There is never a dull moment in the lives of American Furniture and Decorative Arts experts John Hays and Andrew Holter. Whether consulting with collectors, auctioneering in the sale room, lecturing on a Boston family of furniture makers, or taping guest appearances on the hit PBS series Antiques Roadshow, they are inspiring collectors the world over with their passion and enthusiasm. Andrew and John recently sat down to discuss the joys of unlocking the secrets behind an object’s past, the rising trend of Folk Art collecting, and why that 18th-century tea table is actually a cutting-edge piece of furniture…
Tell us something people would be surprised to know about the field of American Decorative Arts.John Hays: In the same way that much of today’s contemporary art is radical and new, antique American Furniture was at the cutting edge of its time. Consider an 18th-century tea table: tea was an expensive commodity at that time, but there was a demand for it, and so this was a case of the form directly following the function. The idea of a table made expressly for the consumption of tea was completely unheard of before then— it was revolutionary!
The theme of regionalism seems very important. How can you determine if a work of furniture was made in New York or Newport, Boston or Philadelphia?JH: You always want to start with the secondary woods, those locally sourced (and less expensive) woods used to make the insides of drawers, backboards and other surfaces not seen from the outside. If you can identify the secondary wood, you can usually trace what region it came from—such as poplar, which grew mainly in Pennsylvania, or chestnut, which is local to parts of eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island.Andrew Holter: We can also identify stylistic habits we ascribe to individual cabinet-makers or regions. For example, the claw-and-ball foot is a feature we see on the legs of a lot of different types of American furniture. The design is simple—a bird’s talons grasping a glass ball—but its execution can reveal clues as to a work’s region of origin. Boxy, square claw-and-ball feet usually indicate a piece comes from Philadelphia or New York, raking talon styles were common in Boston, and the famous open talon clawand- ball feet were very rare versions made in Newport.
What kind of tips do you have for the aspiring collector who is considering dipping their toe in the water?AH: Buy what you like, buy the best you can afford, and look for pieces in as close to their original condition as possible.JH: Collecting should be fun. Think of our viewings and auctions as an opportunity to learn an object’s history, because it’s often the story underneath the object that really brings it to life. Whether you’re buying or not, come in and we’re always glad to talk with you about the pieces in our sales.
Is there a place for antique furniture and decorative arts in today’s modern interiors?JH Absolutely; if anything, more collectors are looking to mix the old with the new, the period with the modern. In an eclectic way, just go for what fits with the setting. American Furniture and Decorative Art can obviously sit well in an older house, but it is quite interesting to see a newly designed home accented with historic furniture.AH: I was recently in a home that had brand-new modern sofas flanked by Federal drop-leaf Pembroke tables, and it looked incredible!
What are considered the hot areas of collecting in today’s American Furniture and Decorative Art market? AH: I’ve noticed a surge of interest in folk art, which makes the sculpture from the Alastair Bradley Martin Collection in our upcoming sale so exciting for collectors. By its very nature, folk art is created by untrained artists, and the truly great pieces, such as those in the Martin Collection, are timeless representations of what life was like in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—a simpler era seen through the eyes of the craftsman himself. That kind of nostalgia is very powerful for collectors. Also, folk art integrates seamlessly into the clean minimalism of modern interiors, so people don’t need an entire collection to make it work in their home; a single piece can assimilate quite nicely. JH: I’m seeing a lot of excitement around great pieces of 18th century furniture. My phone has already started ringing about a Philadelphia Chippendale wing chair in our sale (estimate: $300,000–$500,000). It retains portions of its original upholstery, which is something collectors go crazy over in our world.Where and how did your love affair with American Decorative Art begin?JH: After college, I attended Christie’s Education program in London, which was truly an eye-opening experience. It was a first-rate education in the arts of Europe, but in a strange way, it made me hungrier to understand my own culture and history upon my return to the States. Also, at that time I was experimenting with cabinetmaking and sculpting myself. So the American Decorative Arts field was really a natural fit for my interests and abilities.AH: I recall visiting parts of New England as a child, and falling in love with its architecture, history, and decorative objects. My family was in the lumber business, and as a result I developed an early awareness of and appreciation for wood, which continues to serve me well.