Antique sleuthing is interesting business. As is the case with any "antique," the typical lay person really has no earthly idea what he or she is getting into, and can depend only on personal instinct, research, the reputation of the dealer and perhaps the advice of friends who have something of a clue as to what's authentic and what's not.
That's where the sleuthing part comes in. In the case of American antique wooden furniture, for example, it's fascinating to watch someone analyze style, finish, carving and primary and secondary woods, then solve the mysteries as to period, place of origin and perhaps even the identity of individual makers or workshops.
Have there been repairs or refinishings? Could the piece be a complete counterfeit?
Things happen, unfortunately, and there's always a sucker out there who somehow ends up throwing good money after a phony product.
All of these issues need to be properly sorted out before an item can be accurately (and ethically) classified.
One of the godfathers of American antique furniture classification was Israel Sack, whose eponymous Manhattan antique store became a destination for serious collectors during the 20th century, and who is generally credited with raising American furniture from the antiquarian level to the status of art.
His son, Albert, who died in 2011 at the age of 96, expanded the family business and wrote a book, "Fine Points of American Furniture: Good, Better, Best, Superior, Masterpiece," which would follow an earlier version of the same topic and become an indispensable reference not only for amateur collectors but also professional dealers.
With the use of photographs, he explained his ideas about proportion, form, wood selection and visual use of grain, then showed how those principles were expressed in the difference between furniture that was masterful versus not so masterful.
But wouldn't you know it? It took Southern antique furniture a long time to acquire the reputation it justly deserves as among the most beautiful in the country - particularly in the chichi midtown Manhattan realm.
A late Charlestonian whom many would know walked into the Sacks' store atop Fifth Avenue's Crown Building about 30 years ago, perused the inventory, then politely asked Mr. Sack (Albert) where his Southern pieces were.
Well, there weren't any, and a lively discussion ensued, fueled in part by the general perception that Southern furniture just didn't belong in the same company as that from, say, Philadelphia or New York. It wasn't stated that way in so many words, but such was the essence of the conversation.
"Mr. Sack," the Charleston gentleman reportedly said, "you're a real pro and you know what you're doing, but I'm here to tell you that the finest example of American furniture is in Charleston, South Carolina. It's called the Holmes Bookcase and can be found inside the Heyward-Washington House."
I don't think Mr. Sack ever really arrived at that exact conclusion, but, according to legend, a visit to Charleston, the Heyward-Washington House and perhaps other locales reshaped his views on Southern furniture, representatives of which would start showing up with some regularity inside his store.
Interestingly, the mystery of the scarcity of identifiable Charleston major works always has added to their allure. And then there are other aspects of the city's artistic heritage, which have been analyzed and written about for decades.
As one simple example, a copy of the November 1970 edition of Antiques magazine, on loan to me from Virginia Barnwell, is noted to have much of its content devoted strictly to Charleston: American Art at the Gibbes Art Gallery in Charleston; expatriate portraits - Charlestonians in museums outside Charleston; paintings in the Council Chamber of Charleston's City Hall; mortuary art in Charleston Churches - all interesting reading, and well predating Charleston's bursting on the international scene, as it would do in subsequent years.
So as everybody who lives here already happens to know, there's nothing to worry about in terms of the Charleston arts legacy. Now that everybody elsewhere is reaching the same understanding, let's hope we can afford to keep it local!
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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