An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 36

Clinton Howell Antiques - July 16, 2018 - Issue 36
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
The last issue of my "Tale" elicited some interesting responses about furniture purchased as antique that was anything but. The preponderance of pieces that were sold as antique in the US during the booming 80's 90's and early 2000's that fell far short of the quality of pieces in the headline setting auction results is astonishing. The boom market brought out the charlatans who saw a way to capitalize on this situation. It has, rightfully, created a deep suspicion of the antique market that persists to this day. Who can blame anyone for that feeling? Why did this happen? The obvious answer is, because it could. And it happened up and down the length of the English furniture market(s) as the craze for the English look and the relative lax monetary policies of that era combined to make the English furniture market (along with a number of other markets such as old masters, silver and porcelain) subject to extraordinary price rises that fed on themselves. Auction records spurred dealer price tags which spurred clients who worried that the next auction would set a new price level. The demand, for example, for Gainsborough style open armchairs was at fever pitch in the 90's and prices at auction kept going up and up. Simple straight legged Gainsborough style chairs that might have sold for $10,000 in 1980 would sell for $50,000 in 1995. 

The feast was on at this point. The English trade which had problems accessing the American market were introduced to New York City via the International Show started by Anna and Brian Haughton in 1988 along with the National Art and Antique Dealers Association of America (NAADAA). The Haughtons would not allow any of the top American dealers in that were not members of NAADAA and easily filled the Armory between 66 and 67th St. with English dealers. The upshot of bringing these dealers to New York was to imply that the best English antique furniture came not only from the UK, but from UK dealers. The ripple affects of this belief echoed throughout the antiques world, not just in the high end sector. Antique "importers", people who shipped containers of goods from the UK on  a monthly basis, were, all of a sudden, seen as brilliant operators buying the real thing. It didn't matter that, for example, a dealer who I knew in Pound Ridge would not know an antique if he sat on one. His imported goods, "hand selected" from top English dealers (he sold reproductions that looked like antiques) were, according to him, the real deal and he did landmark business for many years based on this assertion. 

I look back on this and realize that I was just as besotted by the rising market as everyone else. That there was a psychological link between the faux markets and the high end market seems far fetched, but that is the only explanation for the success of the myriad levels of English furniture dealers. The rising market made everone's job easier than ever. And, in an obverse way, all these dealers added to the eclat of the top end of the trade that were exhibiting in the Armory. Collectively, the rage for English antiques lost sight of what is great about high quality English furniture (not just high style furniture but the entire gamut of pieces) which is that it is living history. There are endless stories behind a great piece of furniture--who made it, why it was made, the materials (and where they came from) they were made of, the place that it was made for--the story is always a long one and for many it is fascinating. And of course, there is the beauty of a really well looked after antique--it is almost always sublime with color and form that had great thought and experience behind them in their making. All of this is what was lost sight of in the boom period. For those of us still in the trade, we have started anew and most, if not all, the ersatz traders have little reason to label something antique. In a way that is sad and in a way, I am delighted.