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Antiques: House Sales
None the less, there is a thrill in personal triumphs in the sale-room. Most collectors will probably find it best to combine sale-room activity with a discriminating patronage of reliable dealers. Besides sale-rooms, it is one of the most interesting of all the sidelights of collecting to attend private house sales which provide a fascinating chance to see the background of other peoples' lives all over the country.
Rectory and Manor House sales give the entree into many lovely private retreats which otherwise would never be glimpsed. Even if you buy nothing the expedition may not have been wasted. Many of my happiest memories are of rides out to some distant village, mysterious and beautiful on a hazy October morning, with the red and gold trees towering up behind the haystacks and the cockerels (looking like exotic birds on a Worcester vase) crowing valiantly from the fields.
And then the turn in the road as the long brown stone house of the sale comes into view with the mist-wettened flowers beginning to shine as the sun struggles through the haze; the charm of the old house itself with its antique staircase and walnut long-case clock in the hall; the delicate Oriental porcelain on the landing and the blue and gilt Sevres on the mantelpiece; the view across the stream to the fifteenth-century Church with its peaceful old bells and its dreaming spire; the lunch in the pub and the stroll down the richly shaded lane ...
Who shall call such a day wasted, even if prices are too high and you come away without a single victory?
On the other hand if you do strike oil and secure your prize it will always provide a happy souvenir of the day as well as being a delight in itself. How pleasant to sit in the winter firelight and look at a fine black oak carved screen with rose-colored damask panels, remembering the charm of its former home on an autumn morning five years ago and fifty miles away! How satisfying to watch the sunset light up a tall green and gold Chinese potpourri vase with its enchanting odour, seeming like the Edwardian era distilled! As you look at it you remember the white-painted Queen Anne staircase on which it formerly stood, with the russet and yellow chrysanthemums massed under the window and the solemn family portraits in the hall, and for a moment time seems to stand still.
All such incidental pleasures are only possible if you actually buy the pieces from the houses where they stood. Neither sale-room nor dealer's shop can give them, so you should certainly include a proportion of house sale objects in your collection. They will help to give personality to it in a very subtle way.
In house sales, as at general auctions, it is frequently the smaller pieces of furniture and the better quality bric-a-brac which will be most in demand. Large objects, huge cabinets, chiffoniers and cumbrous tables are difficult to accommodate in the average modern house and they may prove almost unsaleable. Grandfather clocks, except those of the very best quality and by well-known makers, can usually be obtained very cheaply indeed. Excellent specimens frequently go for $15 to $18 while anyone prepared to pay up to $60 can often have a really beautiful example.
But do not expect to find good-quality antiques of the more convenient size coming your way cheaply. Even the most remote country villages are now easily accessible by car, and dealers and other collectors with sharp eyes will be there as well as you. At a quite small private house sale in the Midlands recently a fine gilt-framed mirror fetched $420, a mahogany table $280, a secretaire bookcase $196 and an antique chest of drawers $112. And when the higher flights of furniture are reached prices can be enormous indeed, $28,000 and $34,00o being not at all unusual for a Louis XV ormolu mounted commode. These sumptuous objects, however, are usually reserved for the great salerooms of London.
Fine porcelain is certain to fetch high prices. It is becoming increasingly difficult to get and competition for it is very keen everywhere. Even damaged pieces, provided the damage is not excessive, will fetch surprising figures if they are from a famous factory and are important-looking objects.
Clocks in general, not merely long case clocks, seem still to be available very reasonably. In fact, anyone who wishes to make a specialist collection of something but is undecided what to start on might do well, at present anyway, to begin with old clocks. I have a number, picked up at both house sales and auction rooms, which I consider amongst the most satisfying objects I ever bought.
They keep superb time, only one having had to be put out to a clockmaker for attention before it was ready for use. They are marvellously ornamental and seem to link the present with the past in a way no other antiques can quite do. For a clock is 'alive'; its tickings and its chime have marked the whole period since it was made. Even a clock from the 1850s or 1 860's has a wonderful record of service and it is surprising that so many beautiful examples should have survived in good order.
I have a really lovely French ormolu clock, date about 1830, of first-class quality and an excellent time keeper. (This was the one which had to be put out to a clockmaker for attention.) It was very grimy when it was bought; it had lost its bell and the glass dome was so badly cracked it had to be discarded. As a result of these deficiencies the clock went for $11.2o. But the clockmaker charged only $2.80 for the cleaning and provision of a new bell and it now keeps perfect time. The ormolu shines at last with a lovely golden patina and the discarded dome was no problem since domes are quite easy to replace.
Of course, if you buy an antique clock at a sale you take the risk of trouble with repairs if it is not in good going order. It is difficult in some districts to find clockmakers who will even undertake the work; some of them have not the necessary knowledge, or patience, to deal with any type of antique mechanism. On the whole, therefore, it is desirable to see that the clock is working when you buy it, particularly if at a sale. Probably one of the reasons for the general cheapness of antique clocks is this problem of repairs. It also explains why the dealers tend to fight shy of them, for obviously a dealer needs the clock to be in working order if he is to put a good price on it in his shop.
But if you get one that appears to be working properly at the sale, all the balance is in favour of its giving long and satisfactory service. For the works put into old clocks, particularly the ornamental French ones, were usually excellent, and certainly my experience has been that if an antique clock works at all it will work very well.
(Incidentally, you need to make a clear distinction between spelter and ormolu in buying an ornamental clock. The former can look quite attractive when well gilded, but it is a mere imitation metal and has none of the rich velvety golden patina of true ormolu. Spelter clocks, however, can be obtained very cheaply indeed. I even bought one for 70¢ in an auction room and though it cannot compare with ormolu examples it was an amazing 70¢ worth. The base is of black marble, ornamented with metal lion's heads, and above is a most graceful figure of Cardinal Richelieu with pen and book. The clock itself, which has kept perfect time for several years, is surmounted with a tasselled Cardinal's hat and strikes both hours and half hours.)
Another, for which I paid only $2.10 and have had regilded so that it looks very well, has an attractive Pompadour-like female adjoining the clock, holding aloft a pair of fishes. (Since Madame Pompadour's name was originally Mlle Poisson it is presumably a post-Revolution jibe at her origins.)
Perhaps the best general piece of advice that can be given on attendance at sales is this: make up your mind firmly in advance what you think the objects that interest you are worth to you, and do not in any circumstances exceed this figure. There will be disappointments in store, for often, especially in the early stages of collecting, it will seem that a piece should surely be obtainable for, say, $28,whereas in the event it fetches $56.
But weigh up carefully on the View Day the amount of permanent pleasure you calculate the things are going to give you. Consider the precise suitability of them to your collection, their possible value if resold, the degree to which you really want them (as opposed to the immediate interest aroused by the mere novelty of seeing them for the first time). Then resolve on a definite maximum relating to all this, and you cannot go far wrong. It will, in any case, be a healthy corrective to a possible attack of Sale Fever.
Finally, remember that there is no absolute standard of prices in the world of antiques. They fluctuate from year to year and from place to place. In some towns, for instance, pairs of lustres seem to be quite common and consequently do not fetch high prices. In others they are a comparative rarity and the price soars accordingly. Good old oak furniture may predominate in certain districts, lighter Frenchstyle work in another; and the prices reached may reflect this predominance.
Paintings will naturally vary in price according to the current reputation-value of the painter concerned. A number of Victorian artists are beginning to be 're-discovered' (Shayer, for instance), and their market value, which until recently was low, is going up as a result. Nothing, perhaps, shows this fluctuation more strikingly than the way in which, in the world of porcelain, Samson reproductions have gone up in value. Until recently they were condemned by most collectors and writers on antiques as `execrable.' But now they are beginning to be looked at afresh and collected at often quite remarkable prices.
The really important thing is to build up a collection which reflects your own tastes and personality, regardless of fashion trends. Antiques as investments are best left to the financiers, though there is no reason at all why you should not occasionally be fortunate and buy something cheaply which afterwards shows a considerable profit.