You may be approaching an important birthday (often a number ending in “0”). It is important that you turn off the stove when you leave the house. Elvis had an important influence on the development of Rock & Roll. The Random House Dictionary offers eight different meanings of the word, but what do we mean, exactly, by important furniture?
Objects and furniture can be considered and described as “important” if they were owned by an important, widely known, historical figure, such as George Washington. Occasionally, we are fortunate enough to handle objects of this nature but that is not the sense in which we most often apply this adjective. Furniture can be judged “important” by objective standards without having been owned or used by famous people.
Albert Sack, scion of the most consequential (or important) dealers of American antique furniture, Israel Sack, Inc., introduced Americans in his 1950 book, Fine Points of Furniture (New York: Crown Publishers, 1950), to the concept of educating one’s eye by comparing the stature and detail of one form to other examples of the same form by illustrating and identifying “good” “better” and “best” examples side-by-side.
This comparative concept works because during any given period or style, particularly after the introduction of pattern books such as Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director in 1754, there were conventions, dictated by fashion, that proscribed the basic characteristics of a given form. As such, all bureaus, beds, sofas, sewing or games tables, secretaries or sideboards, for example, had a recognizable similarity to each other whether they were made in Boston, Philadelphia or New York. Their designs were not random, but related, irrespective of regional or shop practices. Yet, it is the development and refinement of the basic form brought by the individual artisan working within that idiom that transforms it from average to great. The average examples, of which there are many, form the baseline for judging the extraordinary, of which there are very few.
Sack’s volume, useful as it is, does not substitute for a quarter of a century of studying this material, first hand, at museums, auctions, private collections, flea markets, symposia and a comprehensive private library of books and scholarly studies on the subject. Nor does it substitute for the learning that comes from owning and handling multiple examples. Indeed, nothing can substitute for the scholarship earned by investing one’s own capital in fine objects. That is why the locus of connoisseurship is in the dealer community.
After a few decades of passionate involvement, having seen literally hundreds of sofas, chairs, tables, commodes and secretaries of the period, it is relatively easy to tell the wheat from the chaff within the context of its city of origin, though distinguishing between the A and the A+ example is the work of a highly trained eye. Weeding through fakes, forgeries and clever concealment of unacceptable condition issues is a regular part of protecting our clients.
Our clients know that we have a deep and comprehensive understanding of these gradations of quality and can defend them. They know that these distinctions are not arbitrary and that we strive to only find and offer pieces at the top end of the spectrum; pieces that relate closely to or are superior to examples found in fine museum collections and published examples. That is why museum curators across the United States trust us with scarce acquisition dollars. It is no accident that twenty such renowned institutions are our clients.
“Importance”, therefore, is an objective determination based on the superior quality of design of a particular example. Not predicated on a surfeit of carving, or gilding or paint decoration or inlay, or brass appliqués or any decorative element but a design that is an artistic and sublime balance of proportion, decoration, quality of materials, craftsmanship, condition and rarity that raises it above all other known examples of the form. That is what we call “important,” and if George Washington owned it, so much the better. And that is the importance of importance.