Antique Mystique


By Thatcher Freund

Pantheon x 291pp x $24

It's obviously not mere inflation that turns a 1759 Chippendale card table, then valued at 50 , into something that fetches $1 million at auction. Somehow, as some pieces of furniture pass from hand to hand, they acquire a mystique. Money transforms items into icons.

In Objects of Desire: The Lives of Antiques and Those Who Pursue Them, Thatcher Freund traces the journey of three 18th century objects put up for sale in January, 1991: a blue blanket chest priced at $245,000; a Federal-style inlaid sofa table valued at $100,000; and the Chippendale card table, which had languished in a basement for 60 years.

Along the way, Freund introduces a vast cast of dealers and collectors. He's at his best giving capsule histories of, for example, dealer Israel Sack, who started out making fakes and went on to "invent the code of beauty for American furniture," and Joseph Hirshorn, the stocks-and-uranium magnate, who would bellow: "How much is this? How much is that? How much for the whole lot?" and buy 40 or 50 things at once.

The author reveals trade practices casual collectors may not know of. He tells how some dealers distract rivals at auctions to keep a price down, even as others try to uphold their reputations by bidding high on pieces they once sold. He explains why ownership by certain collectors or dealers adds to a piece's allure. And he relates amusing lore--how, for example, Albert Sack's classic Fine Points of Furniture, known as the Good, Better, Best book because it offers examples of each for various furniture pieces, is snidely referred to as Good, Better, and In Stock by the trade.

Objects of Desire has faults: Its simple style can be tedious, and when there's a gap in history, Freund conjectures. Remarkably, aside from images on the jacket, there are no pictures of the objects. Still, like a well-worn antique exerting its inexplicable hold on a collector, this book manages to charm.

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