A question often asked when people first start collecting or just wanting to buy an antique for decorative purposes. We as dealers often come up against ‘well I like it so I’m going to buy it’, that sort of declaration is very hard to counter with any sort of advice and like all things in life frequently the keen desire for a bargain has really been the cause of disappointment. People in their ordinary affairs of life scorn to take advantage of an ignorant person seem only to delighted at being able to ‘pick up’ a bargain from a source who they thought could be wanting knowledge and they become very indignant that it is their own knowledge, not only of antiques but human nature that was so lamentably deficient. So now we’ve got the bargain hunting out of our system we may proceed.
Our modern way of living and in face modern architecture has become very demanding and when pieces are asked to stand alone they are often exposed for the frippery they represent. This is where armed with knowledge a beautiful antique can stand out and enhance even the most austere surroundings. Just what they were made for in the first place. The humble chest of drawers is a classic example for us to start with; at their finest they are handsome, pleasing to the eye and functional. At their worst they are an abomination and would struggle to do service in a shed for storage.
The chest that we want must have all the following;
When first viewed your eye should rest and feel happy with what it sees which means it probably has a good original colour or patina, which is another word for the wax, the dirt, the fading of hundreds of years of life. This gives the surface its ‘glow’. It is best to have original handles, which will be brass and probably swan neck. Round handles and wooden knobs came later in the Victorian period, although they can be very good they are often of a less quality. It will have original feet often slightly stained closer to the ground. Particularly if they have been on some floors where dampness maybe a problem or straw had been placed around them in times of great flooding, a common problem in 18th and earlier centuries this is often a good indication of age. When the drawers are pulled out they should slide comfortably. The best mahogany chests are usually lined in oak and the early walnut ones are often a mixture of oak and pine, as veneers adhere to pine and consequently more structurally sound. Once you have got this far into your appraisal you will find that this common piece of furniture will give you a feeling of either importance and strength or it will be just another piece of second hand furniture. The difference is considerable and that’s what makes an antique so desirable. When you have the right one it will put everything else around it to shame that is not up to the standard. So give it space, enjoy its beauty and function whether it be in the bedroom to store clothes or the living areas of the house for its function to store or use as a surface, and remember that the price of a quality piece is soon forgotten but that of a badly put together substitute will always be remembered.
It’s hard for us to imagine that the designers and makers of the time ever thought that two hundred and fifty years later we would be discussing their designs, their manufacturing techniques and that the pieces constructed were still in daily use. It is great credit to our past. We can see the classic design and quality as an indeterminate age of usefulness. Some of the reasons are explained by the use of solid timbers, very thick veneers and the methods of construction allow pieces to be repaired and restored time and time again. Whereas with a modern manufactured piece once the surface has been damaged and a sanding down has been required the veneers are so thin they disappear under the stroke of sandpaper. This is one of many reasons why we are going to see properly made antiques out living much of the modern furniture.
I mentioned before the word patina and this is often what first catches the eye when looking at antique furniture, but one of the main reasons other than waxing and ageing over hundreds of year is the fact that the timber when first polished was not sanded first and hence the grain of the timber was not choked up by sanding dust. It’s a great credit to the craftsman of the times that they were able to finish the wood from the steel (chisel or plane) then polish. This allowed the wax and colourings to bite into the timber and over a great period of time give that wonderful glow and textured feel to the surface rather than the flat featureless and modern look. Once we start collecting and looking at furniture from say the 17th Century and earlier its basic charm including the turnings shows that everything was straight from the tools and this is what collectors first go for when viewing early great pieces. In a funny sort of way those that are now looking for antiques have a lot to thank the more modern minimalist approach to living. This has had an effect of creating a demand for well-made quality pieces that can sit happily against modern counterparts and it is this that creates such a sharp look and one that will increasingly create demands for the better looking and well-made furniture that we now call antiques.