An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 49

Clinton Howell Antiques - April 2019 - Issue 49
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
I have spent a lot of time in my career wondering why the English furniture market is so incapable of reaching consensus about certain aspects of furniture "knowledge". For example, there was a movement in the 1970's to understand what was considered "Chippendale" furniture, meaning furniture made in the style of Chippendale, but not by Chippendale. This is a difficult question as Chippendale's contemporaries made furniture in the Chippendale style, as did their successors right through to the 20th century. Furthermore, the furniture was made in the same style--hand made without machine marks using the same timbers, glues, brasses and locks. So what date does the market use to start calling a piece a reproduction versus something made in the Chippendale style? The academics in the 1970's were clearly dismissive of pieces made in the second half of the 19th century, but they also felt that furniture made in his style after Chippendale's death in 1779, was second period. The market, however, disagreed. Vettors at the prestigious Grosvenor House Fair in the 1970's decided to allow furniture made in the Chippendale style to be non-reproductions if they were made prior to 1830.

Should dealers be plagued by such questions? I have long believed that the most important thing a dealer can do is to tell all he can about a piece of furniture based on the fact that dealers learn more and more about furniture as they progress into their career. The problem with vetting is that you have to create these artificial lines that are, essentially, meaningless and which, occasionally, belie both academic and pragmatic understanding. To wit, if someone wants to purchase a piece made in 1880 in the Chippendale style, he has the perfect right to do so even if they wish to pay way over the market for it. But if they are buying it as a period piece made in the 1760's, then they are being taken. The gist of what I am getting at here is that expertise is hard won by any and all people who work in, study or collect English antique furniture. No one has all the answers, but some people are very worthwhile listening to.