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Assessing Antique Furniture

Martha Stewart Living Television

Martha visits with Albert Sack, co-owner of the Israel Sack antique furniture gallery in New York City, and learns how he evaluates early-American antique furniture. Albert's book on the subject, "Fine Points of Furniture: Early American, Good, Better, Best" was first published in 1950; it has since been reprinted more than twenty times. Albert contends that because American antique furniture was rarely marked or stamped with the artisan's name, it should be valued on artistic merit -- form, integration, proportion, and craftsmanship -- rather than pedigree. He uses three simple designations to describe the quality of a piece: "Good," "Better," and "Best."

"Good" is a generous designation for unsuccessful design. Characteristics that cause a piece to be labeled unsuccessful include awkward proportions, stiff or clumsy lines (as in the leg of a chair), a lack of integration among all the elements in a piece, or crude craftsmanship. "Better" represents an item of reasonable competence that still possesses minor flaws in its design. Albert points out the stocky central column and "saggy," slightly ungainly legs of an otherwise splendidly crafted Chippendale mahogany tea table to illustrate the "Better" category. "Best" is a piece that succeeds in all aspects of design and craftsmanship. Albert places a Chippendale mahogany ladderback chair in this category. Obviously the work of a master craftsman, its contours are subtle and graceful, its proportions perfect. He also displays a similar ladderback chair that is more roughly crafted and not well-balanced in its proportions. Even though this second chair was made for a prominent Massachusetts family, Albert designates it simply "Good."

In his book "The New Fine Points of Furniture," Albert added two more categories to do justice to truly outstanding design. "Superior" represents successful furniture that reaches beyond mere competence to a level of artistic brilliance within its medium; a piece designated "Superior" would surpass the majority of its contemporaries in both design and craftsmanship. "Masterpiece" indicates a supreme achievement that transcends the bounds of its era and even the medium it represents -- a true "Masterpiece" is not simply a piece of furniture but a work of art.

The Sack family has been dedicated to the connoisseurship, preservation, and collection of early-American fine furniture for nearly a century. Israel Sack, the son of a merchant and an accomplished cabinetmaker himself, came to Boston from his native Lithuania in 1903. After two years of working as a cabinetmaker, Israel launched his own business, which focused on the restoration of antiques. Soon, he gave up cabinetmaking altogether and began buying and selling antique furniture. Israel's recognition of the fine quality and craftsmanship found in early-American furniture inspired collectors to view it as an art form -- some of his clients amassed notable collections of American antiques that were later donated to museums. In 1931, Israel Sack, Inc., moved to New York City. Soon after, Israel was joined in the business by his sons Harold, Albert, and Robert. Albert's son Donald and daughter-in-law Dale are the third generation of Sacks who have entered the family business.

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