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What Is An Antique?
( Originally Published 1963 )
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, eyebrows would be raised if tea were served in a cup without a handle, and the salt crock would be considered 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 Govcrnor's Palace, restored to its eighteenth-century splendor, in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Antiques command more attention today than they ever have. So widespread is the interest that the amber bottle which held Dr. Fisch's bitters when it was purchased for a few coins in the early 1800's is regarded as respectfully as the hanging lantern, which was expensive even by present-day standards, when it was bought in the 1700's. Nothing that was of personal or household use during the last 300 years is too minor for consideration in this century. Yet hundreds of simple everyday articles that once were indispensable now are left to gather dust or are unrecognized for what they are.
An antique, according to the dictionary, is "a piece of furniture, tableware or the like, made at a much earlier period than the present." It is not, however, necessarily out-of-date or oldfashioned. A chair that was built soundly from good hardwood around 1820 and is comfortable to sit on is never out-of-date.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 1/2-inch-high octagonal teapot of blue Staffordshire is monstrous in comparison to contemporary streamlined pots, but it makes as good tea as it did more than a century ago.
How many years old must a chair, a plate, a trivet, a fan, or a clock be to warrant its being called an antique without anyone's arguing the point? Some people insist on a precise number of years, such as 80 or 100. The 80-year span is justified on the basis of two generations, each one covering 40 years. Yet a watch that is only 75 years old is likely to look old-fashioned, and so perhaps it also is an antique. Certainly anything that is 100 years old deserves the label.
An official definition of an antique is stated in the Tariff Act of 1930. According to Paragraph 1811 of that Act, antiques are "works of art (except rugs and carpets made after the year 1700), collections in illustration of the progress of the arts, works in bronze, marble, terra cotta, parian, pottery or porcelain, artistic antiquities and objects of ornamental character or educational value which shall have been produced prior to the year 1830."
This statement is clear in its application to imports and the payment of duty on them. But the year 1830 is more than an arbitrary date in the classification of American antiques. It was about this time that mass production and factory manufacture began to displace the making of individual pieces entirely by hand. Glass began to be pressed into forms by machine instead of being hand-blown. Chairs were the first piece of furniture to which assembly line methods were applied. Although the cabinetmaker, the glassblower, the blacksmith, and other craftsmen were not put out of business immediately, each succeeding decade brought an increase in mass manufacturing.
The fact that a chair or table was made by a cabinetmaker before 1830 does not necessarily make it a more valuable antique than one made thereafter. All the cabinetmakers in any period were not equally skillful; many of them turned out mediocre pieces. But in every craft that contributed to daily living, some workmen produced wares that made their names famous.
The painted side chair with stencil decoration and rush seat was produced in quantity and sold cheaply during the 1820's because Lambert Hitchcock turned his Connecticut workroom into a factory where the parts were cut and turned, 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.
The quest for antiques can be as successful in one region of the country as another. In the Southwest, the oldest traditions and antiques are Spanish in origin, although people there share with the rest of the United States a rich Victorian background. Louisiana is one of several notable areas in the United States and Canada where the influence was primarily French. In the Northwest and in the north central states, descendants of Scandinavian settlers are proud of handsome carved bedsteads and equally handsome household linens.
Except for small districts where certain nationalities tended to settle during the nineteenth century, the eastern, southeastern, and midwestern states reflect in their antiques a predominantly English influence. Household and family goods brought to this country, imported during Colonial days, and later produced here in great quantity followed trends and living habits established in England. The Orient also placed its stamp on eastern towns that thrived as seaports in the late 1700's and much of the 1800's, just as it did on England. To such centers as Salem and New Bedford, Massachusetts, Baltimore, Maryland, and Norfolk, Virginia, came Canton tableware, Kashmir shawls, teakwood chests and tables.
Not a day goes by but that someone in one of the fifty states 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 are 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.
Many similar homely things are packed away in trunks, chests, and cupboards or are gathering dust in attics and cellars. More often than not, things of greater value than a sewing bird are found. In New Hampshire one summer while looking over the attic of his boyhood home, a man was curious enough to chip the paint off an inconspicuous spot on a case piece with two drawers and cupboards. Since he suspected it might have been made of good hardwood, he removed the paint -several coats in various colors topped by an ugly green one -and discovered that he had a small mahogany sideboard with more graceful proportions than much of the furniture made during the American Empire period (1815-40) during which it had been made.
Clearing out a house in which one family has lived for a long time or disposing of the possessions of an elderly relative is almost certain to be rewarded with the discovery of some antiques. Few of the articles may be of museum quality. Some will have greater sentimental or nostalgic than monetary value. However, not even the stacks of magazines, the scrapbooks put together 75 or more years ago, or the clutter of dusty bottles should be tossed aside for the trash collector. At the very least, publications and clippings represent valuable research material for people in many fields of work today. If there's time to go through them, you may find one issue of a magazine, a lithograph in a scrapbook, or a historical flask among the old canning jars and milk bottles that will bring hard cash in the antique market.
It is a fact that any antique you come across that has no appeal for you or suggests no use to you is likely to be a treasure to someone else, who will gladly pay for it. Ten to one, the person who buys is a collector. A small percentage of the men and women who collect antiques have catholic tastes and will buy almost anything that strikes their fancy. The really zealous collector is the one who specializes. Preferences range from such popular things as pressed glass, some 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 twenty years, are furniture made between 1785 and 1820, eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century brass, earlynineteenth-century china, Tiffany glass, and-probably-cut glass.
People with money to invest seldom buy without the advice of a reliable antique dealer. Collectors, both those who rely on an expert and those who do not, are bound eventually to learn a good deal about their field and most of them become shrewd buyers. In self-defense, therefore, a person who owns or finds antiques must learn something about them before offering them for sale. It is not enough to be halfway convinced that the iridescent, marigold-hued glass bowl that you've kept in the cupboard because it came from home, but have never liked or used, is carnival or taffeta glass. When you attempt to make certain that it is, you undoubtedly will hear that there is at present a brisk market for this glass, which is hardly old enough yet to be antique. Because of the current demand, the bowl which may have been acquired by your grandmother as a premium can be sold now for several dollars.
Carnival glass does not have the name of the manufacturer or the butcher who gave it away worked in with the design, nor does any pressed glass that was obtained as a premium. Many other things displaying the name of the manufacturer or merchant that were given away between 1850 and 1900 are worth money today. If you find any fans, spoons, calendars, paper dolls (printing on the backs), a bootjack, or tin containers emblazoned with firm or trade names, they need not be discarded as trash.
Anyone who is in a hurry to sell the antiques found in an old house is probably wise to ask a reliable dealer to come in and look them over. He may be willing to handle the sale of some or all of them on the usual commission basis. Or, for a small fee, he may merely advise on the value and salability of the entire lot. Remember, antique dealers have customers, whereas you must find an interested buyer before you can dispose of anything, however rare, odd, or valuable it may seem.
If selling is not urgent, there are several ways a person can learn to recognize and, eventually, evaluate an antique. Visits to antique shops and occasional attendance at an auction in a city gallery or on a rural green are means of learning what is being offered for sale, what people are buying, and what prices are being paid. The ability to recognize antiques is aided greatly by viewing a restored house or village. More of them are being opened to the
public every year, and almost every state now has at least one. Because restorations show how people lived, they are full of everyday things. More than one restoration visitor has been reminded of a nineteenth-century duplicate consigned to a cupboard at home as too ordinary to be considered an antique but too good to throw away. Fully as enlightening are the specialized exhibits at the Clock Museum in Bristol, Connecticut, the Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown, New York, the Maritime Museum in San Francisco. California, and Henry Ford Museum and Dearborn Village in Dearborn, Michigan, to mention only a few. Many fine arts museums have exhibits of china, silver, glass, and the like.
If any member of your church or community is a collector, by all means accept an invitation to see the display. A collector may be willing to pass judgment on some piece you have found that belongs within his special field. However, it's best not to mistake willingness to advise for willingness to buy. A local historical society, if there is one, can be a source of knowledge through its members, its displays, its meetings and speakers, as well as its library.
Books, as a matter of fact, are perhaps the easiest way to sharpen recognition and aid in the identification of antiques. The primary purpose of this one is to be a guide to antiques, major and minor. There also are books on subjects as specific as milk glass, paperweights, and pewter.
Once an antique has been identified, its characteristics will have to be evaluated. Its approximate age, workmanship, the quality of the materials, present condition, and rarity all have a hearing on both its intrinsic and market values. Repair or restoration may downgrade an antique. A piece of pressed glass that can be authenticated as having been made at the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company's factory in Sandwich, Massachusetts, is to be prized or sold for a good price. However, there's no excuse for jumping to the conclusion that any piece of pressed glass is Sandwich glass, for many excellent as well as beautiful pieces came from factories elsewhere in New England and in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio.
Owners often carelessly fool themselves into believing that an antique is older than it actually is. The Queen Anne style in furniture, for example, was made everywhere in America between 1725 and 1750. Its distinguishing details continued to be followed, particularly in rural areas, for many years after other styles had come into fashion. Thus, a tea table made in New Hampshire in the early 1800's may well have some distinctly Queen Anne characteristics.
There is a tendency also among owners who are not familiar with the antique market to set an inflated valuation on anything they wish to sell. Pride and sentiment have nothing to do with selling prices. The appraised value of an antique, stated after careful examination by a qualified expert, may well be higher than current market value. In antiques as in everything else, the selling price is determined by supply and demand. Pressed glass brings much higher prices now than it did thirty years ago when collecting it first became popular. Ten years ago cranberrv glass was selling for excellent prices, and it would have been difficult to give away a piece of late-nineteenth-centurv Tiffany or cut glass. Recently, collectors have become wary of cranberrv glass, but Tiffany glass sells reasonably fast and well and cut glass is beginning to find a market, in some areas.
Every year adds both prestige and value to nineteenth-century antiques. It will take longer, because more of everything was made during the 1800's, but sooner or later the number of nineteenth-century pieces will be reduced just as eighteenth-century antiques have been-by collectors, investors, Ad those who enjoy living with antiques. The increasing number of folk museums and restorations is another drain, for such places may sell reproductions but not authentic pieces. If not this week, then some day, the Double Nine-Patch quilt handstitched about 1810 and other equally unpretentious furnishings and belongings are certain to rank as important inheritanccs. And a second look at utensils from a nineteenth-century kitchen may prove them to be as worthwhile from an antique standpoint as the parlor furniture.