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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Antiques or Collectibles?--That is the Question

Author: Bob Brooke

Antiques command more attention today than ever before. So widespread is the interest that people regard the fish-shaped amber bottle which held Dr. Fisch's bitters in the early 19th century in the same way they do the hanging lantern at Williamsburg. Nothing that was of personal or household use during the last 300 years is too minor for consideration in the 21st century. Yet hundreds of simple everyday articles that once were indispensable now are left to gather dust or are unrecognized for what they are.

A cup without a handle but with two saucers, a salt crock to hang on a kitchen wall, a cream pitcher in the form of a cow with luster spots over its white pottery body, an amber bottle shaped like a fish, a satiny rose bowl whose glowing color belies its prim roundness--all these were useful and probably treasured possessions in homes 85 to 150 years ago. Today, people raise their eyebrows if someone serves tea a cup without a handle. The salt crock would be considered downright unsanitary. Their value lies in their being antiques. As such, they are as genuine as the brass lantern with beveled glass sides that hangs in the hall of the Governor's Palace, restored to its eighteenth-century splendor, in Williamsburg, Virginia.

According to Webster’s Dictionary, an antique is "a piece of furniture, tableware or the like, made at a much earlier period than the present." It’s not, however, necessarily out-of-date or oldfashioned. A chair that was built soundly from good hardwood around 1820 and is comfortable to sit on is never out-of-date. A 7-inch-high octagonal teapot of blue Staffordshire is monstrous in comparison to contemporary streamlined pots, but it makes as good a pot of tea as it did more than a century ago.

The painted side chair with stencil decoration and rush seat, produced in quantity and sold cheaply during the 1820's by Lambert Hitchcock, is today worth quite a lot. He turned his Connecticut workroom into a factory where he cut and turned the parts, assembled, and then decorated, so that many more chairs were completed in a day than if a workman had concentrated on one from start to finish. The Hitchcock chair now is as undeniably an antique as a mahogany fiddle-back Empire chair or a Chippendale ladder-back made many years earlier by cabinetmakers. So also are a steeple clock of the 1860's, a pressed glass lamp that burned whale oil during the 1840's or a brass student lamp that burned kerosene in the 1880's, and the cut glass wedding presents of the 1890's.

Not a day goes by but that someone glances at some object and fails to recognize it as an antique. For example, how many young women know a sewing bird when they see one, and how to use it? They’re likely to be baffled even when a small velvet pincushion is attached. The sewing bird, usually of metal, is an ornamental clamp to be fastened to a table. It holds fabric in its beak to facilitate hemming, and was a great aid when all sewing was done at home. It's fun to use because the beak is closed by a spring and can be opened by a tail lever.

An antique that has no appeal for one person or suggests no use is likely to be a treasure to someone else, who will gladly pay for it. There are two types of antique buyers: The ones who buy for the shear beauty or use of a piece and the zealous collector who specializes in one particular kind of object. Preferences range from such popular items as pressed glass, a particular type of pottery, clocks, lamps, coins, coin banks, bottles, souvenir spoons, and guns to oddments such as butter pats, hatpin-holders, mustache cups, cut glass knife rests, and toothpicks. Nothing is too small, too unimportant, or too queer but that someone somewhere collects it.

Many collectors, including those who buy relatively inexpensive items such as hatpin-holders, gradually assemble a group that becomes valuable in terms of money. In contrast, there are people who literally buy antiques as an investment which they expect to increase in value. Such things as authentic Queen Anne and Philadelphia Chippendale furniture made here during the 1700's, Meissen figurines, and Lowestoft china are currently expensive examples of sound investments. Less costly now, but almost certain to increase in value during the next 20 years, are furniture made between 1850 and 1890, 19th-century brass, late 19th-century china, and cut glass.

So what makes one item–or even the same item–an antique or a collectible. Generally speaking, antiques are rated by how old they are and by a federal law (see my article WHAT IS AN ANTIQUE?). Collectibles, on the other hand, can be defined as any object that people desire to collect. This can be old hat pins or Hess toy trucks. Unfortunately, where the line grays is in collecting “collectibles.” These are items made specifically to be collected such as painted plates, dolls, toys (the Hess trucks are a good example), etc. A whole industry has grown up around collectible “limited editions,” as well as a misconception that these items will be valuable. Their value–in fact, the value of any item–is defined by how much someone is willing to pay for it. If a lot of people want an item, then it’s value goes up. It’s the age-old story of supply and demand.

Please visit The Bob Brooke Website for more informative articles and information, or visit his new antiques Web site: The Antiques Almanac.

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