Clinton Howell of Clinton Howell Antiques clearly loves to read and talk, and he writes an entertaining blog at www.clintonhowell.com, all of which made him great for an interview—even better because what he says isn’t canned, and we’re always striving for the authentic in these interviews. The ‘authentic’ in antiques is, of course, up for discussion. He told us rather sweetly that his son is proud of his father’s knowledge of English furniture and other antiques, and there is no doubt that he knows his stuff. However, we also sensed that what he really loves is the business as a whole: the other players, the gossip, the travel, the competition, the scandals, and, most of all the thrill of the chase and the satisfaction of finding what he calls ‘a hit’.
Can you tell us how you deal with the current sentiment that brown furniture is boring and I’m just saying the current sentiment.
Substitute ‘white people’ for that. How do you deal with a sentiment that ‘white people’ are boring? I mean really, how do you deal with a sentiment like that? To me there is no such thing as brown furniture. The nature of [wooden] furniture is that it’s all different colors. I was having lunch at someone’s house and they had a pine table made of lots of little pieces glued together, and it probably won’t be interesting, ever.
What defines that ‘interesting’ quality? Is it a story to the piece?
Well yeah. It’s partly how something is maintained. The quality of the timber has to be good. When I look at a lot of modern styles, I find a determined attempt to not draw your eye in, sort of it’s like trying to create something that is a picture, that doesn’t want you to look at any one area, just the whole. It’s almost like looking at an orange as a circle without looking at the surface of the orange. Great antique furniture is looking at every component.
It can work…
It can work. It can be stunning. I was watching a Godard film and … what’s interesting is that the sets are all Italian modern 50s furniture, bright colors, circles, that sort of thing. You can see what that it was a new era. The war was dull, drab, etc. and they’re trying to change all that. I can see that as being terribly, terribly fascinating. But I grew up with all that, and for me, I think of the 50s and 60s as being very surface and not having any depth. Really good antique furniture has depth.
Do you think you have an instinct for this line of work?
No, I certainly didn’t. I didn’t understand it in the slightest. I was in London and I was in a situation where I wanted to do something. I was going to travel around Europe … I was [living] in a flat and one of the people in the flat was re-upholstering a chair. And I said, where did you learn to do that? And she said there are night classes all over London where you can learn anything you want. So I looked up furniture the Yellow Pages and saw that there was the London College of Furniture, and they accepted me. Was I a quick student? I don’t think so but it was an intellectual and practical education.
This was going to be just a way of earning a living?
Well, no. I wanted to do something. I wanted to learn how to use my hands. I had graduated from college over here … but [this] was something to do. When you go to a country … when you involve yourself in something … and you’re following a thread, it’s always more interesting.
What did you study at college here?
Tell us your impressions of Britain in the 1970s.
It was pretty dour. [At the furniture college] I was elected president of the student union! We had a march on the education minister, who was Margaret Thatcher. They were trying to get bigger grants. But I had a car, with Connecticut plates and I could anything I wanted. It was just fabulous. The world was my oyster.
But you had been before as a child. I read that when your mother took you out to lunch she said: “Boys, you don’t have to eat the vegetables in this country.”
[laughs] That was in 1962! At Brown’s Hotel, a buffet. I remember it! I was delighted.
What are the changes you see now?
Oh God, London has become such a swift, modern city. My son lives there now. He works for Goldman Sachs.
You seem very pro-Goldman Sachs on your blog.
You know what I find? Americans love to take down success.
I thought Americans celebrated success.
Let’s put it this way, if there are rules not to do something, they should be indicted, no question about it. If they’re doing things legally and properly…
Yeah, but the rules are the problem – there aren’t enough of them.
I’m just saying it was legitimate.
It was legitimate, but it’s not ethical.
I’m not a defender, I’m just saying what is legal is legal.
What are the ethics of the antique trade?
[a rather long pause] Oh … that’s a difficult question given that there have been scandals in the business. I certainly wouldn’t want to talk about anyone else’s situation but from my point of view I try do no harm.
What are the ethical dilemmas? There must be grey areas.
The grey areas in antique dealing … most of the clients focus on money but it’s really not about money. It’s about whether something has the value that [we] say it does.
I think that basically what you have to do is tell people that ‘these two replaced back legs of the chair aren’t the top. They don’t make this chair the best of the best.’ Now clients are really reluctant to hear this.
They don’t want to be told the truth?
A lot of clients don’t want to be told the truth, that’s for sure. Most of the antiques that are on the market sell within the market. I sell to dealers a lot.
It’s a fascinating thing, this merry-go-round of objects.
It is totally a merry-go-round. If you were to look at the Sotheby’s and Christie’s catalogs for the last thirty years, you’d see a lot of the same pieces.
How did you envisage you life in antiques—did you envisage being absorbed by your work?
Well, I am—that’s all I do. I figure I have to make two really big hits a year.
It’s like being a detective is it? … And there is thrill of the hunt…
I love the thrill of the hunt.
As of this writing the Art and Antique Dealers League of America (AADLA), of which Clinton Howell is the president, just signed a contract with the Armory for what will be a new The Spring Show. In conjunction with the Show will also be Art and Antiques Week (April 25-May 1, 2011) involving dozens of dealers throughout Manhattan.