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I think the dealer was reacting to the pain caused by an early sign of the movement away from the American toward the Global. Nakashima was the first American furniture designer to produce furniture that was in demand all over the world. To acquire a Nakashima table, American buyers had to compete with buyers in Japan, Europe and Moscow. The Goddard and Townsend families were every bit as good at designing furniture as Nakashima, but to acquire a Goddard-Townsend table, a collector must compete only with other American collectors.
Nakashima is a predecessor of Paul Evans. And now the American-Global continuum morphs into the Country-Metropolitan one. Cities that used to be national capitals now present themselves as world cities. Global cities, global finance, global business and, of course, global citizens.
So, if the New York Winter Show is moving closer to the globalized world, we should not be surprised, and we should not throw up our hands in horror. New York is a global city and it is hard to identify signs that mark it as specifically American except for its terrible subway system. Wilmington, Delaware, is not. But the city does hold the Delaware Antiques Show, where American antiques were more prominent and more successful than they were at the Winter Show.
Winterthur, the host of the show, is a museum devoted solely to American furniture and decorative arts. The museum, the show and the city are all American in a way that New York is not. However globalized the culture contemporary Americans may live in, they still need to keep in touch with the old-fashioned, national sense of being American. The grounding that a national culture offers is a complement, not a contradiction, to a Global identity.
What has changed are the proportions: national identity is less primary, more secondary than it used to be. If that means that American antiques are less central, more marginal than they were at the Winter Show, that may not be a bad thing. To those of us who love antiques, it may be difficult to think of them as marginal — but in fact they always have been. During the post-Jacqueline glory days, the demand outstripped the supply, prices soared and large sectors of the public concluded that antiques were not for them.
These seekers of American antiques are seeking an American culture, but they are not like the Brexiters in my native Britain, nor the populist-nationalists elsewhere in the world: They are not seeking a nationalism that is opposed to globalism, but one that complements it. Our antiques offer a sense of the national that is grounded in a history, a geography and a culture including a political system that no other country has.
It is unique to us. American antiques may no longer be central, but they are essential to many of us because they carry in their very substance a sense of who we are in a way that a global culture simply cannot. We need both. Recently I attended my first live auction for quite a few years. What struck me first was how easy it was to get a seat. There were 21 live bidders on the floor. The auctioneer told us that 40 had registered to bid by phone and more than by the Internet.
I remember excuse my old man intonation when there was the auctioneer, a spotter and a handful of runners. And that was it. I remember here I go again enjoying the choreography by which the runners could raise a drop-leaf table for all to see, and then flip it upside down and upright again without ever a leaf moving. Another thing that struck me was that almost every bidder on the floor had grey hair. Hardly a younger person to be seen. I was already moving toward some of the conclusions she has described so elegantly.
He is also on one of these conglomerate auction sites, which again have long email lists. All this email energy is directed toward driving clients to the auction website, where everything is illustrated, described and given estimated prices. But then I went on to ask myself an unanswerable question.
How many visitors to the auction site found it themselves, and were not prompted by the email blitzkrieg? How many were not looking for his site, but were looking for a specific antique? If they did, we then have to ask about the efficiency of the search: did it find every single whirligig that was currently on the market? Seventy-five percent of them, or just one or two? This all depends, of course, on the percentage of antiques for sale that are actually online.
I suspect that more than 90 percent of antiques currently up for auction are on the web. And dealers grumble about auctioneers taking their business! Efficient searching depends on more than gross numbers. GIGO garbage in, garbage out is another critical principal here. The same is true for images. Image recognition is becoming more sophisticated by the day, so photos will also have to show the details that people are looking for.
Imagine a picture of a small mahogany supper table with the leaves down alongside one of a Pembroke table also with the leaves down. An accurate search will want to be able to see the difference. The searchable Internet took over much of the book marketplace, and thousands of bookstores went out of business. But the decline seems to have halted, and the stores that survived are now reporting decent business. They, too, are browser-friendly rather than searchable. And I suspect that a higher percentage of them will survive a market contraction than bookstores.
But as the online-searchable environment grows and becomes more sophisticated, the difference between searching and browsing will be reduced. If whirligigs were your thing, and 90 percent of whirligigs for sales were on the Internet, a search might pull up a few dozen for you to browse among. Would you want to do any more browsing than this?
Here you may not be looking for anything specific, but just want to browse until you come across something that really catches your eye. If 90 percent of treen is on the web and if the correct words are used in its description, you may get a few hundred pieces to browse among.
But it is not browsing as an alternative to searching, but a combination of the two. Now all this depends upon what may seem like pie-in-the-sky conditions — i. They may not be yet, but how long before they will be?
Just as I finished the first draft of this column, Heritage Auctions announced a new phone app that enables collectors to browse and bid in hundreds of auctions and access more than 4 million prices realized. Say antiques per auction, at least , available for browsing at any one time.
No one can browse a quarter of a million antiques — browsing will have to be combined with searching. And all accessible on your phone. The percentage of antiques that are not online is likely to decrease steadily. There are other deliberately offline dealers too, such as those with large stocks of smaller items with fairly quick turnover rates, who may feel that keeping a website updated is simply too much work. And then, of course, there are many dealers for whom a combination of online and offline offerings is a productive one.
Then finally, all of us are in the business because we love it. But what we love about it may not be the same for all. All of us love the objects, some love meeting customers face to face, others remain grumpily tolerant of customers, but they love socializing with other dealers — and they hate computers. As long as offline dealers can do enough business to enable them to put some butter on their bread, they will keep doing business in the way that they have always enjoyed.
And more power to them: the antiques business is not one for the get-rich-quick types. We cannot ignore the fact that the antiques business is a retail business even though it operates on the margins of the mainstream. The margins are never free from the social trends that are pushing mainstream retail toward the web and away from the store.
One driver of this push is the radical change in the status of the image. In a digital world, physical objects have such severe limitations that they have become almost ineffective: they do not function in this world in the way that they used to in pre-digital days. We must recognize here, however, that the fact that an antique is intractably an object does not overpower its ability, when digitized, to function effectively in the digital world. It too can reach infinitely more people than an object-in-itself; it too can gain digital power in the marketplace.
An undigitized object can reach only those who walk into a show or a shop — who may constitute a motivated market, but still a limited one. The limitations of searching for a non-digitized antique via boot-leather will become even more limiting as more and more antiques are posted on the web. The question is, will we find stuff by clicking on a screen or by wearing out boot-leather and tire rubber? Kass ends optimistically, and I agree wholeheartedly with her.
The antiques business is well suited to prosper in the digital world. And it will: all we have to do is adapt. People sometimes ask me why I derive so much pleasure from history, from seventeenth-century history in particular. But the one I keep returning to is that history shows us that the way we live now is not the only way to live, and that people who were fundamentally just like us lived quite differently.
Far from it. One thing my enjoyment of history does do, however, is provide me with a platform from which to question some of the ways in which we live today. From my, admittedly jaded, perspective, it appears that our society thinks of us not as human beings but as consumers, so it treats any individual differences among us as merely differences of consumer tastes and preferences. This drives me nuts and it also drives me happily back to seventeenth-century Ipswich, a thriving, prospering town in which there was not a single shop.
Of course, there were workshops that produced things such as furniture and shoes, but there was nothing like the retail shop of today. Nobody in seventeenth-century Ipswich went shopping. They bought shoes and furniture, but they made candles and cloth and cheese.
They bought paper, but they made their ink and pens. A household that was a production center is very different from one that is a center of consumption. Take, for example, a commodity such as ink. A generation or so ago, our ink came in a bottle, and we had pens to fill from it or dip into it. Now, with a huge increase in convenience, our ink comes pre-packaged in the pen itself — it no longer exists as a separate commodity.
But even in those far off days of my youth, pens and ink were consumer items. To make three pintes of ink: Take galls and gum, two ounces of each, and three ounces of copperas. Crush the galls and soak them for three days. Then boil them in three quartes of rain water, or water from a still pool.
When they have boiled enough and the water is almost half-boiled away I. Then put it in a cold, damp place. After three weeks it spoils. Galls were blemishes on an oak tree and would have been collected by children. Gum arabic and copperas were both common trade goods not produced locally but presumably available from peddlers. The ink that she made was a pale, almost transparent grey that became darker and more legible as it dried. The brown ink that we see today on early manuscripts has not faded from black: it has darkened from pale grey.
Soot was sometimes added to allow the writer to actually see what he was writing. The writing, of course was done with a quill pen that was made at home from feathers plucked in springtime from the left wing of a living goose. In the spring, feathers were newly grown and at their strongest and feathers from the left wing curled away from the writing hand if you were right-handed. Equivalent time and skill was required to provide light via rush lights or candles rather than an electric switch.
The resulting light was dim, so the candle was moved around to light the activity, not the room. The examples go on and on. But what is difficult for us to understand today is that in early New England there was no dichotomy between work and leisure. Today, work and leisure form one of the ruling dichotomies of our lives: we work a negative to earn leisure a positive. If you had been an early New Englander you would have been incapable of thinking like that: the dichotomy between work and leisure simply did not exist in your mental lexicon.
You did things that made life better for yourself, your family and the community. Older men often complained about how their reduced abilities prevented them from being serviceable — note another of our dichotomies that did not exist then, that between working and retirement. There was no concept of retirement — hence the absence of golf courses. Life flowed on, and all of it was meaningful: you made sure that all your activities contributed to making life better.
This, of course, harks back to the dichotomy with which I started: production vs. Is a household that produces most of what it consumes happier or less happy than one that is devoted almost exclusively to consumption? Do people have to work harder to produce what they consume than to earn the money to buy what they consume? Are people who spend so much time at work that they do not even have time to produce a meal at home more satisfied or less satisfied than people whose lives did not distinguish between work and leisure?
Is cooking work and eating leisure — our forebears would have been incapable of even asking the question. Can we imagine living in a community in which the value of serviceability has replaced the dichotomy between work and leisure? Allow me, please, to get personal for a moment and to use my own experience as an example. I do know, however, that I feel quite a lot in common with those men of my age in early Ipswich who bemoaned their reduced serviceability.
Like them, I have no sense of a hard line between working and retirement; similarly, I have a pretty blurry line between work and leisure. Of course, I shall never make my own ink or candles, and I feel no moral guilt about paying for electricity, or in scrounging a freebie pen when I go to the bank. I am very glad that my addictively useful iPad, which is individualistic and not at all serviceable, is not allowed to reign supreme.
I want its inadequacy to be constantly questioned by the alien communal values of the people who preceded me here in Ipswich. I never want to fall into the trap of assuming that the way we live now is the only, let alone the best, way to live. May the questions asked by history never be silenced! It is totally familiar and is still popular, nearly years after its first use. But those of us who are used to light colored walls find it absolutely terrifying to change to dark.
My longstanding aversion to interior designers was reinforced by one of the dark-paint advocates who had photographed an antique Chippendale chest of drawers whose owner had painted the inside of its drawers a rich aubergine. No argument there. Caliente red is a new color made out of mixing chemically produced colors in a way that no one had ever thought of before.
Indian red is the product of clay stained with iron ore in a way that everyone enjoyed because it was warm, cheap, easily and locally produced. If there were such a thing as an interior designer in Puritan times how on earth did we manage to live without them for so long? Caliente red appeals to people who want to stand out. Indian red appeals to people who want to fit in.
Fitting in requires two dimensions to be successful. Earthbound colors such as Indian reds, ochers, stone greys, are part of the same soils that nurtured the timbers from which the houses were made. The colors and the timbers are part of the same environment, so they encourage the houses to fit into it.
The houses fit in to the environment from which they grew and return the compliment by becoming part of it. On the social dimension, Indian red appeals to people who want to fit in, not just to their environment, but to their community. First period houses all have very much the same architectural features and they are all very much the same size. They fit in together to form a community that is as architectural as it is social, and, of course, vice versa. I am lucky enough to live in a place where there are still visible remnants of a social-environmental-architectural community.
When a painter chose Indian red on interior boarding or on exterior window trims and sashes, he had to start from scratch each day. He got powdered madder iron-stained clay and using a large pestle and mortar pounded it into linseed oil from local flax and white lead until he got the consistency and color that he wanted. When a painter uses Caliente red, he pries open the can, uses as much as he wants, and reseals the can again for another day.
This was a sea-change in our color consciousness. Scientists in chemical factories produced a limitless variety of colors for the painter to choose from. Before then, it was the painter who was the key to the process, he chose the colors, he mixed them and he controlled the quantities. Paint colors resulted from the earth and the man working together — chemical factories never came into it.
Making choices We tend to think of paint color as a very personal choice — but this assumption contradicts all the evidence. For the first couple of hundred years of New England, the palette for exterior painting was restricted by the local availability of pigments.
But as the years went by, people did take more of the opportunity offered by this limited palette. To understand this, we need to realize that the appearance of a house depends to a large extent upon how the three main visual elements are painted. These elements are: the body siding, clapboards etc. In the first period, the body was left unpainted to weather to a dark brown, and some of the trim may have been painted Indian red or, more rarely, Spanish brown.
Very little personal choice here — the color scheme was determined more by nature than by man. The interior, however, offered more choice, though still limited to natural colors — earthy reds, indigos, ochers, and umbers note the pluralized form of each color, because the paints were mixed by hand, there could be quite a variation within each color. The range of earth colors used for the body was increased to include dark stone colors, greys and dark browns.
Doors were always a dark color, chocolate, red, green or blue. A street of Georgian houses was more polychromatic than the monochrome of the first period. The Federal and Greek revival periods went back to a more restricted palette emphasizing lighter colors contrasted with darker sash. The interiors, however, were much more colorful.
For the first couple of hundred years of New England, then, colors were exclusively earth- and stone-based. This was to change big-time with the mass produced, chemical colors of the later Victorian period post Houses were painted in at least three colors — the body, trim and sash were all different.
A big step toward the apparently infinite range of colors we find in a paint store today. Individual choice was now paramount in a way that it never had been. Chemical factories had replaced the earth as the source of colors: they made houses stand out, not fit in; homeowners had lost community and the environment as guides to color choice, and were left more to their own preferences — a void that the appearance of the professional interior designer rushed to fill.
At last, we had a professional to tell us which colors we preferred. There have been a couple of big changes in the auction world recently. Both changes affect selling online and both reflect the opinion that online is where the action is, it is where the best development opportunities are to be found. They are, after all, faced with the same market conditions.
The players in the game point to a number of factors. Online auctions are necessarily open for three, five, seven or even 10 days — they need that sort of time-span to accumulate enough bidders. Over the longer haul, a fixed-price sale will reach a far larger audience than a limited-time auction, because an auction cannot be extended indefinitely — it has to close regardless of the number of bids and bidders.
The time needed to attract enough viewers, however, means that early bidders may have to wait up to 10 days before they know if they were successful or not. They may not want to. With a fixed-price sale, buyers can buy, pay and arrange shipping within an hour of deciding to purchase. Another downside of the online auction is Google: any item needs to be online for about 30 days before it will be picked up by Google.
A bit like real life! And exactly like dealers who sell from their websites. At its online-only sales last year, 45 percent of the buyers were new clients. The bidders are not just new clients, they are exactly the new clients that anyone would want. The fixed-price sale or the online-only sale: one with no bidding, the other with no premium. Which do you think is most likely to hit digital pay-dirt?
Fixed-price and online-only sales have both walked away from what used to be considered the main appeal of the traditional sale-room auction: its high drama. And, we suspect, all the bidders will be experienced, traditional collectors — no first-timers among them. First-timers do not want to be fueled by adrenaline; they do not want to put themselves up against seasoned competitors. Online business is conducted at a less frantic pace in a less highly charged atmosphere — much more conducive to new buyers.
The sense of competition is ratcheted down and thus the fear of being a loser is downplayed — no-one wants to be a loser, so why emphasize that every bidder has a 50 percent chance of being just that? And why make them experience losing in front of a huge audience? In fixed-price sales, the competitive side has been almost eliminated, though everyone knows at the back of their minds that someone may jump in before them if they dally too long.
Fixed-price sales are not essentially geared to making an instant sale: unlike auctions they are open-ended, longer lasting and less immediately competitive. In the last two years, all of my new clients, every last one of them, have come to me online.
One couple did follow up their online discovery with a visit to our shop to see a particular item, but also to browse and, I assume, to meet me and form an opinion of me as well as of my inventory. A goodly chunk of new clients today are likely to be millennials, people who are used to living their lives and doing their shopping online.
Millennials are used to buying with a thumb-press on their phone, and they are used to instant gratification — which leads me to predict that fixed-price sales will appeal to them better than online-only auctions. And the last thing they are likely to do is to spend hours sitting in a sale room, however high the drama! There is some truth to this: over the last few years, the auction business does seem to have been livelier than the bricks and mortar retail business. Partly, of course, this is because auctioneers have done more than most dealers to take advantage of the digital revolution.
The brokered, fixed-price model borrows from selling at auction in that the seller simply consigns the item, and the broker takes care of photographing, listing, promoting, etc. The zero premium model is focused on capturing a key market segment new buyers and follows the Amazon belief that market share is more important than immediate profit: increase the market share and the profits will follow.
But, amidst all the uncertainties, one thing seems certain: the digital world is expanding even faster than we thought it would. It seems to occur only in the German-speaking countries of central Europe. Nothing to do with journeying. But these Germanic journeymen do go on a journey: they hit the road with nothing but the tools of their trade and a change of underwear.
They wander through the countryside, trading their skills for food and lodging. If you know the code, and apparently most do, you can tell what sort of journeyman is walking up the path to your door. He, or she, will be wearing the traditional costume of a white shirt and dark corduroy pants, but it is the color of the jacket that matters: woodworkers, bricklayers, bakers, roofers, stonemasons, gardeners, tailors and the rest all wear jackets whose colors identify their trades.
These wanderers in German must be less than 30 years old and unmarried. Pause for a moment, and consider that these journeymen live in the same society as millennials! Can you imagine a conversation between them, provided, of course, that you could get a millennial to look up long enough from their device to actually have a conversation: face-to-face conversations are, in general, not part of the millennial lifestyle. The wandering journeyman of the German tradition and his more stay-at-home namesake in the Anglo-French tradition are fundamentally more alike than different.
Both undergo a long apprenticeship whose aim is to produce a skilled tradesman, a trustworthy citizen and an artifact that is as trustworthy as the man who made it. Viewing and searching was a way of guaranteeing that consumers could buy the product in the good faith that it was what it purported to be: the process made artisans trustworthy and consequently enabled customers to trust them.
It is no surprise, then, that the municipal governments of early English towns consisted mainly of members of the trade and merchant guilds. Good citizens. OK, now I come to another point where I have to admit my ignorance. The other day I came across a reference to the iGeneration, who, apparently are already 25 percent of the population. In the millennial mindset, things are reduced to their function.
All sorts of values like that — hard to put into words and not always felt consciously, but always there. An artifact is not reduced to what it can do, it carries values that bind together the makers, the users and the communities in which they live.
I must be careful not to overstate my case here. Along with it came a few pieces of blue and white china that the Rosa had brought home from one her voyages to the Far East, as we called it in England then. Now it hangs in my office, and when I lift my eyes from the monitor, there it is.
The things in the home really meant something. The industrial age started to dilute the value-dimension of things. They were widely available, and many people could own exactly the same thing. In the digital age, even those faint traces of personal values have disappeared. I have no idea, nor do I care, where or by whom my iPad was made.
Digital things are bought new, so personal histories are never involved: no iPad can tell the personal stories that Rosa can. When things have no history and no personality, but are merely a function, something that used to be very important has gone out of our lives. This makes the parents feel awkward and the kids feel guilty. So when parents downsize, or move into a retirement home, the thoughtful kids rent storage lockers where they will keep all those things that are meaningful to their parents but are just unwanted stuff to them.
When the parents are gone, their things will be sold. Things are no longer material connectors between owner and owner or between maker and user, they are no longer part of a community in which they embody memory, identity, and trust. Which is tough for us in the antiques business, because, at their very core, antiques are things that mean. Antiques are valuable, not just in the sense of their price-tags, but because they are value-laden.
Once upon a time, not too long ago, the values borne by antiques used to place them squarely in the mainstream: today, however, their values contradict the mainstream. Americans have never been a homogeneous mass — the melting pot has never melted all our differences. And it needs contradiction: We cannot allow the digital to occupy the position of the be-all and end-all of everything.
Well and good. Consequently, the to foot high poles for the PTCS system suddenly grew to 74 feet high. No residential or commercial building in town is anywhere near that height church steeples are another matter, but we like them! The Historical Commission hates the idea that the most dominant features of the skyline will be ugly utility monopoles, and, judging by the passionate voices at a recent meeting of the Board of Selectmen, so do most of the residents.
One monopole will be slap-bang in the middle of Appleton Farms. Predictably, most of the farm buildings have changed over the centuries, but much of the land has not. To this day, Appleton Farms contains uplands and lowlands, meadows and planting lots as tillable fields were originally called, wetlands and woodlands…in other words, it is still a close approximation of what a successful farm looked like in the seventeenth century.
Not if we can help it. On the other side of town lies our other specific concern, the Bull Brook archeological site — one of the largest Paleo-Indian sites in the country from which more than 6, artifacts have already been recovered. The main site, excavated in the s by amateur archeologists, is now a gravel pit! At the very least, we are demanding that Native Americans must be consulted about the possible disturbance of their ancestral relics.
Between Appleton Farms to our south and Bull Brook c. Antique structures, antique objects and antique landscapes or townscapes may have a lot in common, but they each have issues that are unique to them. In , to go back to the beginning, a breakaway group from the First Church set up a Unitarian Church in town and built themselves a nice church to worship in.
It was, incidentally, one of the first Greek Revival buildings in Ipswich. But ten years later, the Unitarians ran out of steam and disbanded, and the town bought the church building to serve as the new Town Hall. In , the building had become too small for the job it was doing, so the town raised it up, built a new first story underneath it and added a large two-story extension on the rear. In this enlarged form, it served as the Town Hall and the District Court until , when both those offices relocated.
From till it remained unused and neglected. But it has been brought back to life: It is now in the final stages of conversion into condominiums. Fortunately, when the town raised and enlarged the original church in , it did so in basically a Greek Revival style — a Greek Revival Revival, if you like.
It ended up as a handsome Victorian-Greek Revival building. Repurposing it again, this time as condominiums, required adding new windows and making other changes to existing windows, doors and trim. The developer worked closely with the Historical Commission to ensure that the new changes were historically appropriate. The end result is a building that respects and retains traces of its history while serving a modern purpose. A win-win situation: preserving the past for the sake of the future.
I think we did the right thing with it: we continued a living history in which a church grew into a Town Hall that in turn grew into condominiums, all the while making each change as respectful as possible of what went before it. Many years ago, I sold a seventeenth-century chest of drawers to an interior decorator. That was at least ten years ago, and I still have a guilty conscience about it, I still wonder if I should have refused to sell it to her once I knew what she was going to do to it.
Would I have felt the same if it had been a Victorian wardrobe that she was going to convert into an entertainment center? Blundering inconsistency on my part, I admit. But at least it prevented the doors and sides from being made into fake Georgian tables, a repurposing that is even more common and utterly more egregious!
I bet almost every one of you still uses a chest of drawers for storage somewhere in your house, but I bet far fewer of you have a wardrobe. Am I right? I definitely should not have sold it to her! Another reason why I feel bad about the chest of drawers but quite OK about the wardrobe lies in the proportion of the past that is being either preserved or lost.
So that chest of drawers carries a far larger share of the material culture of its time than a Victorian wardrobe does. Historically, it is more valuable. Where do all these ramblings apply to those mega-monopoles being imposed willy-nilly on our sleepy historic town? For starters, those poles show no respect for history.
They imply that a contemporary use is sufficient unto itself, and has no need to take account of non-technological factors such as community, history and aesthetics. For the railroad engineers, landscape is merely something to be crossed. Equally, they think no further than the present: They show no awareness that foot monopoles will quickly be outdated as a means of delivering Wi-Fi. One of those who spoke at the Select Board meeting pointed out that a friend had just returned from Europe on a plane that flew seven miles above the earth and he had Wi-Fi all the way without a chain of monopoles linking the plane to the ground!
Being in the business of history in a digital period is both fascinating and frustrating: it requires thought and judgment, a refusal to take anything for granted, and the willingness to fight for values that have gone right out of fashion.
I always enjoy talking with collectors about their collections, so I was really happy to reread our features this month before sending them up to the press shop. For antiques collectors, things and people inevitably go together. Our three articles, however, are steeped in personal anecdotes. Antiques are great storytellers, among the best ever, and often the stories they tell would have been lost to us were it not for the antiques that kept them alive. Three or four generations back from Allen Shepherd, for example, there was a Sarah Ann Silver in his family.
Two generations back from Sarah Shepherd, three or four generations on from Sarah Silver, the narrative connecting the two Sarahs moves back and forth over time and will continue into the future where it will be told by two samplers not just one. No comparison! Now, many period postcards later, Judith has images of the Main Street where her mother and grandmother did their shopping, she knows who was on the High School football team perhaps her mother dated one of them?
Her encounter with the card brought antiques and family together, and her imagination took fire in a way that it never did when the family history was merely words — words without things. Our two writers have something else in common: a Eureka moment — all good stories have a Eureka moment when a mystery is solved or a vital connection is made. Scott Berube was faced with a different issue than John or Allen: he had the things a set of chairs, but only a hint of the stories they told.
So he spent two years finding the stories that connected with the chairs he had bought at a local auction. It turned out that the chairs were mute witnesses to the life of John Hancock, and what Scott did was to go to the history of John Hancock mostly well enough known and discover the history of the chairs not at all well known ; he then linked the two histories to each other and to the chairs themselves, to the things.
These things now tell stories from different points of view: one as grand as the founding of our nation and the other as humble as two local craftsmen in Massachusetts. Stories told by things All human societies tell stories: storytelling is as human as walking upright. Narratives make sense of the unfathomable where did humans begin? But there is something special about stories told by things. Language is universal, a thing is minutely local — in fact it can reduce the local to its smallest dimension, the personal.
It connects the dots between the Civil War, the grand uncles who fought in it and the grandkids who live in the age of the smart phone. Perhaps, but it all depends on what you think is important. The chairs bear witness to the intense discussions about how to move forward now that America was no longer a British colony.
But wait a minute — the chairs may have been made in Massachusetts, but in style they were indisputably English. It seems as though two contradictory narratives are at work here — a revolutionary break with the political, economic and legal impositions of the English, yet a whole-hearted embrace of English style and culture. Which narrative lasted the longer — the revolutionary break or the cultural continuity?
That raises another question: who was more in touch with the future of America — Hancock and Washington who sat on the chairs or Samuel and William Fiske no relation who made them? Culture is what forms our identities, our tastes and preferences and the ways in which we make sense of the world. At a deeply sedimented level, New Englanders in the s still took it for granted that they were, in fact, English.
So, English style chairs were not a contradiction of the American words that were spoken from them. There may have been a brief period, early in the nineteenth century, when styles from the French Republic were deemed more patriotic in the American Republic, and Lafayette became an American hero, but it did not last long. Culture may have served here as a reassuring counterbalance to the politics of the new and the separate. Scott pays more attention to the Hancock-Fiske-Berube connections and less to the English.
But we both agree that those chairs connect the dots that link national leaders, local craftsmen, the age they lived in, and Scott and me and you, who are all listening to their stories a couple of centuries later. The upshot of all this? If collectors want stories, then obviously we dealers should take every opportunity to provide them. And as antiques follow the rest of retail onto the internet, our opportunities only expand. Social media, blogs and newsletters are perfect digital pulpits where dealers can stand and speak to anyone who wishes to listen.
Those of us who are becoming digital have already learned the importance of the image — we have, of necessity, become photographically proficient. A far more efficient use of our time than waiting in a shop or a show booth for a single listener. The general consensus is perhaps expressed most clearly by the research firm L2: Once online shopping reaches 20 percent of total national spending in a category, it reaches a tipping point when gravity accelerates the speed with which the new replaces the old.
One inevitable effect of this is that even small retailers are fleeing physical spaces such as shopping malls and town centers, and are now renting space in huge warehouses that allow them same-day shipping. Now she looks for her inspiration on social media. Contradictorily, however, it expanded its online-only sales last year and saw a percent increase.
Are these the tipping points in the antiques business? I may not have data, but I do have a gut — and my gut tells me that our business is at, or even past, the tipping point. If we are past the tipping point, at least there is something we can do about it.
We are human, members of the species Homo Sapiens. There have been several recent psychological studies that have identified one of the defining characteristics of our species: the ability to contemplate the future. Some go as far as to think that we might consider renaming ourselves as Homo Prospectus, because we thrive by considering our prospects.
Without this prospection, they argue, humans could not have created civilization. The psychologists of prospection note that it can be either an energizing or a de-motivating ability. Optimists are energized and encouraged by their ability to contemplate the future: pessimists are the opposite. What will the antiques business look like then? The future is inevitable, and everything I foresee in my has already begun somewhere in the retail business. The dealers who thrive will be those who contemplate the future and ask themselves how early can they adapt to what they foresee, and where exactly do they start adapting to the future right now?
A quick concluding thought of mine: successful dealers will be not only experts in antiques, but also experts in cameras, keyboards and, of course, electronic devices. Maine Antique Digest May For some reason I feel driven to skate on thin ice this month, and stumble around in a complex issue that is rarely if ever raised in our business.
But perhaps it ought to be. A Nazi belt buckle was what got me going. But there does seem to be a critical difference between selling it to a neo-Nazi and to a collector of militaria. Big problem. At the time, I was teaching cultural studies in an Australian university.
Early in my time there, the Department of the Interior issued a report on the situation of Aboriginal peoples living nomadic lives in the deserts of central Australia. The nomadic Aboriginals identified two things that would make their lives better: A Toyota four-wheel drive fairly predictable and a video cassette recorder and monitor that would run from its battery a bit more surprising.
But it turned out that Reagan and the Aboriginals were actually watching quite different movies — or rather, were watching the same movie quite differently. For Reagan, Rambo was the all-American, all-action hero who overcame all obstacles through his courage, strength and individual prowess. The research with the Aboriginals, however, revealed a quite different Rambo on their screens.
He was a member of the third world, as were they; his inarticulateness reflected their feeling that their voices were never heard; his disparagement by the white officer class reflected precisely their disparagement by the bureaucrats of the Department of the Interior; his heroism in standing up for himself was a huge encouragement to them. For the Aboriginals, the figure of Rambo embodied their victimization by the white bureaucracy and the ability to stand up and resist them.
Probably not what Reagan saw in him. Anyway, the lesson I taught my students about this was that you cannot predict the way a cultural product will be consumed from the product itself. The meaning of a cultural product — a movie, a caricature of a Native American on a baseball uniform or a belt buckle — can only be determined by looking at the social context in which it is consumed.
The meaning of a cultural product, then, will vary as its social context varies. We began our antiques business by renting space in the Mulberry Point antiques mall in Stillwater, Minn. Beside paying booth rent, we also had to spend a number of hours a week staffing the mall. While this could be inconvenient, it was actually a good thing for a new dealer like me — my time on duty taught me an enormous amount about how the business worked, about the wide variety of dealers in it, and about customers and their behavior quite an eye opener at times.
Anyway, I was on the front desk by the register when three big, beautiful African-American women came in. They combed the mall pretty thoroughly, and eventually ended up with their spoils at the front desk. I was simultaneously full of questions and totally intimidated. But I did manage to stutter something about what a great collection they must have. They drew no attention to how condescending, if not insulting, these images might appear to be — probably because they were being polite to an inoffensive white man at the cash register.
But they must have been aware of the white view of black people that informed each image. They must have at least thought of what an Aunt Jemima cookie jar meant to the white woman who bought it and to any black woman servant she might have employed. I sold them bits of white history of which I disapproved and which I would never allow into my house. They bought bits of white history that reminded them of what they had overcome, of what their previous generations had had to endure and that enriched their homes.
But I could see no risk that they might put an Aunt Jemima cookie jar to the same symbolic use that Nazi belt buckle could be. I felt no such qualms about selling the slave shackle: Its meaning is so imperative and so singular, no matter to whom, that it can stand for nothing but the horror of slavery.
There is surely no one alive today who might use a slave shackle as an inspiration to oppress African-Americans. History works differently in these cases. A shackle and, to a lesser extent, a cookie jar can be safely locked in the past with no risk of causing harm in the present.
Not so with the belt buckle. And in racial relations not so with the one word from history that a white person can never speak today. History is history: It happened and we cannot deny it. Of course, some of that history is shameful and we should be prepared to make considered value judgments about it. Bury it. Should I echo him to the book owner?
Burn it. We cannot erase a shameful history by destroying the objects that were produced in it. The harm in the shameful object is caused by the fact that it can be used to revive the shameful context in which it was produced. Times do change, and there may come a time in the future when neither of those historical objects can be as socially divisive and harmful as they are today.
The answer, I believe, is to lock them in an iron safe and keep them out of circulation until times have changed enough that we can let them see the light of day again. The slave shackle, however, can sit proudly in bright daylight. It tells of a past that must remain past; it tells of a battle to overcome it, both in society and in our ways of thinking; and it reminds us that as a society, we are capable of making enough progress to render a return to that past unthinkable.
It is the very nature of antiques to carry the past into the present, but with some objects, we need to take a hard look at the present to see if it is capable of receiving the past that they carry with them. Which can be a tough job. Looking back on the antiques scene in New York in January, I found myself going back to two, apparently contradictory, things that struck me. Is it up or down?
One thing is that dealers are bidding on behalf of clients at auctions. This would seem to be a good thing for the dealers who can earn a goodly chunk of change without having to risk their own capital by buying the item for inventory. What their clients are paying for here, of course, is the knowledge and insight of the dealer. If he sells a piece from his inventory, however, he is liable for all of these conditions, and stands to lose his own money if he sells the piece as something that it turns out not to be.
But that may be a red herring: I assume that top dealers make as few mistakes when buying for a client as when buying for inventory — which means very few indeed. There is a handful of top auctioneers who thoroughly research their most important lots, and who print detailed information and condition reports in their catalogs for which they will take full responsibility. But that handful is not a large one. Most auctioneers make it clear that research into the lot and its condition is entirely the responsibility of the bidder: They stand behind nothing that they sell.
So, of course, at these auctions it makes sense for a bidder to hire a dealer to provide what the auctioneer does not — knowledge. When a bidder is confident of his own knowledge, of course, as many are, he has no need to hire a dealer. Now what has this got to do with the paucity of Americana dealers at the Winter Show? I think they may be two sides of the same coin. Without exception, the Americana dealers provide long, detailed labels sharing the results of their research.
Rarely, however, is a visual-appeal, decorative object accompanied by more than a couple of dozen or so words. Sometimes less. On the whole, interior designers seem to care nothing about gobble-de-gook such as history or authenticity. We live in the age of the image, not the word. Sure, the sight of a cute little girl hugging her Daddy during an interview by BBC television was amusing, but in the age of the image, it was far more than that: It was the most significant image of the day.
The word vs. And what is it? Nothing but a hundred or so neon-lit advertisements. America is both the future and the commercial selling it. It has probably dawned on you by now please take that as sarcasm — in the age of the image we have lost our ability to recognize it that I am a word guy, not an image guy. The word is the tool of knowledge, it is essential in the quest for truth and understanding.
It assumes that truth does not lie around on the surface waiting to be picked up by a casual passer-by. Truth needs excavation to find it; it requires learning from all the others who have sought it, which means reading the verbal records of their thoughts and discoveries: It means conversing exchanging words with people who know more than we do.
For the hangovers from the verbal age, like me, an image without words makes us ask immediately: What is it? Where is it? What am I looking and why am I looking it? We need words. No knowledge, just sensation. It endures, though it may evolve as new discoveries contribute to it. To them, an antique is never an object, complete and independent in its own right: It is an object to be investigated and excavated.
We need to dig out from it an understanding of how it carries a history, a culture, a different set of aesthetic principles that indicate a different way of life — all sorts of depths that you cannot immediately see just by looking at it. And what we learn from it and about it, we put into words so that we can share it with others. So I am pleased that dealers and collectors work together to share their knowledge at auctions in order to decide what to buy and what not to. And I am absolutely delighted that the Americana dealers at the Winter Show still write labels that are longer than characters.
I love it when these unexpected flashes come out of nowhere and make me think. The geography changed radically, and so did the culture. The mountains are where the Berbers lived — they were the original inhabitants of Morocco, but got pushed to the economically weaker areas by the Arabs who invaded the country in the s and converted it to Islam.
Before then, the Berbers, or to give them their proper name, the Amazir, had been Christian and Jewish and had closer links with Andalusia in southern Spain than with the rest of north Africa. I digress. The Hebrides are wet and windswept, the foothills of the Atlas are hot and arid. But both have been inhabited for centuries by subsistence farmers who were also part time artisans working for an extra penny — the Hebridean crofters wove wonderful Harris tweed, and the Amazir were potters and rug makers.
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