Let the Good, Better, Best Rule be Your Guide
One of the guiding principles behind understanding the value of antiques is the notion of “good, better, best”— the idea that seemingly similar pieces can vary in quality, construction, and history. These differences often result in a wide range of prices for the same kind of item. This way of thinking was popularized by Albert Sack in the book Fine Points of Furniture, Early American, popularly known as Good, Better, Best. Understanding the “good, better, best” principle, and knowing as possible about a particular piece will ensure that as a buyer, you don’t pay too much, and as a seller, you estimate your antique accurately so that it sells well at auction.
To illustrate this point, let’s look at three Pembroke tables that recently sold in Skinner’s March 2011 American Furniture & Decorative Arts Auction: one from Massachusetts; one from New York State; and an example made in Rhode Island. All three are examples of American Pembroke tables from the early 19th century.
The Pembroke table, named for the Earl and Countess of Pembroke who first commissioned this kind of piece, was a lightweight occasional table used for serving tea, dining, writing, games, and at bedside. Typically made of mahogany, it features an oval or rectangular top with drop leaf sides, one or two drawers, and slim, tapered legs. When not in use, the leaves can be folded down, making it portable and easy to store.
Three Levels of Quality: Pembroke Tables at Auction
Our “good” example, made in Massachusetts, features a refinished rectangular mahogany top and drop leaves with ovolo corners on a straight skirt and square legs. A finely crafted, basic example, it sold for $650.
Our “better” piece is an antique table made in New York State, and it sold for $1,100. The difference in price can be attributed to the more graceful lines and embellishments found in this example: an oval top with demi-lune leaves; string inlay border on the apron and top; and ebonized banding at the bottom of the legs. The wood is also higher quality, mahogany with more pronounced figuring in the grain of the wood.
Finally our “best” table, from Rhode Island, is exactly the type of piece that will command a premium price at auction. This example possesses the graceful proportions and refined decoration so typical of the Federalist period. An elongated oval top accentuates the table’s feeling of lightness.The mahogany is richly figured. A striking combination of ebonized and light woods are inlaid into the table’s top. And a delicate garland of bell flowers cascades down each of the legs into the banding near the foot. Finally, the table’s Rhode Island provenance makes it an even rarer find: there simply weren’t that many of them made, and even fewer have survived to this day. This “best” table fetched $3,750 at auction — nearly six times the price of our “good” example.
Compare Examples and Ask the Experts
Keep the “good, better, best” rule in mind whether buying, selling, or appraising your antiques. An auction preview is a great venue for comparing pieces side by side. Look closely at the quality of materials, embellishments, craftsmanship, and condition, then stand back and assess the overall beauty of a piece. Still unsure? Consult the auction specialists – their expertise can guide you in understanding what’s good, what’s better, and what’s best.