An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 278

Clinton Howell Antiques - March 18, 2024 - Issue 278

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

It is hard to imagine, when you see expertise from the outside, just how someone has gotten so good at something. Mikaela Shiffrin, for example, is possibly one of the best alpine ski racers ever. How did she get there? Malcolm Gladwell, in his book "Outliers", suggests that ten thousand hours of practice is the key to such mastery. That seems kind of obvious. Shiffrin, however, in being so very good had to have the temperament that enabled her to hone her strengths along with her physical skill. She not only put in the ten thousand hours, but she also tightly focused on each and every aspect of her game so that she could take it to a higher level. That isn't just ten thousand hours as her competitors have all, very likely, practiced just as long and hard. Some people just have better natural ability that allows them to reach a very high level of performance.

Expertise is what lies at the core of the trade in art and antiques. Every dealer has made bad mistakes over the years, myself included, and it usually was based on insufficient knowledge or a willful blindness based on overlooking something. (Shiffrin loses races, I might add, just not that many.) How is that possible? The answer is pretty simple--we want to believe, but you really won't know until you have brought a piece home and looked carefully at it. There is more to it, however, as it is almost impossible to know the permutations and combinations that lead to the making of a singular piece of furniture. Sometimes a leap of faith is required--some call it instinct--it isn't, it's trial and error.

The pair of Hepplewhite side chairs that were one of my first antique purchases, were a terrible decision on my part. The chair legs needed to be tipped--they were far too short to be comfortable, the mahogany of the legs was average and they had been treated terribly as the legs looked like they had been gnawed at--there were no edges--this was a reflection of the mediocre mahogany the chairs were constructed from. What a great learning experience however! And, if I remember correctly, they cost me twenty pounds. As lessons go, they were cheap and furthermore, I had the opportunity to try to restore them to their past glory--that alone was worth the money--they really didn't merit restoration as they were just poorly made chairs. I don't remember what happened to them but my memory of how they looked is vivid in my mind. But their purchase was a step I had to take for me to gain expertise.

Getting involved with objects, which in turn comes from owning, restoring and then selling them is the key to expertise. People who haven't been involved, such as generalist appraisers, have a much harder time understanding what makes one piece more valuable than another--even if they are by the same hand. One quickly learns not to bet too heavily on pieces you hope will be right--it is just too dangerous--but sometimes there is something in the craftsmanship, the design, the materials that has you betting heavily--that is putting skin in the game. The ten thousand hours that someone needs to acquire when dealing--it doesn't matter the field--is about expanding knowledge ever outwards. Ten thousand hours is one requirement, many thousands of dollars is another.