the next you are trying to convince someone to purchase a pair of walnut side chairs or a mahogany stool. But the sales aspect is not what I want to focus on as I am much more interested in what it is to have a stand that actually attracts the kind of people that wish to buy? This question lingers in every dealer's head, more so if they are having a poor show--I didn't, but I have, and so the question is relevant. It is frustrating to put together a booth that people ignore. 

What are the best things to bring to a show? I know that I like a booth to have pieces I might not have seen before whether that means they are "unicorns", rare styles seldom seen or a well known piece that has been off the market for awhile. Finding something that has been off the market for over sixty years is absolutely ideal, particularly if it was published in any of the well known books on English furniture by authors such as R. W. Symonds, Herbert Cescinsky or the Country Life (magazine) series on English houses. Of course, if the piece is in "The Dictionary of English Furniture", that's a real bonus, but those don't turn up all that often. Even if the piece is published, it has to be desirable, meaning interesting. (There were plenty of pieces published that were duds.) Finding such pieces is not as easy as one might think.

Another aspect about a show that intrigues me is the arrangement of a booth. Is it better to make your booth look like a room or is it better to just have items scattered that people go to one after the other? The room concept relates to the period room idea in a museum, something that palls after a while in my opinion. However, the first time you see a period room, there is a certain amount of intrigue to it, particularly if it is amply furnished with all of the accoutrements of the era. I have to admit that the Norfolk House room at the V&A is a room that I like to visit when I am at that museum even though it is not furnished, but that is because it is carved extensively and I love 18th century carving. Having said that, I had a rococo mantelpiece on my booth this year, that I sold, which garnered a huge amount of attention. Carving has that affect on people, particularly rococo carving when it is really exuberant as this mantel was. But the mantel seemed to outshine the other objects--a fascinating swivel chair, a very rare japanned center table, a very fine tripod and much more. My English competitors at the show, Ronald Phillips and Rolleston, made their booths look more like rooms. Which is better? I'm still up in the air about it all.

I did have a room setting at a Palm Beach Fair a number of years ago. That was because I had a gilded suite of furniture, a settee with six armchairs. It was quite a lush looking set up and I did end up selling the suite, but it wasn't a great sale for me. The client who bought the suite was the only person who asked about the suite and she ended up naming her own price. My profit was very limited. I think that I prefer stands that have interesting objects. Alan Rubin of Pelham Galleries (gone now) did very well selling top quality and quite singular items. So that is what I have done and will probably continue to do. In the end, it isn't the exhaustion factor that is a problem at shows, it is feeling that you could have done more to make it clear what it is you are selling. These days, most people I see at shows have little to no idea of what antiques are--the brown furniture comment continues to dominate the conversation even when there is a chest of drawers with sensational sunset colors and swirling grain just three feet away. I think I better stop before I sound too much like a curmudgeon.