“We’ve found there’s a lot of Arts and Crafts that really borrows heavily from Korean furniture. They all select very straight lines. You can also get very straight, almost Swedish-looking lines in Chinese furniture. Chinese chairs are taller off the ground. They were constructed so people would be up off the dirt floors.
“Let me show you.” I followed John through a succession of progressively smaller showrooms. A set of four Asian chairs surrounded a table. Clean lines dictated the style.
“These are 1865 Chinese,” John said, caressing the curved, rounded crest rail of one of the horseshoe-back armchairs. It had rounded stiles and a curved, solid splat above a shaped seat. The legs were square and straight and joined by a footrest and stretchers. John was not sure of the wood; it might be elm. Each chair was $495.
Several other Asian-influenced chairs sat in the back room. One was a farmer’s, or pheasant’s, bamboo bentwood chair.
“It’s bent by a process combining water and pressure,” John explained, “and this is a scholar’s chair,” he said, pointing to a small, square, low-to-the-ground carved chair. New-age music that had filled the front room pleasantly felt intrusive in the more confined space. David and I were shouting and we barely knew each other.
“Is it an old one?” I asked.
“I’m not sure this is one of the originals. They were made about 1860. These they still reproduce because they still use the same techniques. That may be what this is.”
“How do you tell the reproduction from the real thing?” I asked, surprised but pleased by his candor.
“Sometimes it’s very difficult. You can’t necessarily tell from type or technique. You can sometimes get hints by shrinkage and staining, but even then…” his sentence drifted.
“So a crack, like this one in the back, might be considered a good thing because it means the wood is so old it shrank?” I asked.
He laughed an uncomfortable laugh. “You can talk to two experts who will give you two completely different opinions.”
“How about someone who’s not selling me something?” This time, I laughed.
“Some of the new stuff will shrink and crack because it’s new wood, not properly cured. Even the old antiques, when they come out of southern China or Southeast Asia, it’s a very humid, tropical climate. They come out here and they shrink and crack because of the change in humidity. So even that isn’t a guarantee.
“The best thing to do is know and trust the people you are buying from. Trust the feeling you get from them because anyone in this business can be taken. I don’t care who they are.”
His caution still ringing, I went from dark to light, stepping back onto the street. I’d parked about a block off Washington. The area shifted almost instantly from commercial to residential, and then back again. Passing a couple of small houses squeezed between businesses, I noticed one with its own landmark. The house was small like its neighbors, but there was a five-foot-tall fountain in a front yard no bigger than three by nine feet. For all practical purposes, the three layers of dripping stone cherubs were the front yard. I found it touching, a grappling for gracious living.
The House of Heirlooms on University looked promising. Wide plate-glass windows displayed furniture, stained glass, mirrors, and rugs. Inside, wood floors let the salespeople know they weren’t alone. Jane Depka offered her help after I explained my mission. “You need to talk to Joyce Ferrante. She’s the only person I know that even comes close to being an expert on antique chairs.”
Driving west on the 8 in the afternoon, the only thing that told me this was fall in San Diego was the quality of light. The late-afternoon sun was thin and delicate in November. It was like driving into a painting by Constable. Not a force to be guarded against as in August — in November, you savor.
Construction or a burst pipe had backed up Point Loma traffic. The opposing lane on Rosecrans was a barely broken line for three lights, and water gushed from somewhere off my path. Finding the right house was easy. Finding a place to park was trickier. Two blocks past my destination, I parked on a side street and walked back.
The house was a lovely, gracious two-story stucco with a red tile roof and an offset entrance. Built in the ’20s or ’30s, it was stylish with old vegetation.
I don’t know what I expected a chair expert to look like — maybe dressed in slipcovers? But when Joyce Ferrante opened the door, I was mildly surprised. She was small and trim with blue eyes and free-flowing, curly, chin-length silver-gray hair, dressed in jeans, a white T-shirt, and a black leather vest with colorful embroidery, South American style. The gray hair and the Springsteen outfit were a nice juxtaposition. Just casually guessing, you would put Joyce in that 50-plus group that doesn’t usually get much scrutiny. It’s a shame too, because appearances can be deceiving. At first I thought her accent English, but she told me she was from Australia.
Her manner was cultured, open, and friendly, not the surface “Hi, how are you?” kind of friendly, but genuinely welcoming. She gave the impression of an effortless grace in entertaining strangers, an ambassador’s wife used to receiving on short notice. Only after I produced the tape recorder did she show any sign that a drop-in interview was out of the ordinary. We stopped and started a couple of times, then she hit her stride talking about the chairs in her house.
“I used to manage the House of Heirlooms, the antique store. I worked there about 17 years. Then I taught classes on historical perspectives. We studied antiques and the decorative arts, and the students came to my home. I think it was very successful because nobody else in San Diego did anything like that. The decorative arts include all furniture and furnishings. You could include paintings, rugs, glass, tapestries, and silver. The students were collectors and many local antique dealers. I would do two-hour lectures with good preparation. It wouldn’t be so much slides, as I had a great walnut table and if we were studying silver, I would begin with my earliest piece, which is 1600 — it’s a tiny spoon — and I would go all the way up to the present day.”