An Antiquarian's Tale Issue 31

Clinton Howell Antiques - May 7, 2018 - Issue 31

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

A good and fair profile of the English side of the English antique furniture trade is an almost impossible task. I enjoyed all the UK dealers ,but I felt they had an unfair advantage for a host of fairly simple psychological reasons. To begin with, many of the American buyers loved being courted by "gentlemanly" Brits. Furthermore, a  visiting American might think that the UK had more furniture to choose from--a half truth as many great things showed up in the US and were repatriated. There were more dealers in London than in any one city in the US, but that is not to say that there wasn't a fair amount to choose from in the US. Furthermore, there was a psychological edge to sell to people who may be enjoying a holiday with a purchase to commemorate it. Most importantly, however, the price in GBP was always lower, numerically, than the price in dollars. So an 80,000 pound piece in the UK sounded less dear than a $100,000 in the US, even though the pound price was higher. These may not have seemed like reasons not to buy English furniture in America, but they certainly contributed to the uphill battle we faced in the US with our customers. I had numerous customers come in to my gallery who happily told me about how they had saved so much money by going to England and buying themselves, rather than from American dealers. 

By 1992, I moved to New York City to share a apace with Leigh Keno on East 74th St. I had the front room which was more than enough as I still had items for sale in Pound Ridge, NY. The best thing about being in New York City, however, was my regular attendance at auctions in the city. By this time, a great many people had caught on that there was a lot of good furniture being miscatalogued in lots of different auction venues. The internet didn't exist so you really had to go to every sale. At this point, it had happened only periodically in the 1980's, the Brits started coming en masse. (I might add that one Brit high end dealer at a sale and you knew that you were going to have to pay, or, that you would make them pay.) American experts on English furniture, no matter how much we knew, really were not as good at knowing what sort of price could be paid for an item. I well remember a Chippendale mirror at Skinner's in Massachusetts that I underbid for $35,000 that I didn't think I would be able to sell for $50,000. I just loved it and thought it worth owning. As it happens, it was bought by a British dealer who had the pair to it. In other words, I had no chance of buying it.