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Good Taste in Collecting
THE collector who is endowed with innate good taste or who has trained his appreciation to note the beauty of fine line, significant form, and harmonious color has a sounder basis of judgment than the one who knows the number of diamonds in the pattern or the factory where such and such an article was made. Indeed the collector who arms himself with an appreciation of artistic values will never be cheated, for even if he buys a reproduction it will be beautiful in itself. For beauty is not a thing of antiquity but a living element, being created anew with each artist's conception, and in our ability to judge the best of today's decorative art we train our taste to appreciate the finest treasures of other days. Lady Charlotte Schreiber had such discriminating taste that her collection of pottery, porcelain, and enamels is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, but from her journals we catch the fun and romance of collecting rather than an attitude of calculated bargaining. However, Lady Charlotte had rare good taste and aesthetic judgment. The average American collector seems to be more interested in the historical or sentimental value of an object, or in the mark which tells him that the object is genuine, than in its actual beauty. If this were not true many objects which are now collected, such as story buttons, bisque figures, mechanical banks, shaving mugs, and Gibson Girl plates, would not be collected. These objects do not require the use of aesthetic judgment, for they have little art value; instead their values are social and historical. However, when a collector chooses silver, china, or furniture as his field for collecting, if he expects to assemble a fine collection which will increase in value and bring credit to him as a discriminating collector, he needs both natural good taste and an acquired knowledge of aesthetic values. Now, some people are born with good taste and it crops out all over. But every one thinks he has good taste whether he has or not, or at least he reserves the right to "like what he likes." However, if one has an open mind and the desire he can improve his taste. This knowledge cannot be imparted like information or acquired by reading. It is best developed by actually working with materials and learning to put a few harmonious lines together on paper or by mixing paints. It can be acquired to a certain degree by comparing good and poor examples of glass, china, and other objects and by visits to museums where only the best is displayed, thus gradually developing a knowledge of good line and fine proportions. Indeed, anyone who spends much time with fine art objects cannot fail to develop a taste for them and an abhorrence of the poorly designed.
Your collecting interest will determine the direction of your study. For example, a knowledge of Greek, Roman, Gothic, and modern sculpture and of carving of all kinds will be of aid in collecting such objects as cameos, wax portraits, ivories, netsukes, chalk figures, and pottery and porcelain figures.
A study of paintings, etchings, and other prints will develop a knowledge of values which will be of great assistance to the collector of Currier and Ives prints, glass paintings, or any form of the graphic arts. Many other collectors' interests, such as china, needlework, and certain varieties of glassware, have color as their chief factor, and thus a knowledge of color harmony will be of value to the collector to these objects. Color is something that gets more fascinating the more you know about it and you begin seeing subtle harmonies that you were never conscious of before.
Of course there are certain factors in judging and knowing antiques which are not based on aesthetic value but are learned by actually handling the objects themselves. To judge glassware you must know the sound or ring, and there is a certain intangible "feel" about old glass and old china. There is also a quality of color which has nothing to do with color harmony; it is a certain mellowness of old color that gives an added aesthetic quality.
There is beauty of workmanship and finish about a fine object, whether it be evenly executed stitches in a rare old sampler, fine carving in wood or ivory, good brushwork, or beautifully executed inlay, and this beauty of execution increases the aesthetic value of an object. There is also a beauty which arises from the process itself. Thus the technical process of weaving changes the character and outline of a design and makes it different from the same design painted on paper.
An understanding of color and design can be of help when you are arranging your collection of antiques in your house or in a shop. Objects with dominant colors should be grouped against harmonious backgrounds, but the effect of color also depends to a certain extent upon light. Intense, brilliant colors are toned down by sunshine. Sunlight also brings other colors together because it adds a certain amount of yellow to all colors. Light reduces the intensity of red, improves greens and blues, and makes black less somber. The old English potteries were certainly thinking of the effect of sunlight on colors when they made gaudy-colored wares for African and West Indian trade. Grayed light is more suited for colors of medium tones. These factors may be applied when making a display for a sunny window or for an arrangement of articles in a room with medium light. In dark rooms articles require a contrast of tone if they are to show up. Shapes must also be large and simple; thus intricate designs or fine carvings cannot be expected to show up in poor light, and a delicate piece of glass or china may pass unseen in a dark corner. The colors which appear best in dark situations are those which have the most light themselves. Against a dark background yellow shows up best; then orange, red, green, and blue in diminishing order. Against a light background objects of blue will show up best, with those of green, red, orange, and yellow in diminishing order. A background of complementary color in the proper tone also helps to set off an object. However, when using a warm color as the background you must be careful to reduce its intensity or it will detract from the object of cool color displayed against it. This factor of contrasting color backgrounds is being used in exhibit rooms of modern museums throughout the country. Even the Metropolitan Museum has discarded the old neutral-backgroundgood-for-everything theory, and paintings as well as collections of decorative arts are shown against colored backgrounds.
Design may also be used as an aid in arranging your collection, and you will find that small articles, such as snuff boxes or a collection of trivets, will be more effectively displayed if grouped about a center which is formed by the dominant object in the collection. Arranging your collection of glass, china, or whatever your collecting hobby may be can be fun if you follow a few of the rules. Indeed your collection can and should become the main feature of the room in which it is displayed. A collection just stored away on shelves doesn't mean much to anyone but the collector himself. I know of two collectors of old blue Staffordshire. One collector has an example of every rare piece ever made, but the pieces are crowded together on the shelves of a small room. The other collector, whose collection will not compare in value to that of the first, has placed her collection in two corner cupboards in her dining room against shelves of pale daffodil yellow, and the collection becomes a thing of delight to all her friends.
A collection of brass or copper is greatly enhanced against a dull-green background, and I remember a charming bedroom with snow-white walls and a fireplace of old blue-and-white Dutch tiles. Indeed if you want to make your antiques livable consider them when you plan the decoration and color scheme of your rooms.
All that I have said about color and backgrounds for antiques could also be of practical use to the antique shopkeeper or the dealer interested in the display of his wares in a booth at the antique show. Any exhibition booth will be more successful if one object or a group of objects such as a tea set is made the dominant feature. On the other hand, if the display consists of a heterogeneous conglomeration of objects, the spectator may pass on to the next booth without stopping. For the dominant feature choose an object whose colors and contours will carry at a distance.
Of course, association and sentimentality have their place in arranging an exhibit, and one who can recreate the atmosphere of an old New England kitchen or the country store or a table set up for tea goes a long way toward selling his wares. One dealer I know disposes of her cracked and chipped china cups and pitchers and teapots because she has the ingenuity to plant ivy and other growing greens in them. Another dealer who specializes in pewter displays his old pewter in an old cupboard against a painted background of deep gray-blue.