An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 280

Clinton Howell Antiques - April 1, 2024 - Issue 280

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

Accurately dating a piece of furniture is one reason that antiques have such a complicated place in peoples minds. This fact opened the doors to lots of charlatans who chose to call things antique that clearly weren't. For example, I went into an antique store in Scotts Corners in Pound Ridge, NY, when I returned from the UK in the 1970's to look at what was being advertised as antiques. Not a piece in the shop was antique and yet it all had the luster of something that looked antique. All of the items were handmade and French polished, meaning that they were assembled and finished in a workshop and not on a production line. They had the feel of bespoke furniture because they were handmade and very well finished but they were brand new. Furthermore, although the items were visibly appealing, the quality--the woodworking and choice of timbers--was lacking.

That gallery was matched, to be fair, by a dealer directly across the street who was equally egregious for mendacity. At one point, a local client asked my restoration business to make copies of some hall chairs that they'd purchased from this dealer. Our copies were so good that it dawned on the client that her "original" chairs were not that old. I don't know what they were sold as, but they were brand new and I didn't think it was my place to tell her. In fact, the fun of visiting that dealer were the tags that he wrote which were tales of how the dealer had been having lunch in some country pub, somewhere in the UK when the Duke of Whatever came in, sat down next to them and then invited them to his manse in order to sell them something. It was rather like reading a fairy tale and you could buy the glass slippers if you liked the story enough.

These shops, I believe, are one reason that antiques are so resoundingly unpopular for a certain segment of the population today and if they are sold at all, they are now sold as "vintage". All of the people that were taken in by charlatans have a legitimate gripe. That they only found out about how they were scammed years later meant that there was absolutely no recourse--aggravation for anyone who has been taken. But these pieces are not the ones that are problematic for today's dealers who will know from a photo that they aren't old. The pieces that are problematic are akin to the brackets that I discussed last week--I bought them because I felt they were original to circa 1830--most dealers will accept my judgment, some may not--my certificate of authenticity is me and little else. Some pieces simply defy understanding. Not everything is as it seems, to paraphrase Sherlock Holmes.