Guy Apter discusses the problems of provenance and eighteenth century English furniture.
Some of our clients may not realise that the production of our annual catalogue takes months of preparation. The photography shoots, the wording of the text and the in depth research has begun already, even though the catalogue is not published until late spring.
One of our greatest ongoing challenges in doing the research for our brochure is establishing the original houses that our furniture was made for. But why is this?
There are various reasons.
First, we look to eighteenth century house inventories. Paintings were often listed by title and artist, making them easily identifiable. Unfortunately when furniture was listed, it might have been described simply as “A Pair of Side Tables” or “Gilt Candlestands”. This vagueness and lack of detail is hardly conducive to later exact identification.
Unfortunately, early auction catalogues are often no more help. The largest dispersal of decorative arts in this country occurred during the 1930s due to the economic circumstances of the times and the imposition of death duties, when owners of large houses needed to raise capital. Photography was only used for a small number of items in each auction catalogue. The remainder of items were listed, again with a very brief description, making later identification difficult. As an example, although taken from an earlier period, the Christie’s Catalogue from the sale of the contents of Stowe in 1848 included the descriptions “A noble pier table” and “A carved and gilt pier table. This is a very curious old piece of furniture”!
Furthermore, it is par for the course that the antiques trade had to accommodate discretion if owners did not want to advertise their need to sell, and on these occasions the history of the item was typically hidden. Even in my time in the business, we have purchased major works through agents, acting on behalf of titled families, who had been instructed not to reveal the provenance.
So where does that leave us?
It is necessary to alter one’s expectations. In collecting English furniture today, the history of a piece subsequent to its original commission becomes far more important and relevant. For example, for a piece to have been in one of the great collections formed in the first half of the twentieth centuries by the likes of Messer, Griffiths and Sykes, all advised by Symonds, now carries great kudos. Interestingly, all pieces included in any of these collections were selected for their rarity, their colour, patination and form, all the characteristics by which we judge the furniture we are buying and selling. Although the original provenance might well have been known at the time the item entered one of these collections, it was not necessarily recorded! Whilst on occasion the provenance was concealed by dealers protecting their source it is certainly true that provenance was not the measure by which an item was judged. A piece of furniture stood or fell on its own merits and not by whom it was commissioned. It is for this reason that furniture from these collections is so highly prized regardless of not knowing its former history.
Likewise, discovering items illustrated in exhibition catalogues also carries weight and value. To discover an item illustrated in a handbook of the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair (arguably the World’s first fully vetted and most prestigious antiques event from 1936 through to 2009) is of great significance and should certainly not be under-estimated.
Apart from fair and exhibition catalogues, dealers such as Apter-Fredericks have produced catalogues illustrating the furniture they have for sale. When subsequently resold by others, our names are added to the provenance, testament to the respect in which dealers such as ourselves are held. Put simply, by handling a piece we are authenticating it and we are marking it out as a piece that meets our high standards. This adds to its provenance.
Finding the original house for which a piece was made may seem like an impossible task but it is achievable on occasion. Sometimes we discover a bill or an inventory that is detailed enough to be certain. This was most certainly the case with Mrs Hutton Rawlinson’s Bookcase which will feature in a future article where we will discuss some of the discoveries we have made.
We would reassure clients that research is always ongoing and on occasion we do have success even after we sell an item. We are continually buying catalogues of old house sales, exhibition catalogues and dealers’ brochures. On a fairly regular basis, possibly years after selling a piece, we will discover an item illustrated in one of these catalogues and will then be able to go back to the client with the good news.
For me, the research is one of the most exciting tasks of our year. The detective work, the red herrings, the discoveries, even the frustration of getting so close to a provenance or a maker but not quite, are one of the joys of being an antiques dealer and of course, there is the enormous amount one learns by writing our catalogues.
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