Down with Brown (Furniture)
“Brown wood furniture,” is a handy catch-all term for the bureaux, long dining tables and chests of drawers that baby boomers coveted and bought in droves. This expression has been adopted by antiques trade professionals and lay people alike as specialists and journalists from The Antiques Roadshow to The Wall Street Journal have written about the total evaporation of interest in heirloom furnishings. Thirty-something and forty-something consumers no longer want grandma’s mahogany writing desk, for reasons that have already been endlessly enumerated in other publications. Today, there is more emphasis on the convenience of buying new and inexpensive furniture online and more consumers are focusing on minimal interiors without architectural ornament. In addition, there has been a shift in lifestyles away from formal entertaining (or entertaining at all) and a new culture of living with less and traveling more.
Opulently decorated French and historically significant American furniture seem to be performing a step or two ahead of English mahogany and oak, which before the 21st century was simply what one bought to keep up with the Joneses. Now that everyone is online, it is apparent that lowboys, chests-on-chests, gaming tables and Pembroke tables once regarded as precious are as common as can be. For this reason, we may never see prices for ordinary English furniture return to their pre-2000 levels.
But there is hope. While the pool of consumers has withered to a puddle, interest (and wealth) has become highly concentrated in a few locales. The best New England furniture sells reliably to New England buyers, the best Georgian furniture to London, etc. The advent of the Internet means that no matter where an object is to be found, interested parties have access to it.
How do you differentiate your table from the dozens of other tables that at first sight seem identical? Provenance matters. Write down every word that Grandmother mutters about that table before it’s too late. And for heaven’s sake, don’t call it “brown wood furniture.” Any expression that rolls a two-hundred-year-old work of functional art into the same category as a low-quality 1950s reproduction is a terrible habit to assume. It prematurely dismisses objects that might have terrific potential. Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, for one, has promised to eliminate “brown wood furniture” from its collective vocabulary.
Here are some recent news items from the world of “brown furniture:”
This is an American highboy that realized $23,750. Its uninterrupted descent along the same family tree contributed to its strong result, as did its catalogue notes, which looked like this:
Jonathan Hubbard inherited the present lot from his cousin Rosamond Thaxter (1895-1989), a philanthropist, lecturer and writer who resided in Kittery Point, Maine. Miss Thaxter had deep roots in New England history, with ancestors prominent in business and politics. Her paternal grandmother, Celia Laighton Thaxter (1835-1894), was a popular poet, painter and writer whose book My Island Garden is a classic in American gardening. It is thought that this highboy was inherited by Miss Thaxter from her mother, Mary Gertrude Stoddard Thaxter (1858-1951).
And from the same family collection, a tiger maple dressing table that sold for $8,750.
This sideboard realized $8,125. Perhaps its catalogue-designated Massachusetts origin made it more appealing than other sideboards of the same outline, which are readily available.
This American chest of drawers from a Chicago collection sold for $20,000. It has a graceful serpentine front, exaggerated top overhang and wonderful ogee feet.
This early Georgian chest of drawers sold for $8,190. It showed extraordinary workmanship (intricate marquetry on all sides) and came from a Chicago-area estate with other works of the same caliber. Although the estate did not give permission for us to use its name, savvy buyers could easily recognize the chest as having belonged to the same collector as other highlights of the auction. They fought harder for it as a result.
Museum deaccesions, those holy grails of auction house offerings, can be expected to garner the greatest interest. This George III partners’ desk, sold by the Toledo Museum of Art, realized $15,000.
An Italian walnut server, likewise sold by the Toledo Museum of Art, sold for $11,875.
-Corbin Horn, Fine Furniture and Decorative Arts Specialist