Interested in antiques? I have been ever since I spotted two late- twentieth-century Pozidriv screws in a sixteenth-century, two-tier satinwood etagere in the Frankfurt Crafts Museum. In those days, 'time travelling' in pursuit of higher antique prices was a trade secret, so I am sure that the museum's experts were guilty of nothing more serious than negligence. Now I am not so sure, especially when it turns out that Sotheby's has recently been selling V-reg eighteenth-century 'Georgian' chairs, with a money-back guarantee.
Like political careers and currency values, the antique trade depends on confidence. You see it every day. One minute Mo Mowlam is in line for a Nobel Prize, the next the masses are baying for her blood; one minute the Malaysian Ringgit is on the floor with a jail sentence threatened for anyone taking it out of the country, the next it is back on track, funding a new capital city in 10-figure sums. In every field there are people employed to smooth over these disconcerting rips in the fabric of normality, but notwithstanding their efforts, once in a while everything really does come undone in a truly spectacular way. You only have to think of the political career of Baroness Thatcher, or the great inflation of 1923. More to the point, you might care to dwell on the truly terrible fate that would befall the conservation and heritage industries if the pyramid selling of antique furniture and artefacts were to fall into terminal disgrace.
How could such a thing come about? Through greed, like the 1980s housing boom. After all, the important thing about fakery in the crafts is the industrial scale at which it is carried on. If the art market is awash with false Old Masters and dubious van Goghs, so must the world of antique furniture be bursting with secret underground factories. Only three years ago, the former antique dealer Jonathan Gash, creator of the TV series Lovejoy, stated categorically that between 1700 and 1900, a period that encompasses the entire Georgian era, only about 170,000 households in the whole British Isles could have afforded fine furniture of the kind that antique dealers like Sotheby's sell today. Despite this, the British antique industry contrives to export more than 170,000 'Georgian' pieces every year, at prices ranging from £10,000 to £1 million or more. According to this (as far as I know) undisputed calculation, at least 90 per cent of all so-called 'Georgian' furniture must be fake, and all the rest must have been exported or burned for firewood years ago.
On this basis, it becomes vertiginous to contemplate the means of production available to today's mass-producer of 'Georgian' furniture. With annual production of 'pieces' running at the rate of a full-size car factory - and median units selling for prices in the bmw and Jaguar class - the numerically controlled machine tools in the shadow 'Georgian' antique factories dotted around the country must be working shifts.
Each of these factories must be a small publishing empire in itself, producing paper provenance, bills and receipts subjected to accelerated ageing, even spidery Georgian-style hand-written notes: 'To:- Wm. Wheldon Esq. Foure poundes and fixpence for a very fine rofewood breakfaft table' and so on. Every day there must be a veritable fusillade as specially trained marksmen fire lead balls from fake muzzle-loading pistols into fake oval mahogany jardinieres to enhance their authenticity. And above all this, including the reek of gesso and the knee-deep sawdust, there must be flickering video screens reporting sale prices, revolving book cases, and warning lights.
'At least 90 per cent of all so-called 'Georgian' furniture must be fake, and all the rest must have been exported or burned for firewood ... .'