Posts tagged ‘Social and Cultural Identity’

November 25, 2017

Antique Dealers – ‘Treasures I Would Not Sell’

The complex social and cultural relationships between ‘dealers’ and ‘collectors’, and indeed the historical dimensions of these evolving identities, is a fascinating topic (and something I’ve been working on for the last few years). And I was recently reminded of this subject when I came across an intriguing little article on the dealer Moss Harris (Harris, as many readers of the blog will know, founded one of the world’s leading antique dealing businesses, M. Harris & Sons in c.1915, taking over the business of D.L. Isaacs); the history of Moss Harris & Sons is also partially sketched out in an earlier blog post (see the blog on the oral history interview with John Morris).

The article, published in The Bazaar, Saturday June 15th, 1929, was titled ‘Treasures I Would Not Sell’.  The article is no great piece of journalism – it seems to have been essentially an excuse to have a sneaky peek into the private collections of some high profile antique dealers.  Anyway, the article indicated that there were in fact 2 objects that Moss Harris ‘would not sell’. One was described as a ‘graceful Hepplewhite side-table’; the other was a ‘magnificent Chippendale armchair’. Harris was obviously so proud of the ‘Chippendale armchair’ that he appeared sitting in the very chair in an image published in the next issue of The Bazaar (22nd June 1929): The photograph of the picture of Harris is very grainy I’m afraid, but the quality of the original is rather poor…anyway, here is Moss Harris, cigar in hand, sitting proudly in his ‘Chippendale chair’:

Moss Harris, in his ‘Chippendale chair’. Image from ‘The Bazaar’ June 22nd 1929.

The article suggested that Harris did eventually sell the Hepplewhite side-table; as Harris stated;

‘I bought this (Hepplewhite side-table)…quite forty years ago from an old established London firm for much less than £100. It was one of those pieces that I was loth to part with.  In fact, I eventually sold it to a collector only on condition that if he ever parted with it he would sell it back to me….he fulfilled my request in a sense. For when he died ten years later he thoughtfully left it to me in his will.’

But the chair, it seems, was a different story; indeed, the article set me off to see if it was possible to identify the ‘Chippendale chair’ that Moss Harris would never sell, and to find out what happened to the chair – and, thanks to the help of my amazing colleagues at the V&A Museum in London (Kate Hay and Leela Meinteras) as well as the help of Lucy Wood and Sarah Medlam, we think we might have answered that particular question.

Anyway, the Chair – the 1929 article recounted Harris’ memory of the acquisition of the chair, as he states:

‘It was, in a way, a ‘holiday find’….I was touring the country some 300 miles from London before the War. (this would be World War I)  A fellow guest at my hotel recognised me, and knowing my interests, told me of some beautiful Chippendale chairs that he heard were for sale at a little place about 100 miles further on.  The next day accordingly saw me many miles away, and sure enough I found five exceptionally fine ‘Chippendales’.  Four of them I sold to a private museum, and the fifth – well you see it here.’

Tracking down the chair should be relatively easy.  The model is a very famous one – but it seems there are actually 6 of them (not 5 as Moss Harris stated in the 1929 article).  One was sold by Moss Harris to Lord Lever in 1915 and remains at the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool – it was illustrated on the cover of Lucy Wood’s monumental study of ‘Upholstered Furniture’ published in 2008. 

A set of four of the chairs eventually made their way to Frank Partridge & Sons, the leading London antique dealers, trading in New Bond Street, and were exhibited together at their Summer Exhibition in 1949 – the current whereabouts of these four chairs is not known?

But it seems that Moss Harris did keep his word and never actually sold the final chair of the 6, the one that Moss Harris is actually sitting on in 1929.  The chair, so Moss Harris’ mentioned in the 1929 Bazaar article, was exhibited at the ‘Exhibition of Art Treasures (1928) organised by The British Antique Dealers’ Association (BADA) at Grafton Galleries; probably item no.134 ‘A Chippendale stuffed-back easy chair, with carved mahogany scroll arms, carved frame and scroll legs, circa 1760’.  It was also still in his possession in 1937, when it was illustrated in the book, published by M. Harris & Sons, called ‘The English Chair’ (1937, republished 1947) – here is the chair; and the cover to book and the image of the chair.


The chair was eventually sold posthumously (Moss Harris died in 1941) at a Christie’s auction sale on November 9th 1944 (lot 114, where Harris is recorded as the owner in the Christie’s archives – and thanks again to Kate, Leela, Lucy and Sarah for this information) – the buyer was recorded as Sir S. Bairn(?). But it seems that the chair was acquired by that other famous antique dealer firm, Mallett & Sons sometime after 1944, and was sold by them to the collector Brigadier Clark, who gifted the chair to the V&A in 1956. And here is Moss Harris’ chair:

W.16-1956. Image courtesy of the V&A Museum, and copyright V&A Museum.


There’s still some ambiguity in the history of this set of ‘Chippendale chairs’ – it’s certain that Moss Harris retained the chair – it was, as I say, sold posthumously at Christie’s in 1944.  But there’s also some contradictions in the story that Moss Harris recalled about his acquisition of the chairs sometime ‘before the War’. Lucy Wood also tells us that the chair in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, the one sold to Lord Lever by Moss Harris in 1915 (when Harris was at that stage, working with the established dealer D.L. Isaacs), was, according to the records at Lady Lever Art Gallery, originally purchased by Harris at a Christie’s auction in London on 10th June 1915 – so not the ‘300+ miles away from London’ that Moss Harris recalled in the 1929 article.

But perhaps Moss Harris’ memory was unclear, or perhaps he spun a story for the reporter? Either way I’m pretty sure that the chair that now resides at the V&A Museum is indeed the ‘Treasure’ that Moss Harris ‘Would Not Sell’.  And in that sense it’s an amazing discovery.



October 29, 2017

The Social & Cultural Identity of the Antique Dealer

As many of the readers of the Antique Dealer research blog will know, one of the themes I have been investigating as part of the Antique Dealers Research Project has been the ways in which ‘antique dealers’ have been represented in historical visual and literary culture. As part of the research activities dominated by this theme I’ve been assembling books and ephemera associated with the construction of the identity of the antique dealer over recent years; and there are literally scores of books by/on antique dealers, and a wide range of fascinating ephemera – of which more in a later blog post perhaps?

But anyway, the representation of art dealers and agents for art, as well as dealers in antiques and curiosities, is something that I have been working on, off and on, for over 10 years.  And it’s clear, from my research, that a distinctive trope has emerged in relation to art and antique dealers. A key example from the 18th century would be the character of the art dealer called ‘Puff’ in the satirical play Taste (1752) by the writer Samuel Foote. This trope of the dealer as ‘problem’ takes on particular formation in 19th century culture. For example, the stylistic character of the dealers Remonencq and Magus in Honore de Balzac’s novel Cousin Pons (1847), or the personal qualities of the character of ‘Grandfather’ of Little Nell, in Charles Dicken’s Old Curiosity Shop (1840). There’s a lot more to say on these developments of course – but I thought readers of the blog might be interested to see a more recent, late 20th century example, of the continuing legacy of these highly significant identities.

One of my recent purchases (in a local charity shop no less) is this board game, produced by the Leeds based manufacturer Waddingtons in 1976, called ‘SWINDLE’.


‘Swindle’ board game, 1976, Waddingtons, Leeds.

The game is a fascinating example of the continuing trope of the antique dealer as ‘problem’.  As the tag line for the ‘Swindle’ game itself suggests ‘The great game of dubious antique dealing for 3 to 6 ‘swindlers’ 9 years and upwards’.

The publicity for the board game continues to rehearse this, now, very common trope. The players in the board game take on the role of a ‘dubious’ ‘antique dealer’ – and even the player pieces themselves reinforce the idea of the dealer as implicitly untrustworthy – the pieces are shaped as the moulded head of a, quite obviously, dubious character – (the chap looks like a ‘cad’!)

Player piece – the ‘Swindle’ board game, 1976.

The publicity information on how to play the game continues these implied, and explicit, suggestions about the role of antique dealers in contemporary culture.  Players are tasked with some quite revealing rhetorical questions  – ‘How convincingly can you pass off a Plaster of Paris bust as a genuine marble antique?’, it states; and ‘How good are you at picking the difference between a real Regency chest and a cheap chipboard swindle?’

‘Swindle’ board game, 1976.

‘A super-cool bluff are essentials for players in this action-packed game of dubious antique dealing’ -states the publicity on the cover of the board game.

These stereotypes and tropes are, as I suggest, something that emerges as a distinctive form in the 18th century, but becomes more embedded in the cultural consciousness in the 19th century – indeed, it is perhaps no coincidence that these notions settle into familiar patterns at the same moment that the conjunction of ‘art’ and ‘money’ develops as a discrete anxiety. But these speculations and observations are perhaps better left to a longer, deeper analysis, rather than attempting to deal with them here – it is interesting though, that a piece of ephemera, a now probably long forgotten board game from the 1970s, has such a fascinating genealogy, and that a popular board game can open up the prospect of deeper critical analysis of perhaps one of the most fascinating tropes in art and culture?


Home Subjects

a working group dedicated to the display of art in the private interior, c. 1715-1914

The Period Room: Museum, Material, Experience

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A research project investigating the history of the antiques trade in Britain in the 19th & 20th centuries

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'Museum Studies Now?' is an event which aims to discuss and debate museum and heritage studies education provision.

The Burlington Magazine Index Blog

art writing * art works * art market

East India Company at Home, 1757-1857

A research project investigating the history of the antiques trade in Britain in the 19th & 20th centuries