Antique, Masterpiece, Collectible – Recycle on a Grand Scale

Antique Commode

Martyn Cook, Redfern at Sydney in NSW – Stand Melbourne Antiques Fair 2011

For nearly half a century, following World War II, many believed that for an ‘antique’ piece of furniture or object to be of any monetary value or merit at all it had to be 100 years old.

The 100 rule idea came about because in the early 1950’s the newly formed international Customs Co-operation Council (now World Customs Organisation) at Brussels in Belgium defined an antique as 100 years of age. They were exempting old furniture and objects over that age from tax when they were being exported and imported.

The Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System they established was widely adopted across the western world, including America and Australia.

Gradually as it became standard practice to exempt furniture and objects over 100 years old moving around the world from tax, a general perception emerged for anything else, even architecture, to be considered of any merit or value at all it had to suit the same 100 year ‘rule’.

This did not make any commonsense. Great design that pleases the eye and connects with the soul in any age is worthy of both our admiration and attention.

Simply superb eighteenth century Meissen Porcelain teapot from Saxony

In England however it remained very different in regards to an antique. Up until the beginning of the last decade of the twentieth century, the term antique meant those goods made prior to 1830, the date of the death of George IV, when producing a piece of furniture, or a lovely object lovingly by hand was also considered to have finally ended. He was a King who had championed great design and fine handmade craftsmanship.

Hand manufacturing for arts patrons at the time included the use of well chosen quality materials, unique custom made features, with special attention to detailing and techniques like marquetry, parquetry, inlay and stringing, all of which virtually came to an end.

The industrial age took over, producing furniture and objects by machine so that a greater number of people from the rapidly expanding middle classes across the western world could enjoy the same designs as the aristocracy, which were now made affordable.

Stunning Design in an Industrial Age teapot by Christopher Dresser

While this in many ways for a while it meant a denigration of some of the old designs it also meant the birth to a whole new wave of ‘industrial designers’ of which Christopher Dresser was one. He benchmarked a whole new standard of excellence on a never before imagined scale.

The major English antiques and art trade association exhibitions and fairs fought hard to uphold the 1830 rule as defining an antique rigidly for over a 100 years.

The Grosvenor House Fair was the créme de la créme of fairs adhering to that standard. It was on the site of the old London residence of the Earls of Grosvenor, which had housed one of England’s finest private collections of art.

It was inevitable that it would all come to an end and eventually the date could not be sustained because of lack of stock, the finest having been snapped up by famous museums and galleries around the world or had retreated into private collections.

In 1994 the date line was finally removed and modern and contemporary painting, sculpture, furniture and other works of art were exhibited and the whole assessment of what makes an antique re-evaluated.

Alan Landis Antiques Wedgwood Keith Murray Design vases, circa 1930

Alan Landis Antiques
Wedgwood Keith Murray Design vases, circa 1930

These days most antique dealers would agree that an ‘antique’ is all about the very best example of a combination of wonderful design aesthetics, quality materials and excellence in manufacture. It adds more to the value if it is in fine condition, has glorious patina and has an equally fine provenance.

England is where the whole concept of collecting antiques was invented during the eighteenth century, as learned gentlemen began to look back wistfully to the Middle Ages.

Horace Walpole in his library at Strawberry Hills

Horace Walpole in his library at Strawberry Hill

One correspondent of 1739 wrote to the Gentleman’s Magazine: ‘Me thinks there was something respectable in those old hospitable Gothick Halls, hung round with Helmets, Breast Plates, and Swords of our Ancestors; I entered them with a Constitutional Sort of Reverence’.

Many collectors and dilettanti such as Horace Walpole (1717-1797) and his contemporaries Richard Bateman and William Beckford shared this viewpoint.

They first began to acquire old furniture mainly because of its emotive romantic historical associations.

Walpole collected suitable furniture for his home, a Gothick extravaganza at Twickenham called Strawberry Hill.

Recycled pieces of furniture were intended to form part of the decor, and the objects in them dictated the character of the rooms as well as represented their eccentric, much loved owner. Previously he and his friends and colleagues had been collectors, but mostly of natural or man-made curiosities such as coins or medals.

Walpole, who’s many letters gives us a wonderful insight into eighteenth century literary manners and social graces wrote, ‘Dicky Bateman has picked up a whole cloister full of old chairs in Herefordshire – he bought them one and one here and there in farm houses for three and sixpence and a crown a piece. They are of wood, the seats are triangular, the back, arms and legs loaded with turnery, a thousand to one there are plenty up and down Cheshire to.’

Lyre back chair by master craftsman Thomas Chippendale – a quality piece of fine furniture, of fine proportion, beautifully rendered and amazingly, designed to sit on

During the 1980’s as ideas and values changed in the contemporary age high end dealers, collectors and connoisseurs fought valiantly to keep the original date of 1830 and its reason in play for as long as feasibly possible.

In the last 10 years of the 20th and first 10 years of this century they fell back onto the ‘100 year rule’, because most of the Silent Generation, Baby Boomer and X generation customers still believed an antique had to be 100 years old.

It is only recently the lines have become blurred again and this is because memory is being lost during major generational change all over the world.

Trade associations have also been placed in a position where they needed to recognize dealers trading in fine art deco style furniture and objects from the 20’s and 30’s, the ‘Art Deco’ period; certainly not 100 years old, but in many ways showcased style as being at the pinnacle of design excellence.

Chinoiserie Mirror designed by Thomas Chippendale

During the last 20 years of the 20th century many examples of fine furniture, paintings, sculpture and beautiful objects made prior to 1830 began the move into museums or major collections supported by sponsors.

A great example of the reason why is highlighted by the wonderful furniture produced by eighteenth century master English craftsman and cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779).

Today the designs of cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale have been copied and adapted for over 200 years. Lots of manufacturers and cabinetmakers purchased The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director that he published in 1754 , which has had since his death many editions.

Chippendale’s designs accommodated many different styles, including the frivolous Rococo and its love of asymmetry, the delightfully whimsical Chinoiserie , which is the European evocation of the Chinese taste as well as the Neoclassical style, whose symmetrical perfection is very pleasing to the aesthetic of many people.

Yes you name it, Chippendale could design and make it.

Antique Fair Sydney 2006, courtesy Martyn Cook

Literally hundreds of thousands of pieces of furniture have been made using his patterns from that day to this. My own sofa was made by Sydney cabinetmaker Craig Lewis from a pattern in Chippendale’s original folio director, of which he had a copy.

He had to ‘waste’ the mahogany timber to make its legs and frame, as at the time when Chippendale was designing all the measurements were in feet and inches, whereas here in Australia today it is in centimeters.

Thomas Chippendale StatueChippendale style furniture graces homes all around the world, especially in America. In places like Washington, Boston and New York for a hundred years after his death they absolutely loved his designs and adapted them for local use.

By the late nineteenth century the Chinese were also manufacturing pieces designed by Chippendale, as well as the two other English drawing masters who had followed his lead and published Directors. They were Thomas Sheraton and George Hepplewhite. They then shipped the furniture to England, to America and to Australia as part of the exploding China Trade

I have a thing for early eighteenth century porcelain, like this delightful very ‘modernist’ style teapot with its original silver spout protector

Now here’s the thing.

All these pieces, according to the tax man and the 100 year rule, are now antique too! But are they as valuable as the pieces made by Chippendale in his workshop or others in workshops during his lifetime?

Well no is the answer.

Carved curtain swags designed by Robert Adam and manufactured by Thomas Chippendale, The Gallery, Harewood House, Yorkshire

Carved curtain swags designed by Robert Adam and manufactured by Thomas Chippendale, The Gallery, Harewood House, Yorkshire

With original documentation attached many of Thomas Chippendale’s pieces today are worth into the millions of dollars in economic terms. The rest are graded down from that, according to quality, age, timber used, condition etc, all those things that add up to make an antique valuable and can also only be said to be made ‘in the style of Thomas Chippendale’.

Much of Chippendale’s original furniture has now made its way into Country House Museums or such select institutional museums as the V & A at London and The Metropolitan Museum of Art at New York.

A collection of antiques in a stone cottage designed for real living

How do you, or would you classify an antique in 2012?

The British Antiques Dealers Association, according to their website, still requires its members to adhere to the 100 year rule. They call it the ‘centenary date’. However if you are checking the websites of other major International Antiques Associations you will probably search hard and not find a date mentioned. You can take what you will from that.

Hypothetically at least, let’s forget the tax man. Perhaps he needs to update his own system based on best advice.

Is it time a new word for goods being recycled from another era was invented? What about ‘classic’. That means of renowned excellence in any era and culture. Well I am one who doesn’t believe it would work in the long term.

This is because a lot of people seem to perceive classic as being boring. Its original ideals are based on the perceived perfection achieved by the ancient Greeks in art and architecture. And after a time for many, living up to perfection can seem very wearying.

But wait, perhaps it’s already happened. In London some of its best known dealers stepped outside of their association fair and exhibited their best antiques alongside modern iconic fashion items the growing number of celebrities love.

An Art Nouveau gold, diamond and enamel dog collar plaque by Lalique at Masterpiece, London

An Art Nouveau gold, diamond and enamel dog collar plaque by Lalique at Masterpiece, London

The exhibition was  Masterpiece, London and it is now an annual event.

All the goods on display are certainly fabulous and many are design icons. They were available to be collected by anyone at all really, as long as they had the ready necessary. These days that’s a great many more people than ever before. And, it was so successful it is now an annual event.

Collecting is, and has become an amazing phenomenon. Yet it is still often misrepresented by out of date journalists as being the hobby of only a select few or the rich and famous. Now that is rubbish. Collecting is a pleasure indulged in by a vast number of people from different backgrounds and all walks of life.

It just takes place on many different scales of economy.

Beautiful Bugatti, the boys at Top Gear would love this!

The good thing for collectors is that today there is an ever expanding number of categories to collect in. It can be a beautiful Bugatti – love to see the Top Gear boys do a London to Brighton race (like in the old Dirk Bogarde movie Genevieve) in some old beauties such as this one

It can also be a simple fashion item: recently a Ferragamo handbag made out of timber and beautifully finished like a piece of fine furniture, which I purchased when traveling in the early 80’s was whisked away by a family member who has caught the collecting disease.

From this, and from watching the many thousands of people who appear on the Australian ABC Collectors or the BBC’ and America’s various shows for collectors, I have deduced the most important aspect of collecting is, for the majority of people, an emotional connection.

This is almost impossible for anyone to define, let alone explain or understand.

Melbourne Antiques Show 2011 – courtesy Martyn Cook

We are all fascinated, it seems, by the stories attached to the incredible world of antiques and art, which reflect the growth of humankind both socially and culturally.

So, what’s next?

Collecting furniture and objects of great design made from quality materials from the past and keeping them, like us moving forward, makes good sense and good business in a world that needs to recycle its goods to aid its own continuing sustainability.

Brans Antiques and Art (WA) Pair of cloisonné vases

Brans Antiques and Art (WA) Pair of cloisonné vases

An antique today is definitely more than just a load of old tat. It is the visible expression of something profound and invisible; in whatever medium is used, and whatever form it takes, it is shaped by the culture and age that produced it

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2010 – 2013

PS. Want to know more?

I have attached a PDF: INTRODUCTION TO ANTIQUES for you to download. Cheers!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.