MATERIAL WORLD All That’s Old Is Not Gold

Thinking about investing in antiques? Looking for a nice piece for the foyer? Don’t believe every story you hear about Napoleon’s favorite armoire.

YOUR GRANDDAD’S DESK HAS SAT IN THE corner of your memory since childhood. Ah. The way the top slipped back, lines of roll-top slats disappearing magically into the darkness, rows of drawers appearing like sleight of hand. You itched to reach up and pull one of the tiny knobs, opening a compartment holding treasures within-pink peppermints, pen knives, rolls of pennies.

Now that desk has come to you, sitting in the garage. Your car is outside. Granddad’s desk is in.

It’s a little the worse for wear, but an Antique Restoration Specialist you found listed in the Yellow Pages says he can help-if the desk is truly an antique, not a “junktique. ” If it’s a true antique, his restorative wizardry will cost $1,500-if the item is not warped. “If it’s warped, it will cost more. A little. But it will be worth every penny.”

Rolls and rolls of pennies.

Maybe you’ve found yourself in this situation, or perhaps your foray into old furniture has been more in a shopping vein or you own an object or two you consider antique, and the glossy pages of Architectural Digest and Elle Decor sing to you.

So, let’s get the biggest question out of the way first: What is an antique^ The answer is a pitfall to nearly everyone because of a long-entrenched but fallacious belief that antiques arc any item 100 years old or older.

This is a truism that’s no longer true, sad to say. Because, of course, the “100-year rule” was first dispensed in your parents’ time- circa 1940-when “100 years ago” meant before mass production.

Count back 100 years from 1996, however, and you find there were giant furniture plants in Chicago cranking out 1,000 chairs a day. England churned out enough wardrobes to fill the Channel. And every French cabinetmaker with a relative in banking flung up a factory to satisfy the clamoring petit bourgeoisie of Paris. Philadelphia, and St. Louis.

Reaching back 100 years, you won’t find anything genuinely antique anymore. You have to reach back further, to a simpler, pre-industrial time, to find the “real thing.” Genuine antiques are pieces of furniture handmade before the mid-19th century Industrial Revolution. Thus, only if that aforementioned desk that belonged to your granddad also belonged to his granddad, would it likely be ripe enough to be a genuine antique.

Next problem : How can you know if a piece is really that old? Since you’re no expert, who is? Can you trust the Hal Holbrook-ish salesman from Georgia who spoke to you at the big “First Monday” fair in Canton? The one who charmingly whispered in your ear that his antebellum chifforobe belonged to Margaret Mitchell’s grandmother? Once you’ve paid, will he and his story be gone with the wind? What about that lady at the auction in New York who hinted that the big bedstead in the corner slept Beethoven’s cousin and sometime mistress, Hilda of Bavaria?

If you’re looking hard at genuine antiques, if you’re going to plunk down large cash for an investment-quality piece, then you should avoid the sales patter and hire a reputable decorator, or seek a tried-and-true local dealer- someone you can get to if things go bust. A professional opinion is critical to a wise investment purchase. Ask around about dealers. Talk to a few. Check into return policies and upgrades and in-home approval.

As for decorators and designers, ask the dealers you’ve met or trustworthy friends for recommendations, or check them out with the ASID (American Society of Interior Designers-748-1541). Remember genuine antiques are like fine art-beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder. Experts can counsel you on rarity, materials, workmanship, restoration or lack of it, design, time period, and place of origin-all of which influence an antique’s value.

And be forewarned: Almost all stories of an antique’s provenance-famous owners, fabulous tales, sumptuous historical detail-are fictitious. A firm rule to yourself: Do not look beyond what is visible.

I recently saw an incredible French Louis XIV (late 17th century) double bow-front commode in brass-banded black lacquer with original gilded brass (ormolu) hardware at the Nick Brock Antiques gallery on Henderson Avenue, It’s a superb period piece (i.e., designed in the time it was built, not a “style piece,” which is a reproduction of an earlier era’s design). It’s magnificent and can stand handsomely in most decors. Thus, it’s a substantial five figures-firmly in the investment camp.

Certainly you could store linens in it, but it’s a bit beyond the reach of most of us. It therefore might be just the ticket for a well-heeled collector wanting something significant to build from. But right across the room is a small Louis XV settee, much worn, but still beautiful, for a low four figures. Why? Settees never seem to claim a very high price in the marketplace. The design is not overly noteworthy, and the workmanship about average. Though it is period, it isn’t unique, and its slightly worn look also suppresses its value. So, if you’re a collector on a budget, this could be a nice way for you to go. It will never command a price like the commode, but it’ll never decline in value, either. And as its age increases, so does its rarity. Someday settees might turn around, and there you’d be: a cagey investor with an 18th-century antique.

Or, now that you’re becoming something of an antiquing authority, you could ride the newest Dallas trend and ignore all the heavy English oak furniture-Queen Anne and Empire-that’s been popular here for ages. Look instead into something pretty, something different. For example, the Dutch Rococo-styled, exquisitely painted china cabinet, circa 1850, that I saw recently on Henderson, with a delicately japanned chinoiserie pattern on a glossy background. It’s really special, but not too rare. A showpiece, though, to make your mother’s Wedgwood glow.

Rest assured, your decorator or dealer can help steer you toward the best purchase. And remember-just as in art or diamonds-there is never a “real deal” waiting for you to stumble across it. You get what you pay for, and then you wait for it to increase in value. Patience and a critical faculty are your greatest assets as an investor. Along with lots of cash.



Most antiques hunters are not going to buy the multi- thousand-dollar pieces like the commode above. Most of us are interested in antiques just to have them in our homes. If you’ve shopped for substantial contemporary dining tables and bedroom suites from quality manufacturers, you know how expensive filling your house can be. Beautiful, solid antiques of non-investment quality are often superb dollar-for-dollar alternatives to contemporary furniture.

At Richard Alan’s, also on Henderson, I saw an unrestored, double-door, standing liquor cabinet in burled walnut over mahogany, capped by a marble top. It’s a style piece made nicely in the ’20s in Argentina, and priced at $3,750. A similar current piece at a top furniture showroom would easily set you back $5,000 or more. And, it’s one-of-a-kind.

An acquaintance recently went hunting for a set of American press-back chairs to complement a grandmother’s simple oak table. After scouring the city and taking a jaunt out to Forney, she stumbled upon the perfect set at the Unlimited Ltd. antiques mall in Addison. The four chairs for $1,200 were exactly what she was after: period design, generous size and construction, good detail, and an untypical look. They’d also been correctly restored-not just made to look shiny and new. Of course, the chairs are only turn-of-the – century and undoubtedly manufactured, not handmade, but they were exactly the price and type or furniture she targeted.

If the liquor cabinet and chairs are not genuine antiques, neither are they “junktiques”- poorly made and badly refinished pieces of questionable taste fobbed off on an unwitting public. They’re fine examples of good, old furniture, and in 50 more years they’ll share some of [he luster of true antiques.

Which brings us back to what to do about granddad’s desk. Through a friend, you stumble upon an honest firm like Goodchild Restorations on Dragon Street. And they gently tell you that granddad’s desk was manufactured about a hundred years ago. is in pretty good shape, and they can make it beautiful again for less than $500. Refinishing is not recommended, because you could lose much of the desk’s original charm; sometimes a less than perfect old finish is worth much more than a pristine new surface.

Since you adored granddad, and you really do love the desk, it doesn’t matter that it’s not terribly valuable. You’d never think of selling it, in any case. Besides, you’ve priced a new one with a cheap pressboard back and it’s twice the restoration cost, So you decide to go for it. And you feel good about your decision.

Buyer Beware

MORE AND MORE ANTIQUES SHOPS and furniture stores are turning into flea markets of bric-a-brac masquerading as timeworn art. The value of broken porcelain pots, worm-eaten books, and flaking finials is relative to only one thing-the depth of your wallet. “Stuff” from 100 years ago is still, basically, just “stuff.” It has little or no inherent value. It costs what it costs because you are ready to pay for it.

We are not speaking here of obviously valuable things like first edition books, genuine (that is, appraised and verified) Fabergé eggs, and so forth, We’re talking about “stuff”-the stuff you see crowding the shelves and sideboards at almost every antiques store you’ve ever been to.

Beware ’authentic’ Shaker checkerboards and ’Louis Quinze’ naked cherubs frolicking on petit-point cushions. Be skeptical of tremulous stories of Dresden shepherdesses that were spirited out ’before the war1 (which war? Desert Storm?). Take home that ’19th-century’ Tyrolean cuckoo clock at your peril.

Better to invest your antiques-shopping time and money in furniture, and leave your art dollars for buying art. not craft (from die German word, krap).

Buying Antiques at Auction

WHAT ABOUT AUCTIONS? EVERYBODY loves an auction. They’re like somebody’s idea of a really terrific party game. If you’ve never been to one, you must go sometime.

But auctions in general-for antiques in particular-are not really games. They are a very serious, high-stakes business, and- especially in Texas-are often played by rules you may know nothing about.

The state of Texas very loosely regulates auctioneers, and as a result many of the auctions that take place in die Dallas area are not actually true “auctions” at all, A true auction is a sale by bid of items that are consigned to the auction house for sale. But most local auctions of period pieces and genuine antiques are merely staged public sales of merchandise owned by the store or the auction house. Oftentimes, salespeople are even stationed in the audience to help run up the bidding, just like in the movies.

So, before you go to an auction, check it out. Find out where the furniture is coming from. Be leery of sales at big houses in Preston Hollow-oftentimes the furniture is just trucked in for the sale. Look closely at the brochure, or look at the pieces on display in the house. Ask yourself questions. Does the furniture go together? Would people actually live with this stuff?

Find out if it’s going to be an “absolute auction”-will everything for sale be sold regardless of final bidding price, or are there any “reserve” prices that will keep you from getting a swell deal? If there is a reserve price, the item will not be sold unless the reserve price is met or exceeded. Also ask about the “buyer’s premium”-is there a fee (sometimes as high as 15 percent) that you have to pay on top of the “hammer price,” your final bid?

Most importantly, be sure you know what you’re looking at-most auction houses don’t stand behind what they sell, as an antiques dealer would. If you buy it, you’ve bought it! Take along an expert, just as you would when shopping at an antiques store. And set a final price beyond which you won’t bid, no matter how much “auction fever” you catch. Then you’ll be safe, and can enjoy the experience,-D.T.

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