An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 41

Clinton Howell Antiques - Nov. 5, 2018 - Issue 41
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
I had a lot of response to my last email about the political nature of the antiques trade. It hasn't gone away. I know that the rivalries (often quite petty) exist between all sorts of dealers because they will openly talk about them, usually naming names. The English furniture business has, for the most part, lost this sense of political intrigue as many of us still in it see ourselves as survivors. However, I did have an oblique run-in with someone when I lent furniture for TEFAF (The European Fine Art Fair) in New York last year. The head of the English furniture vetting committee, who had been head of English furniture at one of the auction houses, retains a sense of disgruntlement at articles I wrote thirty-five years ago. He vetted off a table that is clearly antique--there is, in fact a pair to it in the house they were made for which belies this negative assessment. Other than the fact that it upset my friend who borrowed the pieces, I was amazed at how much power I still have over this person's psyche. If only he was an oyster and the grudge was a grain of sand and I could harvest the pearl!

I think what this says about anyone buying anything is that you need to get expert in asking the right questions of a dealer. For example, the U.S. is the source of a fair amount of the art and antiques that are sold each year. There are so many auctions on a daily basis in this country that it is impossible to keep up with all of them. The amount of great things churned up is small, but relatively steady. What is lacking is great expertise on a local level which can make these items far less expensive in the U.S. than if they were selling in a European sale room. There is, however, sufficient expertise for most objects to be understood and marketed in America. But buyers, particularly American buyers, like to buy in Europe. Does this make any sense? From one point of view it does, in that people can buy anonymously more easily in Europe. Many wealthy people like such anonymity. Also, people buying when on vacation or touring are in the right frame of mind to relax and concentrate on what they are buying. But one thing that isn't true is that dealers in Europe are somehow more knowledgeable and further, they are almost always more expensive to buy from. These red herrings promote resentment in the trade and foster the politics that are so puerile. To go back to my first sentence about being expert, the expertise I advise is more about the character of the person you are buying from than about their knowledge. And a word to the wise that when you ask one dealer about another's expertise, any answer should be seen through the prism of politics.