An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 42

Clinton Howell Antiques - November 12, 2018 - Issue 42

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The pleasure of being in an up market is contradicted by the difficulties of, at least in the case of English furniture dealers in the 1990's, finding quality goods to sell. I remember articles written questioning the quantity of available English furniture from the 18th century that was available in the U.S. The rationale was that there was not enough produced in the 18th century to furnish all the houses that were clamoring for the product in the 20th century. Those articles were half right. Where they were wrong was in taking for granted that every shop that called themselves an "antique" shop was actually selling antiques. Furthermore, some of the shops selling antiques knew they were not selling antiques but items that more or less looked the part. Having said this, however, it is absolutely amazing how much furniture was produced in Britain in the 18th century. I have talked about this often, but it is true. The furniture industry in the first seventy-five years of the 18th century  in the UK, was like US Steel in the 1950's. Great Britain supplied most of Europe, France being the exception, with furniture as well as its own domestic market.

The problem that we faced was that a lot of the great English furniture often ended up going to Sotheby's and Christie's, places that attracted much of the retail and wholesale trade. Dealers like me, whose client list was developing, had to work doubly hard  to find items that had distinct quality and aesthetic presence.  What this meant for myself and my compatriots was getting up and going the moment we saw an opportunity no matter where it was. For example, Selkirk's in St. Louis was almost always worth the trip, even based on rudimentary descriptions one read in  "The Art and Antiques Weekly".  New York City was fertile ground of course, but you always knew you would have competition on the home turf. Ultimately, ten hour car drives or two day trips to LA, Dallas, St. Louis, Palm Beach or wherever were the norm. Occasionally, you would arrive to see other dealers right there with you. Or you would start bidding and it felt like the whole world  was on the other phone lines. That happened to me at Boos Auctions outside of Detroit where I saw a magnificent rococo mirror hanging upside down in an ad. (The next time I saw it was in London at the top shop of that era, Mallet.) That trip entailed a plane ticket that took me first to Detroit where I was for about two hours, then to Atlanta where I caught a flight for Columbia, SC to view another sale. From there to Cincinnati and then back to Newark. This is, I suppose, every businessman's lot--its just that all of us were trying to cover the vast auction market based on small snapshots in the trade papers. Disappointment was the rule, except when it wasn't.