Grace Harlow, MA
Fine & Decorative Art Appraiser
For many years, the decorative arts were not considered worthy of serious study. There were few dedicated academic programs for decorative arts and no real interest in promoting wider access and public engagement through museum exhibitions.
The Furniture History Society (FHS), founded in 1964, is working to rectify this narrative and promotes the scholarship and appreciation of historical furniture. Originally based in London, the FHS has now branched out internationally and developed a New York chapter, specifically devoted to early-stage development, where young scholars have the opportunity to learn from established experts and share knowledge with each other.
Last Friday, the FHS hosted a symposium at the Frick Collection, entitled “Furniture and the Domestic Interior: 1500-1915” where young scholars from around the world presented on furniture and decorative arts.
Interestingly, the focus of the symposium centered on objects and the interior space they occupied. My experience with decorative arts has been gleaned primarily from studying furniture and objects within a museum setting, where their formal and decorative properties take precedence to their overall context. It has been my experience that their original placement within a given interior space is often understated or omitted.
And while some presenters concentrated on specific objects and their role in communicating certain mores of their respective cultures and periods, the symposium was most successful when the speaker focused not only on an object, but also the interior space it inhabited.
A particular highlight included a presentation on the “camerella:” a novel piece of furniture introduced in mid-17th century Tuscany. A rectangular curtained structure, the camerella isolated the bed from the rest of the room and introduced a physical object to denote private and public spheres. This invention transformed not only the Florentine bedchamber but influenced modern-day bedrooms as well.
Having an intimate knowledge of a decorative art object, including its original function and placement, is paramount when determining the importance and ultimately value, and the FHS’s inaugural education program was a welcome addition to my expanding knowledge of decorative arts and furniture.
Case Study: The Bowes Collection
At the opening of The Furniture History Society’s symposium, Ph.D. candidate Simon Spier spoke about the John and Josephine Bowes collection of fine art and Second Empire furniture.
The Bowes envisioned creating a purpose-built museum to house their collection, but after their deaths, curators found the task of integrating the furniture with their fine art to be arduous. Mrs. Bowes’ penchant for Second Empire furnishings, which were considered in vogue and highly fashionable at the time she purchased them, were deemed inferior quality, particularly in relation to the famed Wallis Collection and the John Jones Collection at the South Kensington Museum, now the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The Bowes’ collection is a perfect case study that demonstrates the sometimes difficult transition of decorative arts and furniture from private collections to the public sphere. What is often thought important and rare by a collector may not always be deemed as such by an institution or the art and antiques market.
While many clients believe their objects are both unique and extremely valuable, it is an appraiser’s job to separate fact from fiction. Something that once was sought after and in fashion may not hold the same status today. Therefore, it is always important to continuously acquire knowledge and keep abreast of changing market taste.