A big part of the attraction of antique furniture, and why many choose to invest in it over more modern and sometimes (we hate to admit) more practical pieces, is its quality. Its survival over centuries and the ever increasing beauty of its warmth, patina and colour is something that comes from expertly chosen woods, the finest craftsmanship, and an attention to detail on a par with the best Constable landscape. Admittedly, not all pieces are exceptional, and it is to our chagrin in the trade that some of the best items of furniture ever made have been lost; swallowed up by damp, light damage, abuse, and fire. Still, occasionally things come onto the market that elucidate the continuing draw of high-quality period furniture. A case in point would be the recent sale of the Harrington Commode (attributed to Thomas Chippendale), which sold for a world record £3.35m at Sotheby’s in December (see image below).
The Harrington Chippendale Commode that fetched almost £3.8m including buyer's premium at Sotheby's. Image courtesy Sotheby's.
Over and above the demand for attributable furniture in the trade (to names such as Chippendale), and our seemingly voracious desire to collect and maintain such objects, they can - like the Art of the day - offer an insight into fashion, politics, and culture in important ways. In the late-eighteenth century for example, when Chippendale was working, our European tastes tended towards the Classical. It was through surrounding ourselves with forms and decoration influenced by idealised ancient cultures, that we could justify our exploration of the world, and key the destructive power of our expanding Empire into an idyllic notion of reaching for perfection in the way we saw the Greeks and Romans as doing. We can find, in objects like the Harrington Commode, a refined and concentrated synthesis of this cultural-political ideal. It is a fantastic experiment in form, colour, and style, exquisitely made and completely irreplaceable. The use of varied and exotic woods such as Fustic, Tulipwood and Rosewood, gathered from the corners of our Empire, are inlayed in beautifully balanced classicising marquetry patterns. The flamboyant, curling front of the commode has the stature of a throne, and there is across its surface a profuse utilisation of well-defined ormolu (gilded metal adornment that delineates structure and enhances the dynamism of an object’s form). Will we ever look back on our own era, defined as it is by mass-production and flat-pack Ikea plywood tables, and celebrate its decorative achievements in the same way? Can we ever look at a vacuum-formed table lamp and link it to the refinement and adherence to quality that can be found in the smallest of details on a Georgian table or bookcase?
It seems that, while the recession continues to hit us all it is exceptional pieces such as the Harrington commode that seem to be raising the profile of fine furniture to the level of Art, not just of craft. The sales we are making in our London showrooms reflect this trend towards the finest pieces and Reindeer Antiques are actively seeking rare and unusual examples of English furniture.