What’s it worth?

A Harris Lebus sideboard from DK Antiques, UK

A reader submitted a comment on American Bungalow Magazine’s blog in response to my story about defunct English furniture manufacturer Harris Lebus. She had seen a sideboard similar to one of those pictured in the article and wondered whether it was worth the price being asked.

I am not an appraiser, I responded, and I am always struck by the notion that one can actually say what a piece of antique furniture is worth, considering the basic fact that value is a social construction. Unless you are buying furniture primarily as a financial investment (and let’s be honest–few of us are), antiques are worth whatever you are willing to pay; the art of valuing such objects comes largely through the stories we tell about them (Who made this chair? Where was the maker trained? Was the artist’s grandfather a famous explorer? Perhaps the piece once belonged to a famous family?), and those stories are subject to change, depending on memory, documentary evidence, etc.

The sideboard that inspired my American Bungalow article is a good case in point. When the owner bought it, he was led to believe–by an honest and well intentioned dealer who did not at the time know anything about Harris Lebus–that it might have been made for Liberty. The Liberty connection made the piece seem eminently worth the price he paid, although the same price struck him as excessive once he learned about the piece’s actual provenance.

But here’s the thing. As a professional furniture maker, I ask myself whether anything about the piece changed because of its lack of connection to Liberty, and of course I answer “no.” It’s still a knockout in terms of design. It’s still well made (though not all Lebus pieces were so well constructed). It’s still a truly functional piece. And I think to myself (and am suggesting that you, if you have read this far, also think to yourself), Perhaps we should reassess our notions of value with respect to Lebus artifacts. This goes not only for pieces made by Lebus, but by other makers, too.

When it comes to putting a price on objects of beauty and utility, have confidence in your taste. Professional appraisers in all fields have their place, but their methods tend to be inherently conservative–that is, based on documentable examples of past sales. Every so often someone comes along–it has to be someone wealthy enough to bust the valuation ceiling–and pays far more for a piece than anyone ever thought reasonable. Suddenly we permit ourselves to view that piece, and potentially others by the same maker, as more worthy of our attention and esteem than anyone would have imagined possible. But isn’t there something a little embarrassing in the notion that we need an expert (or a celebrity) to validate our own sense of value? Isn’t this a bit like the emperor who had no clothes?

Obviously if you’re spending someone else’s money, buying primarily for financial investment, or investing on an organization’s behalf, you should engage a professional appraiser. But in ordinary circumstances, the kind most of us face, if you love an object and can afford the price being asked, by all means buy it. Don’t be overly concerned about what it’s worth. Many–and quite possibly most–dealers, like the majority of contemporary artisans, are not attempting to fleece you, but simply to make a living and cover the costs of doing business. If people give you a hard time for supposedly having paid too much for a piece, don’t let them get under your skin. Just tell them that to you, the piece is worth what you paid. By doing so, you will join a movement to rethink the value of artifacts made by those (whether the Harris Lebus Manufacturing Company or your neighbor) who furnish the homes of ordinary people, rather than those of rare wealth.

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