Antiques & Art: Part 2 – Understanding Antiques

Billie on a Chair
Too divine Brussels Griffon Miss Billie, sitting in a wonderful 'antique' bowl... giving us the perception she's as precious as it is! courtesy Martyn Cook Antiques

Divine Brussels Griffon Miss Billie, sitting in an ‘antique’ bowl… giving us the distinct impression she’s as precious as it is – courtesy Martyn Cook Antiques

In Part one of our series about antiques and art, we discussed understanding the term art; defined first by ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) writer and polymath, who ‘radically transformed most, if not all the areas of knowledge he touched on’.

What is at the essence of great art; its ability to affect not only our perceptions, but also our emotions.

That point seems to be proved when viewing Martyn Cook of Martyn Cook Antiques in Sydney’s lovely Brussels Griffon Miss Billie sitting in a wheel spun and painted enamel porcelain bowl, or otherwise sitting on a painted Regency chair in his gallery.

Cute is not enough to say!

Today the measure of great art is not just about looking, but also seeing and feeling.

What your perceptions are, and how your emotions are engaged when you are looking at the piece of furniture or a lovely objet d’art is in essence at the heart and soul of becoming a collector.

Billie on a Chair

Do you doubt that I am as precious as this chair too…? Miss Billie seemingly comments, courtesy Martyn Cook Antiques, Sydney

It demands we accept the whole range of human emotions we have available to us.

So, what is an antique?

Can it be classified as a work of art as well?

Well yes is probably the answer, but there is a lot more to it than that.

So where should we make a start? How do we begin!

Perhaps if we think of A.B.C….. A for Assessment, B for Buyer Beware, and C for Considerations is one way and in our series we will discuss them all.

Chinese Punch Bowl

Chinese Republic period (1912–1949) Porcelain, wheel spun and painted enamels Measures 20cm height, diameter 46cm – courtesy Martyn Cook Antiques, Sydney

It can be a worry when the word ‘antiques’, even in today’s supposedly more enlightened age, is often bandied about without much thought for what it really means.

Many a good soul has been taken in, thinking something is old and precious from literally seeing it labelled that way in a market or shop and trusting that what the label says is true.

But is that the way that we should approach understanding or learning about antiques?

Not really; we need to know what should be taken into account when assessing an antique in terms of value, rarity or otherwise.

As an aspect of those considerations, we also need to know its story, which can impact greatly on its monetary value.

What the terms mean are very important aspects for a potential collector to both embrace and consider if they want to be able to distinguish if the work is unique as well. It goes to the bottom line eventually, if you are collecting with an eye to investment.

Punch Bowl 2The bowl that seemingly attracts the lovely Miss Billie is of interest. The description from Martyn Cook Antiques in Sydney defines it for us: circular, on foot-rim the curved sides and bowl painted with famille rose enamels of flowering prunus, 9 peaches and 3 red bats in flight.

The bowl reveals much more about it than perhaps meets the eye of a first time beholder. For a start the body of the porcelain and how it was made and what it was made from are exceedingly important, as are the colours that make up the ‘famille rose’ decoration.

Chinese works of art and colours are both very rich in symbolism… and there is yet more. The way the prunus is painted, and the influences on Chinese painting over the ages also have a bearing, as does its subject matter. What do the peaches mean, and what about those ‘flying bats’?

Reign Mark Qianlong

The base is imprinted with a blue mark; six character zhuanshu (archaic seal script) and it bears the Chinese Emperor Qianlong’s reign mark.

Is it a genuine mark, or is it a copy of one? How do you tell?

Antiques, such as this lovely work of art can both be considered ‘fine’ too, just as long as they have been defined as being among the best of the best.

In the world of antiques, that would include ensuring that someone’s not charging you the equivalent of the ‘antique’ price for something that is in fact all brand new!

Must say that I find Miss Billie’s bowl and its aesthetic very pleasing and would happily add it to my collection because of its ‘beauty’. If I do my homework on all of considerations first, then I will know what a reasonable price to expect pay for such an item.

Antiques, courtesy Jamie Allpress, Melbourne

Antiques in modern setting, courtesy Jamie Allpress, Melbourne

So, doing your research then is important. It ensures you cannot get carried away in the moment, spending far more than its worth.

Otherwise, dealing with a trusted member of the Australian Antiques & Art Dealers Association (AA&ADA) such as Martyn Cook Antiques in Sydney and Jamie Allpress Antiques in Melbourne should help you to eliminate that risk.

Just to be a member means that they have a code of practice to adhere to.

In Australia we have some formidable dealers on the list and so you need to visit them in their galleries, or be recommended by a friend and identify one you can work with because you admire and trust their judgment.

You will find a full list of all the AA&ADA dealers in your state in Australia on their website.

Thomas Chippendale's Doll's House at Nostell Priory, a comment on the design and decoration of its era

Thomas Chippendale’s Doll’s House at Nostell Priory, a comment on design and decoration of its time

Interestingly today some old pieces, which are infinitely ‘fine’ are getting back to being cheaper than to buy new.

For a long time last century that was not the case, especially if you owned a fine chair by English designer and cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale (1718 – 1779).

Chippendale was an exceptional creative craftsman, who was a crafty bloke as well. His reputation today is based not only on his ability to design and create, but also his considerable business acumen.

Some of the pitfalls involved with collecting is that there are people out there who would like to confuse the issues for monetary gain. They still do and have done for centuries; the so-called ‘artful partners’ Berenson and Duveen are just one lively story… related by author Colin Simpson in 1986. You can hunt around for a copy of the book and still find one on the second hand market.

If you have an interest in this world of art and antiques and are a potential collector wanting to begin to take a step forward then how do you begin.

You can start by keeping that idea of both business and creativity working in tandem together.

It’s not easy, but is in your best interest to let your emotions run rampant. It does not however mean that you shouldn’t choose from the heart.

Books 2By experience I have found that the pieces whose stories I have enjoyed the most, and those I was drawn instinctively toward have generally turned out to be the best investment. Those who seem to concentrate only on that angle are often disappointed at a later date.

You need to however be able to cope with parting with some of them as there may come a stage when you will need to sell off some of the old to make way for the new or to upgrade to something you would like to own more.

This might happen say in ten years time and be an event you cannot forsee.

If you cannot do this it may make life hard for you.

God of Double Happiness & Books

Not giving it up can also mean that you are not ‘growing within’ or expanding your knowledge and wanting to upgrade to something whose story interests you far more than some previously.

Having said all of that I also do get that there are some things we really never want to sell unless we are forced to.

Emotional attachments; I have a few; a Cameo, a sculpture to wear, which I purchased for myself when I was going well in my business life.

Then there is my porcelain Chinese ‘God of Double Happiness‘. He currently sits alongside some rare French books I love that will also see me out.

He once belonged to a dear friend and well-known collector of superb Chinese objet d’art whom I admired enormously and so it is a case where I do let sentiment get in the way. It’s part of my accepting and knowing that I have no pretensions to perfection.

Antiques courtesy Martyn Cook Antiques, Sydney

Antiques courtesy Martyn Cook Antiques, Sydney

Remember if you are not confident however when making your hard decisions nothing replaces the opinion of a seasoned dealer in antiques.

Especially one who has been working actively in the trade over a long period of time.

Having examined so many pieces after 20 – 30 years in the trade, some dealers are able to understand what has happened to the piece by just viewing and distinguishing; the restorations employed since it was made.

Then there are considerations surrounding original construction methods used and original materials employed.

This is relevant whether or not they fit exactly into the timeline of known and recognized dates and styles in design, as well as the social history that pinpoints the evolution of art, design and style from antiquity to today.

Baroque, Rococo, Renaissance, Medieval, Modernism, Neoclassicism all are terms that are bandied about by those in the know. However if you don’t know what they mean then how can you know about the rest? So you would by now probably realize, that understanding antiques can be far more complex than you may have thought at first.

George II Chinese-Chippendale Mahogany silver table c1755

George II Chinese-Chippendale Mahogany silver table c1755

To start – Do you believe for an item to be Antique it must be 100 years old or more?

Apprentice and master at the Hay Cabinetmaker's shop inspect the workmanship on a chair. Historic Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Virginia

Apprentice and master at the Hay Cabinetmaker’s shop inspect the workmanship on a chair. Historic Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Virginia

If YES is your answer, well sorry, that is not how it works. Your perception needs to be re-informed.

The 100-year rule is a guide the British Antiques Dealer’s Association (BADA) has championed for a long time. After its foundation in 1918 BADA set the standard for trading in the antiques business basically around the world for a long time.

It used to be that everyone followed the English lead, at least for most of the 19th and 20th century. The English after all are the people who invented the ‘antiques’ concept, which really got under during the first half of the eighteenth century with English aristocrat Horace Walpole and his friends started galloping around the countryside collecting old chairs… read his story here.

Internationally however, many other antique associations around the world have more recently decided they now recognize superbly designed quality objects from any era that they would consider worth conserving. We could say that they have finally joined the age of enlightenment.

So many have established their own time period for their member dealers.The dealers are not meant to move outside the parameters that have been set over a certain percentage of stock, which the association deems acceptable. That is if they still call themselves dealers in the world of antiques.

Statue of Thomas Chippendale, Otley Yorkshire, England

Statue of Thomas Chippendale, Otley Yorkshire, England

So in the one shop you are likely to find not only antiques that came from the period in which they were first designed, but also copies of them. This has caused a dilemma with pricing. Theoretically the later copy basically should be cheaper than the antique original, especially if it is a piece made in period.

If the system works, the dealer should and would reveal which is the rarer earlier example, as well as point out its copy to you. He should also be able to explain the differences.

English Georgian and ‘Regency’ furniture reached a high point in terms of cost during the latter part of the 20th century (the 80’s) and since has lost significant sums of money for investors in this century as people have been caught up in the confusion and arguments about attributing monetary values.

How does the layman then starting on a collecting journey and know which is the authentic item and which is the one masquerading as something made in a previous era. Some of the definitions bandied about are not enlightening either.

In the main Antique Dealers Association generally will allow goods made up to the advent of World War II to be displayed and categorized as ‘antique’.

Art Nouveau gold, diamond and enamel masterpiece by René Lalique

Art Nouveau gold, diamond and enamel masterpiece by René Lalique

Anything after that maybe classified as a Masterpiece, as Heritage or as Vintage, just to confuse everyone still further.

Selection of fine antiques courtesy Martyn Cook Antiques, Redfern Australia

Selection of fine antiques courtesy Martyn Cook Antiques, Redfern Australia

Do dictionary ‘definitions’ help? Cambridge Dictionary tells us an antique is  ‘something made in an earlier period and collected and valued because it is beautiful, rare, old or of high quality’.

What old means is not clearly defined?

So what was the 100 years of age idea all about. Why was it the generally accepted understanding of the word Antique for a long time?

The definition came about only after World War II.

This was when it was established at a convention in Brussels in 1952 to exempt goods from taxation that were over 100 years of age when moving between countries.

Customs departments around the world, including Australia followed this guideline. The difficulty arose when once it had become standard practice of customs department’s world wide to exempt goods 100 years old.

This then led other people gaining a false idea or perception that a work of art, object or architectural style didn’t have a value at all unless it was older than a century!

If, as a society we took the well regarded definition of the word antique literally we would begin to recognise and value anything that would prove valuable to society to conserve.

This would happen because of both its intrinsic value and-or investment value and could include something produced during the last ten years.

You can now begin to see why defining an ‘antique is very confusing for many people and there are many more considerations if you want to become a collector… More soon.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014

Antiques & Art: Part 1 – Understanding Art

Watch our Video

To be continued… Antiques & Art: Part 3 – On Becoming a Collector

Leave a Reply

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