1001 Rules for Collecting Antiques
Diagram of cross-section of a painting.

Diagram of cross-section of a painting.

Diagram of chair legs!

Diagram of chair legs!

Diagram of a Chippendale armchair!

Diagram of a Chippendale armchair!

Hip Hop Hooray for Hepplewhite!

Since we’ve already taken a look at Mr. Chippendale, I thought it would be fun for us to discuss the two other rock stars of 18th century English furniture design - George Hepplewhite (1727? - 1786) and Thomas Sheraton (1751 – 1806). First, Mr. Hepplewhite. Like Chippendale and Sheraton, Hepplewhite was a furniture maker in London during the reign of King George III. And like Chippendale and Sheraton, Hepplewhite’s name is famous today because of the furniture design or pattern book he published. There are no pieces of furniture made by Hepplewhite or his firm known to exist. Hepplewhite died before the publication of his Cabinetmaker and Upholsterer’s Guide in 1788. Featuring over 300 of his designs, the publication of his pattern book was overseen by his widow, Alice, who also continued to operate his shop. Some say that “George Hepplewhite” was not a real person, but only a pseudonym adopted by Alice for the publication her designs. Hepplewhite is credited for the invention of the sideboard, which combined a cabinet and two flanking pedestals to form a single piece for the newly designed Dining Room. Heavily influenced by the new archaeological discoveries in Italy, Hepplwhite is particularly associated with the pierced-splat and shield-back chairs which were to prove influential abroad. A disciple of the Neoclassical brothers Adam style, Hepplewhite style is slender and curvilinear in shape. Look for shorter more curved chair arms, straight legs, heart- or shield-back chairs, all with little to no carving. Painting or inlay is Hepplewhite’s most frequent ornament.

The preface to Hepplewhite’s Guide declares that the purpose of his/her book is “To unite elegance and utility, and blend the useful with the agreeable.”  A Hepplwhite side chair and armchair with pierced heart-shaped backs from the 1790’s.

RULE #5 – ALL wood softens as it ages.

One of the first things I do when I am onsite for an appraisal of antiques is touch the furniture.  While the owner is showing me what needs to be appraised, I am already feeling the exterior edges looking for a soft touch.  Of all the senses, the sense of touch or tactioception can quickly tell you more about an antique than ophthalmoception, audioception, gustaoception and olfacoception combined.  If a piece’s exterior edges are soft, then there is a good chance that the piece is old.  Old wood loses its crispness and softens as it ages, because of the same natural and manmade factors that produce a fine patina.  Much like patina, the most important ingredient in the softening of wood is time.  That is why it is often hard to fake.  After about one hundred years, all exterior edges should be soft to the touch.  Everything from air gently flowing to the repeated dents and dings of a broom slowly erodes the once crisp edges of a piece of furniture.  If your fingers find a crisp or sharp edge, then up goes the red flag.  The hard edge may be an old repair or restoration, or it may be telling you that the piece is newer than it appears to be.

soft touch antique 

"You’ve grown soft."  Every edge on this Chippendale mahogany drop leaf table, of Salem, Massachusetts origin, circa 1770, is soft to the touch.


Georgian On My Mind

Although Ray may have been singing about the Peach State, I would like to discuss the madness of King Georgian furniture.  In antique speak, “Georgian” is a catchall term referring to English (and sometimes American) pieces made during the three successive reigns of George I (1714 - 1727), George II (1727 - 1760), and crazy George III (1760 - 1820).  That is a 106 year period spanning from the Baroque to the Neoclassical. Early Georgian often refers to the Rococo and the reigns of George I and George II.  Although still heavily influenced by French style, Early Georgian interiors and furnishings reveal the growing sophistication of the English aristocracy who showed their good taste and social status with their beautifully furnished residences.  Early Georgian distills the essence of Englishness, tempering aristocratic pomp with the restraint that separates most British styles from the French.  The ball-and-claw foot, derived from an ancient Chinese image of a dragon holding a pearl, is a hallmark of Early Georgian furniture.  Representing the high point of English design, Late Georgian or George III style interiors fully embrace the symmetry and refinement of Neoclassicism.  Without assuming extravagant proportions and showing restraint against the French desire for ornamentation, legendary designers like Adam, Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Sheraton created a pervasive and enduring style that can hold its own with the very best of French Neoclassicism.  The claw-and-ball and cabriole leg is dropped in favor of strikingly slimmer, more tapered leg.  Although the term Georgian can be maddening because it represents over a hundred years of design, at least the terms Early Georgian (= Rococo) and Late Georgian (= Neoclassicism) can assist us in narrowing down this important period.

This Early Georgian side chair is a fine example of the English Rococo in the 1730s.  Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The shield-back side chair, illustrated in Late Georgian English pattern books by George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton, became one of the most popular American chair forms by the end of the eighteenth century.  Brooklyn Museum.

RULE #4 - Patina CANNOT be faked, reproduced or replicated.

Riddle me this, antiquist…What is the result of care (dusting, waxing, polishing) & the result of neglect (dirt, grease, grime)?  What is both man-made (scratches, nicks, dings) & natural (sunlight, chemical changes in the wood & its surface).  You guessed it - Patina!  The best definition of patina comes from the Godfather of American Antiques, Israel Sack (1883 - 1959) - “Patina is everything that happens to an object over the course of time.”  Sack is said to have used the following analogy to help define “patina” for one of his senior female patrons: “Today you are a lovely woman of sixty.  However, who you are today is not who you were when you were twenty.  The difference is patina.”  Patina refers to an antique’s finished surface.  Patina is the mellowing of the finish in the wood’s pores.  It cannot be faked, reproduced or replicated, because the most important ingredient is time.  Patina is what gives an antique character.  The soft glow & depth of color of a fine patina will make a collector weak in the knees.  It remains the Holy Grail for antiques collectors.  And it adds value.  Once an antique has been stripped or refinished it loses its patina forever.  It may take a couple of centuries for its patina to be built back up.  Patina is evidence of the antique’s history & proof of its authenticity.  When it is lost, the value of the piece can be a tenth of what it would have been with its original patina.

Chippendale mahogany five legged claw and ball foot card table

This Chippendale mahogany card table was made in New York circa 1760 to 1780.  It has a choice mellow brown patina & shows us the natural color differences between the exterior & the interior.

Not by the hair of my chinny-chin-Chinoiserie!

Having looked specifically at Chinese Chippendale, let’s take a brief gander at the broader theme of “Chinoiserie”.  Modern Western interest in China began with the importation of Chinese ceramics by the Portugese in the 16th century.  In the early 1600s, two Portugese ships returning from China were captured by the Dutch.  The cargo of thousands of items of Chinese porcelain were auctioned off igniting a European mania for all things Chinese.  Both the King of England & the King of France were eager buyers at the auction.  Since then, the fashion for Chinese things has played a reoccurring role in Western Decorative Arts peaking in the middle 18th century with the Rococo.  No fashionable court residence during the Rococo was complete without its own “Chinese” Room.  Although Chinoiserie is rooted in Chinese artistic influences, it is closer to a Western reflection of an imaginary China.  During the Rococo, Western designers’ imaginations were allowed to run wild through the creative license offered by Chinoiserie.  They took what they needed from their limited exposure to Chinese forms found on imported cabinets, porcelain vessels & embroidery, & then made these Chinese influences their own.  As a Western style of interior design, Chinoiserie gives us an escape from European aesthetic expectations & traditions.  Chinoiserie’s fanciful imagery, asymmetry in format, & whimsical contrasts of scale continue to offer new tools for artists & designers to express themselves.

Pillement Chinoiserie Series

Engraving from a series of Chinoiserie by Jean-Baptiste Pillement from 1759.  Notice the fusion of European & Asian styles of drawing.

Chinese Chippendale is BUSY with all the bells (literally) & whistles.

While Chinoiserie had been popular throughout Europe since the middle to late 17th century, Thomas Chippendale’s use of Chinese motifs on his quintessentially English wares made for a new style of design.  Regardless of its maker, Chinese Chippendale employs Chinese motifs such as fanciful Chinese figures, pagodas, dragons, temples, palaces, fretwork, glazing, railings, bamboo & bells.  While many of the designs published in Chippendale’s The Gentleman & Cabinet-Maker’s Director were not original, Chippendale’s “Chinese Chippendale” designs inspired an entirely individual style.  In 18th century Britain, China was a mysterious far-away place.  Chippendale drew on this exotic image for his designs.  Many of the representations of Chinese themes originated in Chippendale’s imagination, rather than actual Asian objects.  Early or period Chinese Chippendale furniture was not made in China, but in the trendy cabinetmaker’s shops of 1750s London.  Looking at Chippendale’s designs for chairs, we see not only irregular lattice-work & pierced frets, but also the square leg which was a shocking & extraordinary innovation during the high Rococo when the design world was ruled by The Curve.  Chippendale is such a design rock star that he was the first non-monarch to have a style named after him! 

chinese chairs

Chippendale’s Chinese chair designs from The Gentleman & Cabinet-Maker’s Director.  Note the irregular lattice work, pierced fretwork, & square legs!