Keeping Them Honest

Dallas designer and antiquarian John Marrs hosted a seminar on Saturday to his friends in the design trade on How to Buy Antiques for Your Clients without Loosing Your Shirt or Going to Jail.

Of course it wasn't really called that, but any designer who's bought an antique for a client will tell you that even the experts get ripped off.

Enter Donald King Cowan, an antiques appraiser who specializes in 18th and 19th century Americana. Cowan led the seminar, which lasted most of the afternoon. (Cowan helped authenticate the Bybee collection of American furniture at the Dallas Museum of Art, by the way.)

He's also witty and quotable. As expected, Cowan gets a lot of requests by private citizens to authenticate furniture that's been in the family for generations.

"I get lots of what I call Mayflower calls. People wanting me to come look at a piece of furniture that they swear came over on the Mayflower, or at least that is the family story. If all the furniture that people claim came over on the Mayflower actually did, the boat would have sunk."

The seminar was held at Marrs' wonderful offices-cum-store on Lovers Lane. They've been recently refreshed, and sporting a new mix of modern art, antiques and newer pieces of furniture. The painting is by Dallas area artist Harmony Padgett.

Marrs' updated design look includes more casual furnishings that are inexpensive. His store is open to the public as well as to the trade. this leggy twig table

James Campbell, showroom manager at Lee Jofa

I love it when Southern men wear white linen jackets in the summer. Marrs and Cowan are both Southern gentlemen. They went to the University of Arkansas together.

The back of the shop, set up for the seminar, reminds me of something you might see in Paris...

...with its faux painted walls and ceiling

The seminar was held in the back rooms where Marrs and his staff work

These shelves hold some of the best design reference books I've ever seen, many of them out of print.  I told Marrs he ought to let people check them out. We promise we'll give them back.

Mark Fletcher, a designer with John Phifer Marrs, and Cowan chatting in the back room before the seminar. Isn't this a glorious room? Like an atelier.

...silver bowls with nuts and pretzels and a charming, cloth-wrapped tub filled with cold drinks. 

the legendary Robert Rutherford.

Nancy Winston of Brunswig et Fils. There aren't many people who can pull off a plain gray t-shirt and look chic, but she can.

Sherre Latham

Derek Vanlandingham, a designer with John Phifer Marrs.

Sam Webb (in addition to running the store for Marrs, she's a member of the International Society of Appraisers and frequently hosts her own antiques workshops)

Margaret Chambers

Joyce Fox

About 20 designers came to hear Cowan's talk

Deborah Bigbie and Mark Fletcher chatting during a break

Wouldn't you do great, creative stuff, too, if you went to work every day in a room like this?

Can you believe this room is actually inside one of those simple little bungalows on Lovers Lane? The sign of a remarkable designer is one who can transform a plain space into something sublime.


Mary An Shirk, a designer with John Phifer Marrs

These are the best looking work cubicles I've ever seen

This cubicle with the big spider belongs to designer Mary An Shirk. Marrs described her as the prankster of the group, the one who puts the plastic vomit on the floor as a joke. I know it's true, because during the seminar, when Marrs got up from his chair, she told him he'd sat in some chocolate candy. As he frantically tried to brush it off, Mary An burst out laughing. 

Another stylish cubicle.

Here's the staff's communal work area with a trio of red vintage Eames chairs.

Robert Vaticalos

Don Schuster

Another fabulous work area.

Cheryl Van Duyne was being a good sport, because I made her stand next to the red Eames chairs for this picture. Those fantastic red sandals are vintage Jimmy Choo.

Webb and Fletcher getting the table ready for the reception upstairs. I believe that's a Tom Sime painting. Sime used to be an art critic for the Dallas Morning News, then moved to New York to paint and write plays.

There were a tense few minutes as Cowan used this veneer flame mahogany chest in Marrs' store as show and tell.

Cowan took the drawers out and turned the chest around to study its joinery and wood. Whew! It's an authentic mid-19th century American antique. The giveaways: an original backboard with square nails, original veneer attached with rabbit skin glue, and sandwich glass drawer handles with old screws that protrude about an inch out of the wood, because there were no standard sized screws back then.

More show and tell with this transitional Empire chest in cherry. The ultimate giveaway: a mellow, lovely shellac finish that's impossible to fake, says Cowan.

Joyce Fox laughing at one of Cowan's humorous (but informative) quips.

I'll leave you with some the afternoon's best Cowanisms:

I'm horrified that sometimes people pay $48,000 for a piece of furniture that has absolutely no description except "Fabulous French Buffet" on the tag. As dealers and designers we should do better than that for our clients. And we can. You wouldn't buy a car that way. 

It's not a crime to pay too much for an antique, but it's a crime to say it's something that it's not. If you're not sure, slap the word "style" on that invoice, as in Federal-style chest.

The older the piece, the fewer the dovetails.

Patina is only dust and grime and soot encased in wax. 

Chippendale is Queen Ann on steroids.

Construction methods never lie. Everything from the hardware to the nails and joinery are a product of the a particular time's technology. And it's the same whether it's French, American, Spanish or Italian.

We collect because we are programmed to collect. We come from a long line of hunters and gatherers. So when your husband wants to known why you bought another piece of whatever, tell him evolution made you do it.

If you have any money in the bank, you're not really a collector.