Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow
One of the most difficult skills involved in the antiques business is the ability to gauge the age of the items which present themselves to us. We receive a steady string of people bringing items into the Center and asking "how old is it?" or customers looking for reassurance before they spend hard earned money on a treasure, or dealers wondering if something is fashionably old enough for the Center. Usually, as soon as we express an opinion - especially if the inquisitor doesn't like our answer - the follow up question is "Well how do you know?" This is a one-two punch that can leave your head spinning. It's embarrassing to have to say, well, it's just my intuition.
It often seems, even to the most accomplished practitioners - that gauging age is an intuitive art. But, in fact, like all intuitive knowledge, it is grounded in practiced observation. We aren't conscious of a mental check list of characteristics that we apply each time we supply an intuitive answer because our brains flash through the list so fast we don't notice. And out pops an answer, startling us as much as it startles the interrogator. "I think that's 1930s, not 1790s."
So let's try to freeze-frame our way through the intuitive process.
There are three critical elements in building reliable intuition: knowledge, experience, and keen observation.
First, STUDY, STUDY, and then STUDY some more. You can never learn enough about antiques. Read everything you can find on every area of antiques that interests you. (Our reference library would be a good place to spend some time.) Learn the marks, learn the dates, learn the production techniques, learn the materials that were used and when they were used, learn the decorators and designers, and study the images.
Second, apply your study to actual experience. Hang around Antique centers (preferably ours.) Look at everything. Ask lots of questions. Not every place likes to answer questions - but some do. Put them to the test. We love questions and love to try to answer them. (so long as we don't have 5 customers lined up in a row waiting to check out.) We aspire to become the Albany Med of antique centers - a premier "teaching antique center."
And Third, use ALL your powers of observation. Really LOOK at an item. STARE at it. It won't be embarrassed. It'll be flattered. Study the colors and interplay of color. Study the decoration. Study the base material. Study the patterns of wear. PICK IT UP and CARESS it. Feel the glaze and the lines and the texture of the surface. Feel the minuscule ridges and valleys left by the hands and tools of its creator. Feel the variations caused by the decoration. Judge it's weight and heft. Tap it (gently, please) and listen to it ring (or clunk.) SMELL it. One of our dealers smells everything and swears she can smell reproductions. (This works best for women, most of whom have olfactory senses 9 times more sensitive than men's. But men can try it. They can usually smell things like fresh paint.)
So that's all well and good, but what are we looking for?
So, study, look, feel, study, ask lots of questions, and study some more. Pretty soon, you'll be rattling off dates just like a pro.
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