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( Originally Published 1913 )
"Quite a collector's piece, you see, sir," a dealer will often say to you, and what he means by a "collector's piece" is usually the ordinary handsome, costly specimen, sought after by moneyed buyers. A silver-rose-bowl, hall-marked 1708; a Petitot snuffbox; a Chelsea group of figures, very well cleaned up with ammonia; a Derby vase, snake-handled, and a lot of blue and gold about it; or a Japanese tsuba, or sword-guard, lavishly inlaid-such are the "collector's pieces" which dealers mean by that term. Few dealers go deeper than that, and few collectors, either; they prefer to sell or buy the ordinary handsome specimen, the banal beautiful thing which is "everybody's money," the pieces which resemble the pieces seen in great public and private collections, and are pictured in every ordinary book on collecting such wares.
A Different Kind of Piece. To me, however, a certain beaker, made of earthenware at Lambeth, between the days of Dwight and the days of Doulton, is a "collector's piece." It is rimmed with some of the earliest Sheffield-plate ever made; it is decorated with raised figures, which, by their costume, date the piece and typify its era; and I possess the same figures in brass, used for mantelpiece ornaments in their day. This bit of earthenware, which cost me one-and-sixpence, is so full of hints, information, and chronicle that it is essentially an enlightened "collector's piece."
The studious collector, who goes deeply into his hobby, may enjoy it at small expense if he purchases pieces which, though cheap because neglected, are elucidative and rare. Take tsubas, for instance; a small one, made for a sword no bigger than a bayonet, plain iron chased, not inlaid with gold or silver, costing two shillings only, but bearing the artist's signature, is truly a collector's piece, because small tsubas were so seldom signed.
Chippendale. Chippendale-style chairs are a rage, both here and on the Continent; I say Chippendalestyle because, of course, not one in a thousand of them was made by Chippendale himself. A collector's piece in Chippendale-style chairs is usually supposed to mean an elaborate, ribbon-back, thirty-guinea or threehundred-guinea affair. Yet the simpler designs are the older and the more typical, and chairs of that period and style may still be picked up at from sixty to a hundred shillings apiece. In the Soane Museum, Lincoln's Inn Fields, stands an armchair so fine and beautiful and authenticated that, could it ever be sold at auction, it would sell for L1,000, I dare say; but it is not a "collector's piece," because pieces like it are no longer collectable either for love or money. Yet many a "Chippendale" collector sighs, and enjoys his collection the less. In Stationers' Hall a long set of Chippendale chairs is visible, of such simple beauty and workmanship as to be typical of the early Chippendale style; the fellows of these (unlike the Soane Museum example) are collectable yet.
Misled by Museums. I have often urged readers to study the public collections, but the study of them may mislead. "This is a museum piece, sir," a dealer sometimes will say, as a variant upon "This is a collector's piece," but meaning the same kind of thing. Yet a quite small and apparently insignificant item in a public collection may be better worth a collector's study than an item handsome and costlyand impossible now to collect. In a collection of "Old Wedgwood," for instance, the admiring eye goes usually to the splendid vases and the classic plaques, though the Wedgwood chessmen are much more uncommon. Wedgwood chessmen are exceedingly rare, but I possess more than a dozen, picked up one at a time in odd corners, for prices ranging from sixpence to not more than two shillings each. Magnificent and unmatchable "museum pieces" often daunt a would be or beginning collector, too. The true way for people not wealthy to learn collecting and enjoy it is to look out for small typical pieces of ware which may still be found and purchased for a small price.
So I urge a reader to form his opinion as to what is a collector's piece, from his own information, and not from what a superficially-informed dealer may say. For this is certain, as the costly "museum pieces" and "collectors' pieces" become more and more absorbed into museums, or dearer and dearer at auctions, so in pecuniary value will rise the smaller typical pieces, which are still cheaply collectable to-day.