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Decoration of Independence : Early American furniture didn't abandon Britain. It tweaked Old World styles, creating designs still prized today.

September 27, 1997|KATHY BRYANT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

American-made furniture doesn't just fill space, said Wendell D. Garrett, senior vice president in the American Decorative Arts Department of Sotheby's, it's a document to our past.

And it is the American decorative arts of the past that Garrett will speak about Oct. 7 as part of a lecture series at Edwards Newport Cinemas.

During the past 30 years, Southern California native Garrett has maintained his passion for American history and culture through teaching, writing and studying. Besides his work at Sotheby's in New York, he is the editor-at-large of Magazine Antiques.

"Here [in the U.S.] American furniture sells for two to three times as much as English antiques that are comparable in period and quality," he said. "There is a great demand for it, and there is a certain amount of patriotism that goes with acquiring something from your own country."

Because many early American settlers came from England and many residents of the 13 Colonies were British subjects until 1776, most of our antiques and cultural qualities came from there, as did principles of architecture, furniture design and other decorative arts.

"When people migrated, they took their best things with them," Garrett said.

When they arrived, they found a new world.

As Garret stated in his book, "Classic America: The Federal Style and Beyond" (1992, Rizzoli, $60), "Citizens of the new republic found comfort in viewing themselves as fundamentally different from their European progenitors. They were members of a liberal society happily free of feudal traditions and class distinction and committed to individual expression, social mobility, pragmatic self-interest and protection of property rights."

The early settlers may have had a grounding in English ideas, but they wanted to improve upon them and their decorative arts.

"Americans borrowed ideas, but they changed things also. As an example, the American accent is changed from the original British one. So it is with furniture," he said. "Our Queen Anne and Chippendale furniture are in many ways superior to the British styles. They took the existing forms and improved upon them."

Garrett acknowledged that some might disagree with this view.

Prices for American antiques have been steadily increasing. Before 1970, no piece of furniture ever sold for more than $100,000. Since then more than a dozen pieces have gone for more than $1 million. Topping the list was a Newport desk and bookcase from the 1770s that sold at auction at Christie's for $12 million. A turret-top Philadelphia Chippendale tea table that was found in a warehouse in La Jolla sold for $1 million.

"There is a great demand for these pieces, and we're still finding them, especially in Florida and California since people migrate there to retire," he said.

Garrett explained that American antique furniture falls into two periods:

* 18th-century furniture is more desirable because that was the time of humanism and enlightenment. It was also the golden age of handcrafting.

* Pieces from the 19th century reflect historic revivals such as Gothic and rococo. Since these were machine-made, they are less expensive.

"American furniture is also sought after because it is less monumental and stripped of the heavy ornamentation that is found on some European pieces of furniture," he said.

Houses were smaller here, so the furniture reflects that. There weren't too many castles being built that required over-sized furniture.

One aspect of collecting that Garrett will talk about in his lecture is connoisseurship.

"It's important to know how to tell the difference between the good, the better and the best. Different elements of the antiques affect the price," he said. "You should know the difference between a 'cripple,' a badly damaged piece; a 'marriage,' one antique created from two or more different antiques; a fake, a piece made to deceive; and a reproduction."

Regionalism and periodization--where it was made and when it was made--also play parts in the value of an antique.

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The Series

Wendell D. Garrett's illustrated lecture on Americana is the first in a series that will benefit New Directions for Women, an organization that provides addiction treatment for women.

Other speakers:

* Bunny Williams, "Perspectives in Interior Design";

* Jeffrey Munger, "Frenchmen and Their Furniture";

* James Yoch, "Villas by the Sea: Mediterranean Drama in Santa Barbara"; and

* Carole Manchester, "Tea in the East: A History of Culture and Commerce."

Cost for the series is $150. It will be at the Edwards Newport Cinemas, 300 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach. (714) 673-1714.

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