In Antiques & Art: Part 3 – Becoming a Collector, we looked at the questions you should ask yourself about objects when forming your ideas about assembling a collection of antiques.
In this we examine some of the main considerations a collector should address before proceeding with purchase.
With over 100 years of age, a piece of furniture made during the nineteenth century means that it is usually classified as ‘antique’.
Does that mean it’s going to cost a huge price? Well no is that answer.
The price is very much dependent on the movements in the market at the time. Demand usually sets the price. The rarer and more unique, the higher the quality of craftsmanship and unique materials then the rule was in my day that meant a higher price.
However, that has changed a great deal.
People are paying more for ‘Victorian’ or twentieth century pieces made by machine, than for many eighteenth century pieces made and waxed lovingly by hand from timbers now extinct. There is no comparison, the older piece will win aesthetically every time.
Discovering a forgotten treasure is something many aspire to, which in reality may not ever be achieved. However as the successful Antiques Roadshow in England has proved, it is a possibility.
It always pays to do your research by deciding on what area you wish to collect in first.
Then begin pricing similar items to get a ‘handle’ on what it should be costing you, before you pay a far bigger price than it may be worth.
Does it being a ‘period piece’ make it more valuable? The simple answer is YES.
An authentic piece of furniture by 18th century English cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale, which has to be proved by offering documentation, is far more valuable than copies made since he died.
So what does a ‘period piece’ mean?
Well we are talking about a dated time span generally accepted as when the furniture or object was made.
This will also fall within an age when there is a recognized decorative design style such as Rococo, Neoclassical or Modernism to name a few.
So you need to know about the styles as well and what dates they came in and out of fashion.
There are a great many considerations you need to take into account when becoming a collector of antiques.
Of them all CONDITION is always the most important in terms of value.
You need to keep in mind many antiques have undergone some measure of decay or damage during their long life, especially furniture.
The only exception would be pieces that have always been in museums and ceramics and glass that have been inside cabinets for display. However we do need to consider did someone wearing gloves always handle the objects correctly too?
You would be surprised how many items enthusiastic cleaners have ruined by rubbing too hard, often removing all-important decoration.
For those seeking ‘original condition’ to French polish an 18th century piece of furniture is sacrilege.
Original condition is most desirable. e.g. furniture up to, and including the eighteenth century in England, Europe and America was always hand waxed with waxes without silicone in them and, by hand.
Silicone in the wax is very damaging. So, if you have an antique piece ask your dealer what’s the best wax to use.
A piece of eighteenth century furniture in beautiful original or near original condition (including original handles) will fetch far higher prices than a piece later ‘improved’ by being French polished.
French polishing gave it a modern, glassier look and it is important to remember this is a technique that arrived with the advent of the Industrial Revolution during the nineteenth century.
If the antique you admire has been used by a succession of owners it will have been likely to gain that soft glowing often-marked appearance.
This is an aesthetic many people admire.
They are entirely attracted to its qualities because it helps to tell the tale of the piece from its beginning to the point when they can own it – that familial continuum itself very desirable.
This is called PATINA, which is the condition of the surfaces of the object or piece of furniture.
It often means a soft warm glow has been acquired over the years, with surfaces mellowed into a faded, soft appearance fully showing the areas of fading, small knicks and knocks as well as scratches etc.
For furniture it describes layers of polish, dirt, grease etc., built up over the course of time with grease and dirt from handling, especially under drawer handles and around key escutcheons.
This should be evident, grime should have accumulated in carving and crevices and this is preferred to them having been scrubbed out fanatically with a toothbrush.
It is also part of the story and journey the piece has made that so many people value so highly.
A lot of original pieces have lost this accumulation due to heavily applied wax polishes designed to conceal conversion or replacement. Also many pieces have lost their original handles. Finding a piece with them is another desirable feature.
Real patina can only be produced by age and conditions surrounding its display.
It can never really be faked or fool someone who has been looking at antiques over a long period of time.
It is the same for old sterling silver.
It is the thousands of minute scratches from something like ‘flatware’ and its use over hundreds of years that has created the lovely look of softness on old silver that is both appreciated and highly desirable for collectors.
If you are lucky enough to own real sterling silver then do use it, don’t put in a cupboard. Washing it in soapy water every day keeps it from tarnishing and also adds to its appeal.
In the case of antiques if you know your knowledge isn’t up to ‘scratch’ then this where you really need expert advice, especially if you are a first time collector.
You need to build trust with a recognised dealer, who should be able to guide you as you advance your collection. They will also help you upgrade to more desirable items as you go along, by selling some to improve the quality or range of your collection.
Again, dealing with people who are members of the Australian Antiques & Art Dealers Association, or there equivalent in our country, is really the only means of protection from unscrupulous practice.
Potential collectors there are yet more considerations.
Before we go any further do contemplate the idea of: REPAIRS, MARRIAGES AND FAKES
There is an acceptable level of repair work covering normal wear or damage during the lifetime of the piece under normal conditions. Few pieces have escaped some repair.
If they are over a hundred years old and have had repairs the dealer should always point them out to the potential purchaser. It is an entirely unrealistic expectation to believe any article over 100 years old is perfect, unless it’s been in a museum all that time.
Alterations or additions should be pointed out to prospective purchasers.
There are many pieces that have been changed from their original use. Often changing fashion dictated these at the time and many were made with absolutely no dishonest intent.
It was all about ‘recycling’, which is not just a concept of our age, although that always surprises many people. 16th century Venetian architect Andrea Palladio was very big at recycling water on his client’s estates! Would it have been that we had followed his example a lot earlier than we have.
Over time improvements on general household items in use were often made. This was not necessarily as a means of deception, but through a desire to add to a pieces function or conform to changing fashion and taste.
This happened a great deal with country furniture, particularly dressers when they became fashionable as part of the craze for the English and French style during the 80’s and are again now.
Everyone wants the bottom but not the tops, which if purchased can be a wonderful hanging book or nick nack shelf!
Today because so many were changed or lost their tops and also because of the emotional entanglements (everyone’s granny had one), the originality of intact dressers always needs to be considered carefully and if you are just buying a ‘look’ then that’s fine.
Having an eye for proportion helps because many copies lack the form and style of the original.
Jamie Allpress of Allpress Antiques in Melbourne specializes in antique dressers.
He mostly sells them without their shelving units, because that’s what most people want.
A ‘marriage’ should always be pointed out. i.e. where two pieces of the similar period and style have been put together to produce a more saleable item.
When the fashion for Chests on Stands was raging a lot of original Chests on Chests were taken apart and given a stand so you had two saleable items, instead of one.
Evidence of saw marks tells the story, though if you are suspicious you should always seek professional advice.
Genuine fakes are few fortunately, because the art of faking requires considerable skill, the right materials and an enormous knowledge of the period being faked.
It has happened historically in a big way. But improved techniques can fool the untrained amateur.
For both antiques and art provenance usually adds value.
PROVENANCE; is all about the history of the piece, generally coming from a collection that has been well documented and can be traced back to its origins.
These pieces always fetch a higher price. It means the piece has a recorded and documented history and, if the person who owned it has achieved some ‘fame’, then its value would increase.
However, we must add a word of caution as in some instances it would be necessary to establish that while the piece was in the possession of this person of ‘fame’, if any alterations were made to it, other than regular maintenance.
If so, were they at what would be considered by experts as an accepted level of restoration or repair. This is particularly relevant if you read Paul Barry’s book “The Rise and Fall of Alan Bond”, published by Bantam Books.
Mr Barry reported that Mrs. Bond purchased antiques and often altered them to suit his personal taste, thus devaluing them on the world market when they came to be resold…
This most difficult area of all is CONSERVATION and RESTORATION
YOU really need someone with a great deal of expertise, an approved service provider to an antique dealers association, rather than someone who believes their own press releases and not held to acceptable professional standards.
Conservation means preserving something at a moment in time. In the case of something like textiles that often means just keeping that process going until it finally rots out. Everything does have a ‘life’.
In England some great houses have conserved eighteenth century textiles by encasing them in a specialised netting to hold the fibres together until they go to dust.
Then, and only then they will no doubt reproduce them.
This is what happened at the Chateau of Versailles outside Paris.
All of the textiles were looted or perished at the time of the French Revolution.
It took some 25 years for instance, to re-weave silk hangings now replaced on Marie Antoinette’s State bed in the state rooms. This suite of rooms was always for show and not really where the Queen slept.
Like the rest of her family, she had private rooms beyond the state apartments, where her bed was dressed with cotton. The Meridian cabinet was named for the Queen’s rest period during the middle of the day (Latin Meridies -midday).
The room octagonal in shape had a mirror lined alcove, the simple day bed hangings in her favourite colour blue, the silk hangings ordered for here from Lyon, not arriving in time
Marie-Antoinette always preferred simple materials such as cotton and muslin to silk, which was not practical, despite having to wear it for state occasions to confirm that the royal family were supporting the ‘silk industry’ of France.
To appease the silk workers from rioting Marie-Antoinette ordered silk hangings but the reality is she lost her head before they were delivered.
Restoration means bringing something back to original condition. What level of restoration is acceptable without the piece being de-valued is a most important concern, especially for collectors with an eye on investment values. In the end everything comes back to ‘CONDITION’.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014