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Pick of Our Picks: Small Is Beautiful
For the oak collector, the smallest occasional
table is not a table at all, but a joint stool. But in the second
half of the seventeenth century people, wanted greater comfort at
home, and so small, easily movable, multi-purpose gate-leg tables
were produced in some numbers. We currently have two: which you
think is the smaller depends on which dimensions you think are the
most important. The first measures 27" l x 8-3/4" w (closed);
31-1/4 (open) and 25" h. and the other, with the unusual shoe
feet, is 24-1/2" l x 11”w (closed), 29-1/2 (open) and
26" h. As on most small gate-legs, the gates are not turned.
Made early in the next century is the smallest
dressing table we’ve ever seen. Its case width is only 22
inches. Oak furniture doesn’t get much finer or lighter looking
Drinking glasses were valuable, breakable, and
not easily replaceable. So mural glass cupboards were developed
to keep glasses both safe and on display. Many were imposing, highly
decorated affairs, but we have one of the smallest and simplest.
It has great color and proportions, and a charming punched and gouged
decoration: 24-1/2" h x 18" w x 5" d.
Finally, here’s a large piece of furniture
that is small for its form. It’s an enclosed cupboard, or
clothes press, and, at only 48" w x 18" d x 62" h.,
it’ll fit well into a smaller room. The collector from whom
we bought it used it in his study to house his flat-screen TV.
Additional photos and dimensions are available
in the appropriate inventory sections of the site.
In our winter issue of Acorns, we quoted
an extract from the History of Myddle showing how seventeenth-century
furniture moved freely from church to school to house and back again.
Buried in it was this somewhat baffling comment,
Have you ever heard of a piece of furniture called
a “reading piew”? It appears to have been a one-person,
moveable seat that was used in a church, and then in a school, and
was then pulled into pieces. Obviously not a highly regarded form.
We have never run across the term anywhere else,
and yet, a few days after emailing the last issue issue, we came
across a piece of seventeenth-century furniture that might just
fit the bill. It was in a private collection in New Jersey, and
the owner had bought it at a local estate sale many years ago. We
all three went over it with a fine-toothed comb, a bright light,
and a magnifying glass (professional tip: never go antiquing without
your fine-toothed comb). The stretcher was possibly later, but apart
from that, the piece seemed absolutely right. We could see no sign
that it had been made up from old parts or cut down from a longer
pew. The carvings appeared to be seventeenth century, and the combination
of the arches and the quatrefoil strongly suggested a West Country
And then, because good things always come in twos, we were describing
it to a dealer just outside London when his eyes twinkled and he
beckoned us through into his house beside the shop. And there, at
the foot of his stairs, was another. He’d owned it for twenty
years, and he’d never seen another one like it, either. So
reading pews or not, we’ve now seen two examples of a form
we’d never met and never seen documented in the literature
that we’re familiar with. Do any of you own the third, or
know where it is?
We went on a five-day buying trip at the end of
March, to auctions in Philadelphia and Virginia, which were both
selling small collections of oak. The Philly auction was good: of
the eleven lots of early English oak, we bought the three that were
straight enough for us to want to own and sell.
The Virginia auction was another kettle of fish.
The two-and-a-half hour drive was beautiful, lots of daffodils and
forsythia, whereas in Vermont we had only mud and grey remnants
of snow. But it was wasted diesel. The two carved wainscots that
had attracted us were outright fakes, and not very subtle ones at
that. The three side tables and coffer were, in the words of better
auction houses, “seventeenth century and later,” or,
even more damningly, “with antique elements.”
As we saw the wainscots at the far end of the hall,
our hearts sank. They were 7/8 scale, and looked wimpy. Closer up,
it was clear that all the wear had been done by a chisel with inadequate
sanding – the chisel marks were still apparent, particularly
on the front stretchers. The two boards of the seats had separated
enough to show the machine dowels that joined them, and they were
fixed by screws from underneath with no sign of a peg or a rosehead
nail. Most telling of all, and this was something we should have
spotted from the photographs, the two front stretchers had identical
wear. Oh dear.
The chairs came with a provenance, from one named
Virginian collection to another, and then to this auction. They
also came with good condition reports from the auctioneer. Well,
“good” is perhaps stretching it a little. The first
Then we asked for more details and received them:
Now, isn’t that the sort of professional
condition report that really gives you confidence! But, however
slim the chance, we felt we had to check them out. So we did. But
we shouldn’t have. Such is life.
Notes on the Trade in England
“Oh to be in England, now that April’s
Robert Browning said it, and we took his advice.
But he certainly wasn’t addressing antique dealers. It was
hard-scrabble buying over there. Dealer after dealer told us the
same thing – the supply of good early oak was drying up, and
nobody wanted the badly hurt and the heavily restored. One told
us that his neighbor in Stow-on-the-Wold had closed his shop the
week before because he couldn’t find the inventory to fill
it. Another said that he now bought everything he possibly could,
regardless of price, because in a year’s time there might
be nothing to buy. Everyone agreed that the prices for the good
stuff, already high, could only go higher.
Now, nobody exaggerates like an antique dealer, particularly when
complaining. But the pattern was consistent throughout the West,
the Midlands, and the North. And it was reflected in the prices:
anything that was good was expensive, and discounts were small because
of the rising cost of replacement.
At Sotheby’s Oak and Country Sale the story was much the same.
Anything that sold for modest money had serious problems –
usually not reflected in the catalog descriptions. Anything good
went high. We started with a list of some 50 items, which viewing
rapidly reduced to about a dozen. We bid aggressively, and bought
nothing -- the first time ever we’ve been blanked at a large
auction. Actually, we bought two pieces of great needlework, but
We were frustrated, so please bear with us while we take it out
on Sotheby’s cataloguers. The caned armchair looked wonderful,
but only its crest rail and front stretcher were period. It was
catalogued “A large Queen Anne oak and cane high back arm
chair, early 18th century, including canted scroll supports and
Braganza feet.” On the morning of the sale, the description
was amended to “Queen Anne style…” It wasn’t:
it was a fake made to deceive and should have been withdrawn.
The coffer below it had a wonderfully carved and
inlaid front, but everything else was questionable. The back had
been made up of a mix of old and not so old timber, and we were
both of us unhappy with the sides – the panels for sure were
not old, though the frames may have been. The lid was of the period,
but there was no way of telling if it went with the front. Neither
the catalog nor the podium gave any hint of these problems. Its
outrageous price of $10,680 was presumably the result of two retail
customers duking it out.
But all was not gloom and doom. Some dealers treated us well, and
our shipment of small oak, along with items recently acquired from
two US collections, are now up on the site.