An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 32

Clinton Howell Antiques - May 21, 2018 - Issue 32
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
The early 90's was such a hot market for English antique furniture that one had to get creative about what one could sell. In other words, there were items that were obvious sellers such as most dining room furniture grand pairs of chairs, console tables, pairs of mirrors, etc., these items were being snapped up on the market for big prices. Sotheby's and Christie's were capitalizing with Saturday sales that were jammed with bidders. Generally speaking, most of these buyers did not know what made a good piece great or not so great. This was where the opportunities lay, at least at these popular sales. At lesser known sales, you would hope against hope that you would be the only person in the room. And then, for a dealer like me, I had to think beyond the standard pieces and go for different sorts of items. For example, I bought a pair of pine overdoors as well as mahogany door circa 1770. These were not slam dunk sellers, but they did garner a huge amount of interest. When I was doing the International Fine Art and Antique Dealers show (it was in mid to late October every year in the Armory) these items would look quite spectacular on display. 

The concept behind antique shows and fairs, at least those in big market areas such as London, New York and Paris started to fundamentally change around this time. The IFAADS fair that I exhibited in was the first to institute vetting, the process of looking at the goods on all stands to discern fair-worthiness and/or authenticity, in the United States. This ultimately forced the Winter Antiques Show to do the same and, in essence, every show that wanted to be taken seriously. Of course, this change proved to be an additional expense and headache for fairs, requiring extra time for set up and vetting. As a result, fairs started to charge more. What is interesting is that if you look at fairs today, you see how those initial steps created a system where large scale fair owners and operators ultimately would take over the market. As it is, today, there are three major fair operators, TEFAF, Frieze and Art Basel and the cost of doing any of their fairs is high. The outliers are the Winter Antiques Show and the Paris and Venice  Biennales. The Paris Biennale is run by the SNA (Syndicat National des Antiquaires) and the Venice Biennale by a Venice foundation. These shows are not inexpensive to do either as they have to be competitive. There almost seems to be a sense of lost innocence to the market of today, one driven by the concept of art as an investment class instrument. So much for buying something charming!