An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 43

Clinton Howell Antiques - Nov. 26, 2018 - Issue 43
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
The politics of business often leaves one speechless, but clients are often pretty hard to understand as well. Dealers don't often talk about their clients, there is certainly a trust issue that is respected, but at times it is hard to understand just why someone has purchased an antique. One dealer told me about a client that purchased a high six figure figure item, a partner's desk, without even sitting at it. The dealer was worried by this as the desk height was high, 28.5", and the client was short. He worried that there would be long drawn out recriminations when the man actually started to use the desk. I don't blame the dealer in the slightest for such trepidation. Although we sell expensive items, our money is in inventory, not in cash so that on receiving funds for a purchase, they are usually quickly re-purposed to more inventory.

As I reflect on why the market went so high so quickly, you can't ignore the role of tastemakers. These are the people who really have an eye for how things should look. The primary decorators of the time were all good in their own ways and many of them were great at getting publicity for what they did. The list of decorators is long for those who supported the trade and they were feted in the shelter magazines for their great taste. Antique dealers responded to this love like any lap dog might. The thought that antique furniture, as a finite resource, might be a good investment, was promoted. (The high end trade did not, as a rule, go along with this, but they also did little to dispel the notion, either.) The greatest beneficiaries of this mania were the auctions where sales became a social event, but clearly, the trade also reaped huge rewards. The vortex of activity had many moving parts and while they were in synchronization, there was a genuine mania about owning English furniture.

Of course, it is a tad simplistic to describe this as being a phenomenon solely of the '90's and solely about English antiques. Antique furniture, let alone attending auctions or seeing the things that you buy as investments, are as old as the hills. It's happening today in a number of different fields of art and decorative art. When it gets to fever pitch and the force of it all is almost tangible, that is when you need to understand that all markets have peaks and valleys. All of these tangible goods are for living with, after all, and they should be enjoyed for what they are. I hope the fellow who bought the expensive desk felt that way. He certainly paid for the pleasure.