An Antiquarian's Tale Issue 30

Clinton Howell Antiques - April 16, 2018 - Issue 30

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

By the beginning of the 1990's, English furniture was in its heyday. The first one million dollar price tag in auction was at Christie's for a partner's desk in the summer of 1991. I remember it well as I had my ten year old son with me who was bored to death of the auction. He was patient, however, although not in the least impressed by the million dollar price tag. As far as he was concerned, he wanted to go to the go cart track Dick Turpin had told him about and of which Dick was part owner. The track was in Fulham and when we got there and saw the carts going at least 40 miles per hour, I silently cursed Dick for mentioning the place. I talked my son out of driving, but he has probably resented me ever since. 

The characters in the English furniture trade was one of the things that made the English furniture business both fun and maddening. Turpin, called Dick (his real name was Maurice) after the legendary highwayman, was all about fulfilling fantasies. He really didn't care about the academic approach to furniture. Many called him a rogue, but in fact, his goal was to own as much furniture as he could get his hands on. He participated in "knockouts" (dealers would purposely not bid in salerooms and then meet after the sale to have their own sale with payouts to all the participants) that were highly illegal. When knockouts ended, Dick would just outbid everyone. He had a good eye and an understanding that some of his clients were more likely to buy less pristine pieces than others. Looking back on it, it is hard to describe him as anything other than crooked, but he was simply continuing in the vein of the trade he was brought up in--in other words, the antiques trade was largely manipulated by the people who had clawed their way to the top. One can be judgmental about this, but I would suggest that it is not that different from a lot of other industries of the 1950-90 era. Capitalism always runs the risk of the people who cut corners and if they are caught, they pay. Dick was never caught, possibly because he was charming, but also because he was feared. He did, after all, supply a great many dealers with inventory on consignment. What is most interesting about the system, however, was that it broke down as English furniture became more popular with more non-aware actors (of the knockout) started to participate particularly with the advent of the American buyer. Everyone wanted to get in on the bonanza of selling to Americans who thought they would get a better deal in England than in the US. Of course, many of us in the US were selling to the English trade. Indeed, I sold a pair of Chinese fu dogs with 18th century French ormolu mounts to a dealer in London that I saw on a mantel in New York City about five weeks after I sold them. The price tag was close to four times what I sold them for. The bonanza was in full swing by that time.