John Werry discusses collecting Victorian-era antique furniture, and gives advice to new collectors. Based in the suburbs of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, John can be reached via his blog, Rare Victorian, which is a member of our Hall of Fame.
How did I get started collecting Victorian Furniture? Antiques are in my genes. My mother’s family were longtime antiquers and lived in a house built in the 18th Century. But it really hit me about five years ago. We’d go furniture shopping and come out of the store not liking anything, empty handed. We didn’t like the quality or the design of today’s furniture, and we were getting tired of our cookie-cutter house. So we decided to go out into the country to find a historic property that had some uniqueness and character and some land. All of a sudden we had this Victorian home that was built in 1887.
I fell in love with Victorian antiques because of the craftsmanship and because it was appropriate for the home, as opposed to Pottery Barn. Plus, the new furniture I had bought previously lost most of its value when I later tried to sell it. That’s not the case as long as you buy wisely with antiques.
Collectors Weekly: What do you collect now? Specific types of Victorian furniture?
Werry: We have two floors in our house that are almost 100% Victorian era antiques, so I’m at the point where I don’t need anything, I’m in the trade up phase. I’m always buying chairs and tables, they’re easy to throw in the back of the SUV and you can always find a corner somewhere to put them. I’m very interested in all the genres within Victorian, Renaissance Revival, Rococo, Eastlake, etc. I’m interested in all the makers during those time periods, the Victorian era is a long stretch of time so there are a lot of different sub styles.
Collectors Weekly: Who are some popular Victorian Furniture designers, and who are your favorites?
Werry: Herter Brothers, Allen and Brother, John Henry Belter, and J & JW Meeks are the names that are selling in the market and garnering the really big bucks these days, as well as Alexander Roux and R.J. Horner. My favorites are Merklen Brothers, John Henry Belter, Allen and Brother. Those are my top three. My favorites styles are Renaissance Revival, which was the third quarter of the 19th Century. Especially very showy, skillfully made pieces, lots of inlay and the use of ormolu and the mix of ebonized and non ebonized woods, and the addition of plaques, some of which are bronze or made by Sèvres.
I also like Rococo which is an earlier period 1850s/1860s, highly sinewy, curved lines, lots of use of C scrolls and naturalistic elements like flowers, vines, and leaves. I particularly like the pierce-carved Rococo where they have literally carved through to the other side of the wood so there are actually holes that highlight the vines and the flowers.
Collectors Weekly: When looking for antique Victorian furniture at a show or on eBay, what are some key things to watch for?
Werry: Unfortunately labels and stamps are very rare in Victorian furniture. The first thing to look at is visual appeal, assuming you’ve had the opportunity to look at a fair amount of Victorian furniture and you’re not just starting, you’re going to know a better piece relative to some of the more common, high volume, lower cost pieces. The visual impact is evident when you see a really good piece. It’s usually the condition combined with the skill of the manufacturer of the carving, the decorative elements, the quality of wood. Walnut would be a lesser wood compared to Rosewood, which is generally used on the higher end pieces, especially laminated Rosewood pieces.
Collectors Weekly: How can you make sure you’re identifying a piece of Victorian furniture correctly?
Werry: There are a lot of bad attributions out there. People selling Victorian, in order to get a higher price they want to put a maker’s name on it, and most of the time they don’t have a label. So attribution is basically an opinion. What I try to do with my blog is really dig into some of the historic documentation, like original catalogs and reference books, plus leverage the knowledge of other collectors. There are pieces you see over and over… when a furniture maker made something, they did it multiple times. It’s nice to be able to stand on firm ground, for instance to know that there’s another example in a certain museum and that there’s written documentation.
There’s a lot of work in trying to identify who actually made a piece. Some makers were really good at labeling their work, like George Hunzinger, he’s got stamps on almost all his furniture. Other than that, attributions are usually made on previous attributions. So if someone in 1920 decided this piece was made by so and so, that set a precedent for everyone else and for the next ninety years. What I’m trying to do is either validate or correct attributions through research.
Collectors Weekly: Rare Victorian is the name of your blog. What do you consider to be rare?
Werry: There’s plenty of mass produced Victorian furniture. Simple inscribed decoration Walnut furniture was made in mass quantities. I try to focus on the stuff that was hand crafted in the best materials and were bought by some of the most famous people in history. The Vanderbilts had the Herter Brothers decorate their New York home. Those are the really interesting pieces that end up in museums and the best collections in the world.
Collectors Weekly: What challenges do you face in going after these top tier pieces?
Werry: I don’t have an unlimited budget like many of the people who visit my site. Also, Victorian, for some time now, has not been one of the leading categories of antique furniture. A lot of the 50s and 60s furniture is popular right now and pre-Victorian furniture is more popular as well. Victorian’s the redheaded stepchild because of it’s over-the-topness, everybody pictures Victorian as crazy frilly, lacey, highly decorative, not really pertinent to today’s decorating style.
Since it’s out of vogue, that means that there’s fewer dealers focusing on it, and you have to look further, drive further, buy at auctions across multiple states and ship furniture back. I can’t just go down to a local antique store and find high end Victorian. I live near Philadelphia, the Valley Forge area, and everybody here collects and furnishes their homes a century or earlier than Victorian.
There are several auction houses that have a steady stream of quality Victorian that I follow. I have a lot of searches on eBay, constantly scanning for new additions, I do monitor eBay pretty heavily. I also try to scan Craigslist, but I’ve never had any luck with getting anything of any value on Craigslist, it’s always kind of mainstream, poor quality, bad condition, or misidentified.
Collectors Weekly: What advice would you have for someone just starting out collecting Victorian furniture?
Werry: Grab a couple of basic books on Victorian antique furniture and get familiar with what that era of furniture looks like; how to identify it at a very basic level and what the various periods are. Initially, focus on one genre such as Eastlake furniture or Rococo and get deeper in that area. I recommend going to auctions, because at stores you may see only a couple of pieces. Auction houses have better flow, they sell thousands of items every week. There’s usually an auction house nearby that has more Victorian than other houses, so go sit there (not necessarily bid) to get a feel for what’s out there and the prices people are paying.
I’d also say find someone, maybe a family member or friend, or a dealer somewhere that’s really familiar with Victorian antiques and pick their brain and try to learn some things that they’ve learned over the years.
Collectors Weekly: Are there any specific books or other websites you’d suggest?
Werry: Go to some of the auction house sites online who have their past auctions archived so you can scan auctions back several years. A lot of them have the photos, condition reports, and the actual sale prices in there. I also have a forum site, www.victorianforum.com, that’s a message board where anybody can post questions or chime in on conversations already being had between different members about Victorian homes and Victorian furniture. If someone has a piece that they want to identify they can go to victorianforum.com and post pictures and the members will usually chime in.
Collectors Weekly: Anything else you’d like to mention about Victorian Furniture?
Werry: I’d like to dispel the myth that Victorian furniture all looks the same. There are so many different types, a lot of different eras and styles such as Egyptian Revival or Modern Gothic. If you have this idea that Victorian antiques are frilly and look a certain way, you may be surprised at the different styles. If you don’t like one of them, you might like another.
One of the most famous designers from the Victorian Era was Charles Eastlake, and he absolutely hated Rococo, which is mid 1850s Victorian. Eastlake’s book on household taste brought forth the Eastlake era of Victorian furniture design. So the message is that Victorian encompasses a lot of different eras and styles, and with a little investigation and looking at the full panorama, there’s probably something there for everyone.
For example, here are some examples of the primary styles of Victorian furniture:
Gothic Revival – (approx. 1830-1860) – Think churches and the design motifs found there and you have a good feel for this furniture style – design elements such as arches, quatrefoils, trefoils, spires, crockets
Rococo Revival – (approx. 1840-1865) – High-style furniture of French influence marked by use of naturalistic flora and fruit as well as C-scrolls and S-scrolls. Early pieces may have used mahogany, but common Rococo often used Walnut, while the top-end leveraged Rosewood. Laminated Rosewood construction is usually a good first sign of a possibly valuable piece.
Renaissance Revival – (approximately 1860-1890) – Renaissance Revival reverses the feminine elegance of Rococo around the time of the Civil War by espousing masculine arches, cartouches, animal and human figures, inlaid panels, burl panels, gilt incising, and ormulu mounts. Subgenres include Egyptian Revival and Neo-Grec.
Eastlake and Aesthetic Movement – (approximately 1880-1900) – A movement away from the showy complicated designs of prior eras, this furniture has stylized natural elements (flowers, leaves), shallow incisings, and turnings. On finer pieces, marquetry, inlay and veneering can also be found.
Collectors Weekly: Thanks John, and good luck finding great pieces this summer!
(All images in this article courtesy of John Werry.)