Susan Silver Antiques: A Survivor of the Mid-Century Storm
Reason suggests that the antiques business should be immune to the vicissitudes of time; but, in fact, the furnishings of the past are just as susceptible to the whims of fashion as any other aesthetic choice. Twenty-seven years ago, in 1982, when Susan Silver (left), of the eponymous antiques shop in
Sheffield, MA, first entered the business, ancestor worship was in full swing. Decorators such as Mark Hampton and Mario Buatta redid Park Avenue apartments and grand houses all over the United States as if they were ducal estates in Yorkshire. At the time, Silver felt, quite correctly, that by specializing in 18th-and-19th-century formal English furniture, she couldn’t miss.
Going to extremes: We asked Susan Silver to point out some superlative pieces. Oldest: Chinese funerary porcelains, intended to keep the deceased comfortable in the afterlife. They date from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Besides, what could she do? She loves the stuff. But in the last 5 or 6 years, a seismic shift began to gather force. Younger collectors were turning their backs on fine furniture as if it were no more alluring than grandma’s Grand Rapids cast-offs. Serious furniture collectors were in the thrall of Mid-Century Modern. “I actually considered, at one point, going that way myself,” Silver jokes.
Most Expensive: A Regency drop-leaf sofa table with extra leaves, that pulls apart to reveal a backgammon board within. $36,000.
“Then the prices got insane,” she adds, unable to suppress a hint of glee. “They were charging a fortune for some plastic thing that was never intended to withstand decades of use. That furniture was all experimental: nobody knew how those plastics would age, what the chrome would look like in 50 years, how long the glue would hold the molded plywood together. The designers and manufacturers of most of that furniture did not know or care. They assumed that, once it started falling apart, people would toss it out and buy something else.”
Most Difficult to Clean
A bronze-and-crystal French chandelier, circa 1870.
Fortunately, some furniture really is forever. A little over a year ago, when the pendulum began to swing back her way, Silver stood ready with her tried-and-true investment-worthy stuff. In 2008, Susan Silver Antiques was having one of its best year’s ever, until October when the economy fell apart.
What You’ll Never Find Here (Besides Mid-Century Modern): A pedestal (or kneehole) desk. Though she specializes in library furniture, and pedestal desks fall neatly within that category, Silver finds them “too lawyerly.” Tables, such as this English Regency library table with black leather writing surface and reeded legs are more versatile.
But a shift in taste wasn’t the only contributing factor in the turnaround. “Five years ago, the designer trade started to trail off,” she says, referring to the professionals from New York, Westchester, Fairfield County, Vermont, and Boston who would make routine pilgrimages to Sheffield to visit the wide range of quality dealers there. “They’d discovered that it was easier, and they had infinitely more choice, if they shopped for antiques on-line.”
An Anglo-Indian ivory-and-ebony inkstand, c. 1830.
This time Silver, whose background is in advertising, leaped onto the trend. She developed her own entertaining website and got her shop listed on 1st Dibs, a web enterprise that features the wares of first-rate dealers from all over the United States.
“You don’t choose them,” corrects Silver, referring to 1st Dibs, “they choose you.” She recalls the day when a handsome gentleman entered her store. After looking around with considerable care, he introduced himself as Michael Bruno of 1st Dibs. He was touring the Berkshires looking for candidates for his website. He then invited Susan Silver Antiques to be among the chosen few. “1st Dibs has made a big difference,” she says. Clients like Silver pay a monthly fee, as if they were leasing space at an upper echelon antiques show. Which, as a matter of fact, they are.
Reverse glass paintings, c. 1880, from India.
A jolly, bearded gilded-bronze merman on a kidney-shaped marble base, c. 1820.
Metal polish imported from Germany. “It polishes silver, brass, tin, copper, but it doesn’t make the brasses, or any of the other metals, too brassy. It leaves a mellow patina, and the cracks turn black instead of white.” $30.
Susan Silver Antiques
755 N Main Street (Route 7); Sheffield; 413.229.8169
Wednesday - Monday 10:30 a.m. - 5 p.m.