Posts Tagged Value

Wabi Sabi American Style

19 August 2015

Some people collect for the sake of collecting, most have a purpose beyond mere acquisitiveness. We collect because we connect with material things through memory, knowledge, inspiration and as many motivations as there are emotions in the human psyche. While some people maintain a degree of privacy, stuffing their collected items away where nobody sees them, others like to share. They fit their acquisitions into a decorating scheme or display a collection in a way that is artistically appealing, perhaps making a personal statement.  Antiques are sometimes valued for their utility as in a type of tool that is no longer made. Hand drills work well if you live off the grid. We also hold on to these things to appreciate them and show them off in a visually appealing manner. Aesthetics is simply this, how good does a thing look and how does it make you feel? It brings to mind Billy Crystal doing his Fernando Lamas imitation, “You look mahvalous. The most important thing is to look good.”

Looking good is an art.  It starts at the point of original design and continues as an object acquires the unique signature created by the usage of time. In short: dirt is beautiful. So are dings and scrapes and oil and wax. A nicer way to express it would be “environmental effects.” Well, that’s a little cold and analytical. Lets be more earthy. Let’s get comfortable in our own skins. It is a basic rule in antique restoration that you don’t want to strip an original finish or slather wood putty into the dents and dings. Old dirt and damage are the prime ingredients for a lovely patina. Antiques wear their history on the surface. Western sensibilities tend to like new items that look just like the day they were made. We do this with vintage automobiles and aircraft.  I think it works just fine in those areas. There is even a safety factor in preserving functionality in moving vehicles. You don’t want your 1920’s Curtiss biplane sputtering to a halt at odd moments. If you are going to drive your model T on occasion the brakes should work at least as well as they did in the old days.

I went through a period of fascination with Zen Buddhism back in the seventies. It wore off, but a little something stuck in the form of the Japanese attitude towards the simple beauty of utilitarian forms, ordinary objects made with care and superior craftsmanship.  Wabi Sabi is the reason the Japanese automobile industry kicked our butts back in the seventies. Some antiques come from an opposite visual perspective. The European renaissance gave us  a richness of decoration that was sometimes blindingly ornate. The level of workmanship was extraordinary but opulence is hard for most of us to relate to.

The Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th and early twentieth century gave us mission furniture and similar styles. Gustav Stickley pioneered an approach to furniture design that became an enduring American style. The same lines and honest display of joinery echoes the construction of Japanese shoji screens and temple architecture. The influence continued in the architectural work of Greene and Greene and Frank Lloyd Wright. The blending of furniture and architecture was an inevitable outgrowth of the design elements that grew in the American heartland.

What was once a new thing aged in a dignified manner. American decorative arts survived to form the core of what I experienced in the antique trade. As a dealer on the lower rungs of that particular business ladder I had little contact with Chippendale and Sheraton, et al.  It was entertaining to hang out at auction and watch the New York or L.A. connected dealers throw money at each other.  The antiques I had a shot at moving through the mire of commerce were the common furnishings of my grandparents and great grandparents world: kitchen tables that showed the wear of rolling pins, knives, and elbows. Their patina was enhanced by spilled milk, smeared lard and the blood of both farm and game animals. It was all stoutly built of oak and ash, pine and maple. Mahogany, bird’s eye maple and crotch grain black walnut was reserved for the parlor or perhaps the bedroom. Those finer furnishings were better cared for but still took their own punishment. Look at the legs of old chairs and tables to see the traces of myriad collisions with toy trucks and the careless feet of children. Shellac finishes oxidized into a noticeably reptilian patterns. water glasses quickly left rings and spilled alcohol was like a dissolving tide.  The introduction of nitrocellulose lacquer made the household environment more durable and family friendly.

Metals and plastics not only brought forth new often “streamlined” styles they changed the nature of the way we regarded wear and tear. We were initially repulsed by rust, flaky chrome plating and sun faded plastics and chipped enamel. The postwar era ushered in the throwaway economy. Disposable material was a virtue to be worshiped by the culture of modern convenience. A decade later environmentalism criticized the attitude and threw roadblocks in the way that were ultimately hurdled by the acolytes of recycling. America stopped blithely disposing and engorging landfills with cultural detritus. It created a whole new gray market operating out of a vast network of garages manned by individual entrepreneurs. The antique marketers took notice.

Somewhere along the way while some of us were still trying to hawk the furnishings of our great grandparents a shift in time took place. The definition of antique went from 100 years old to 50, sometimes 25. Items of cultural significance that become overnight sensations become objects of nostalgia almost as fast.

The new ethos on the block was shabby chic which evolved into the art and craft of “re-purposing.” The market is driven as never before by domestic decorating. You can  see it on reality television as the public is regaled by tales of home makeovers and wandering duos of dealers pestering random hoarders for not only genuine historical artifacts but rusty gates, aging light fixtures and worn out leather jackets from pilots and motorcycle bums to bell bottom jeans that belonged to hippie girls who might have been at Woodstock.

The descendants of the industrial revolution will never stop making new and ever shinier things. It is their mission to attract the eye with things that are smooth or shiny or have a rough masculine feel or a soft feminine silkiness. We are intoxicated by the smell of a new car. What you remember most of all is the ragged old blanket that your first born hauled everywhere. your favorite coffee cup and the movie that makes you cry when you watch it every year at Christmas. The essence of utility built into every truly useful object is manifested in nostalgia and value lies at the intersection of purpose and beauty. The greatest creations of man are no more than this and that is all that they need to be.

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The Best Old Things Are Old Friends

27 February 2011

We don’t call old friends antiques.  It might hurt their feelings.  We do collect them, at least for a time.  The memories of them are lined up on shelves in my mind.  Some of them are covered in dust.  Because I moved far away from where I spent the majority of my life most of them are beyond my reach.  I can not see them frequently and be reminded of their mannerisms and familiar behaviors.

The internet helps take up some of the slack in my memories.  Facebook has enabled me to renew old acquaintances.  I have a tendency to research names from the past that come to mind.  It’s a thrill of the hunt thing, like looking for rare collectibles.  When I find some person that I have wondered what became of them I don’t always get in touch.  Who am I to intrude on the lives of people who have been busy stemming the tides of life?  My own opinion of myself may not be shared by others who I have spent time with.

Sometimes it is just too late to pick up the pieces of a long severed relationship.  Through the power of Google I recently traced a friend from the 1970’s era. We lost track of each other a long time ago.  In 1972 Hurricane Agnes turned an impressive swath of Central Pennsylvania into a sodden mess.  It thereby created summer jobs for idle youth on flood cleanup crews.  Gene and I worked together on a crew of boys our own age but with differing attitudes.  We were unofficial partners and learned to drive iron rods through railroad ties repairing fish damns on trout streams. You come into an attitude of trust holding an iron rod while your partner swings a sledge hammer at the relatively small target that is the top end of the rod.  We already knew each other prior to that summer but our bond was strengthened with each ring of metal on metal.

My friend showed up on a Google search some time back.  It turns out that our paths were not unrelated.  He had become an antique conservator and restorer.  He has worked for an impressive client list and had carved out an excellent reputation in his field.  Unfortunately he is also very ill.  Time passes for us all.  The antique trade can make us fatalistic.  We gather the particles of culture unique to our own generation and venerate the dust of the ages beyond measure.  In the end “value” is in who we are, not in what we have. That can not be cataloged.

Addendum 3/13/2011: I guess timing is everything. Acting on the contact information I obtained on the internet I emailed my old friend Gene McCall in hopes of making contact.  Unfortunately the reply I received was from his wife who informs me that Gene passed due to a brain tumor on March 1st. The intelligent, creative and good humored soul that I remember must have been a blessing to his family and friends. I am sure they have a rich treasure trove of memories to give them comfort. God bless you Gene. Friendship knows no boundaries of time or space.

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Price Guides and the Dealers Home Library

25 April 2010

Whether you are a buyer or a seller it is easy to get burned by dealing from ignorance. I came into the antiques and collectibles on the cusp of a steep learning curve. I have always believed that when the going gets tough, the tough go to the library. Knowledge has never ceased to equate to power. When you first become fascinated with a particular area of collecting you have a need to come up to speed rapidly.

You never know everything there is to know about any subject. Be ready to continue your education as long as your involvement lasts with your collection. Some subjects are vast and varied. A subject such as militaria covers many events and so many different organized groups of people it is almost impossible to encompass everything. Conflict has been around as long as man has existed. On the other hand Mc Coy pottery began manufacture in 1910. 100 years as opposed to thousands. Still the wise collector has an intimate knowledge of his subject, large or small.

There is a large body of literature to help you be an informed shopper. There are books giving historical data of the artifacts you are interested in as well as price guides which catalog current values. These are usually based on prices realized at a broad array of auction houses. Illustrated guides are the most interesting to look through but it’s hard to fit a lot of items in a book when space is taken up by pictures. books that are made up of long lists with brief descriptions and prices may seem a little boring. However, from a pragmatic point of view they offer a lot of free cam4 chat bang for the buck.

What you need to know about any item is it’s age, condition, authenticity and value. Everything else is gravy. Get all the gravy you can but be aware of people spicing it up to make it seem worth more than it is. Experience will add to your fund of knowledge. Develop personal contacts so you can pick smart peoples brains like a garden.

Develop a personal library. the money you spend informing yourself is value added to your collection. There are a lot of good used books out there which can be had cheaply. Look out for badly outdated price guides they aren’t very useful. Modern publishing is a gold mine. The standard works can be obtained through Amazon.  A tried and true favorite is Kovels’ Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide 2010: America’s Bestselling and Most Up to Date Antiques Annual – 42nd Edition (Kovels’ Antiques and Collectibles Price List)

A very interesting source I found recently is  Collect.com This website features a huge selection of  resources in including price guides on many indidvidual collectible categories,  cd’s and dvd’s, webinars, and downloads.  The downloads really caught my attention.  There are such things as PDF versions of older gun catalogs, books on various kind’s of glassware, comics, surveyor’s instruments.  The areas covered are quite broad.  The prices are very reasonable.

The internet in general is a vast archive of the minutiae of our culture.  It is all by itself  the largest volume in your library.  What you need to know is either on the net or it can tell you where to get what you want.  So the next time the going gets tough, where are going to go?

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