'Cabinet Secrets' tells buyers how not to get rooked


November 25, 1990|By Lita Solis-Cohen

It is best not to venture near an antiques shop or show unless you know the language. Now, just in time, when some fine things are on offer for more reasonable prices, a useful little book has come along, "Cabinet Secrets," or "How not to lose an arm and a leg in the world of antiques," by the maverick London antiques dealer Alistair Sampson.

The glossary of terms is a virtual Berlitz course in "Antique speak," the patois of the trade. But it also provides some good surveys of English delft, Leeds pottery, various metals, needlework and oak furniture -- all of which are Mr. Sampson's stock in trade.

It is very amusing -- there are suggestions for collections suitable for the kitchen/dining room and for the "loo" (bathroom), and there are entertaining behind-the-scenes glimpses of the auction rooms and the trade that will make you laugh out loud.

First, a sampling from the various glossaries:

A touch of worm. Infested. . . . If you go ahead and buy it, check all floorboards, beams etc. with great regularity.

I'm not sure about one leg. I am sure about one leg, we had it made.

Difficult to date. Easy to date, made yesterday.

It's a tremendous bargain and a wonderful investment. I am sure it will come back into fashion one day.

Rare. I had one a month ago.

Very rare. Fairly uncommon.

Unique. One of a pair.

It's gone a lovely color. Our cabinet maker is brilliant.

Mint. We defy you to spot what's wrong with it.

You are the first to see it. I have sworn all others to secrecy.

I very nearly took it home. I very nearly had to.

I am only making the teeniest weeniest little profit. I am not even doubling my money.

Furniture dealers have their own vocabulary. Here are some quotes from the book:

"A missing ear has nothing to do with Van Gogh but is a reference to the small brackets to be found at the top of a chair."

"Bombe is not a place in India but the protuberant front on a chest or commode."

"A tester bed is not a demonstration model but an expensive name for a four-poster."

"A long case clock is not a clock for timing cases at court but the term for grandfather clocks."

Mr. Sampson's essay on Paktong is possibly the best on that subject.

At a recent antiques show in Baltimore a dealer offered a pair of Paktong candlesticks, circa 1760 to 1780, for $13,500; so it's worth knowing that Paktong is an alloy the Chinese have been producing for centuries. It's harder than silver but has its lustrous sheen and color and does not tarnish. The word translates to white copper, and Mr. Sampson says it is an alloy of copper, zinc and nickel in the approximate respective ratios of 4, 2 and 1. It was the material of Chinese Imperial coinage and a closely guarded secret in China, its export forbidden. But by 1700 lumps of it and finished articles were being smuggled out, and by the end of the 18th century it was being used for candlesticks, handles and escutcheons, and fenders and fire grates. After 1800, when the West figured out how to isolate nickel, Paktong was made in England.

A member of BADA, the British Antiques Dealers Association, Mr. Sampson is on the executive committee of the esteemed Grosvenor Antiques Fair. As a young barrister he collected Leeds creamware and at the age of 40 decided he would rather be an antiques dealer than practice at the bar. At the age of 54 he decided he would prefer to write about antiques for Punch magazine than continue to be a Parliamentary candidate. He has published four books of light verse and short stories. Since 1984 his regular column on collecting has appeared in Punch. "Cabinet Secrets" is a collection of these columns. (For a postpaid copy send $20 to Alistair Sampson Antiques Limited, 156 Brompton Road, Knightsbridge, London SW3 1HW, England.)

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