Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow
We get really upset when we hear about people who have gone into some glitzy chrome-shrouded shopping mall and spent thousands of dollars on a dining room set or hundreds of dollars on an offset print with a shiny plastic frame. We ask them "Why didn't you buy an antique?!" They usually respond, "Oh, we like antiques but they're too expensive." That might be true if you shop in Manhattan or in Hudson, but it's certainly not true in Coxsackie... or in most other Antique Centers for that matter. In fact, Antiques are cheap! by any standard.
There is a compelling logic to the acquisition of antiques. Antiques give us a sense of continuity with our cultural and social history; they represent an authenticity that is lacking in modern goods; they present a classic - almost timeless - beauty that is lacking in so much of modern design; and, not least, they make good economic sense.
Antiques give us perspective that allows us to evaluate the present. Understanding the hand craftsmanship enshrined in an 1840s dresser or an 1870s bottle, or a turn-of-the-century hand decorated piece of porcelain, or the tools of great-great-great grandmother's kitchen, can stretch and clarify our understanding of modern society. Comparing the care, craftsmanship, and pride expressed in even the most mundane items to the workmanship of today gives us a greater appreciation for the lives and struggles of our forbearers. Antiques bear witness to the impact of industrialization, to the role of technology in improving our lives, to the growth and importance of the labor movement, to the expansion of woman's role in society, and much more.
We live in a world full of artificiality. Everywhere we turn, we find imitations of the real. Antiques are time travelers from a era before manufacturers discovered that they do not need to produce quality; they only need to create the superficial illusion of quality.
Go into any furniture store and look at the inventory. The furniture may look like wood but most of it is made out of sawdust and glue covered by a plastic veneer. Ask the sales agents to tip the piece over so you can look at the bottom. They'll be horrified and refuse to do it. They know that if they try, all the joints will bust open and the piece will fall in a shambles at your feet.
Go into a framing shop at any of the glitzy Yuppie Malls and price the pictures. They'll tell you that so-and-so was a famous and highly collected print-maker. But they won't tell you that the picture they're trying to sell you for hundreds of dollars is not a print made by his hand but rather an offset copy produced by the tens of thousands.
The alternative is to buy antiques. Instead of glue and sawdust, you can buy an antique dining room set made out of real wood that has already lasted several generations and will easily last many more. The antique will only increase in value. The modern set will quickly disintegrate into fodder for the land fill.
Instead of the "limited edition" prints at the Yuppie framing shop, go into an antique center and buy a genuine century-old oil painting for half the price.
Every generation has it's own unique design signature. Designers naturally seek to create the new rather than to slavishly copy the old. The complex intertwined curves of Art Nouveau become the geometric outlines of Art Deco style. This urge to create the new produces the brilliance of great design, It also produces thousands of ill-conceived false starts.
There are fundamental aesthetic principles - harmony, resonance, balance, proportion - which transcend any style. Objects which embody these elements tended to be preserved; objects deficient in these elements were cast aside. Antiques represent the best artistic and aesthetic elements of their periods.
Let's be honest. This talk about continuity and authenticity and aesthetics is okay but what we really want to know is whether it's a good buy.
We know one thing. The glitzy modern merchandise we buy this year will soon be broken and worthless next year. The finely constructed and crafted antique will function for generations to come and will probably increase in value as time goes by.
Of course, you have to buy smart. Learn about what you're buying. Study the subject enough to know some basics. Then talk to dealers who are willing to explain the piece you're considering.
Among the factors that determine value are quality, appearance, rarity, desirability, and usefulness.
Given the choice between several pieces, always pick the one with the best construction and design. Look for sound craftsmanship and superior materials. A pretty piece that's shoddily made will not appreciate as well as a plainer but well constructed piece.
Rarity, or uniqueness, is important. As a general rule, the scarcer the piece, the more value it will have, but there is a big caveat. For some antiques, the only thing rarer that the item is someone who wants it. It must be not only rare but desirable.
A good gauge of desirability is usefulness. Is it purely a decorative item to be put on a coffee table or hung on a wall... or can it be used for some task. Kitchen collectibles and hand tools, for instance, are very popular. They tell us a story about how our forbearers lived; they can be used today; they are attractive decorations.
Before you buy, check for repairs, refinishing, embellishments, additions, and marriages. Moderate repairs are acceptable if done in a manner consistent with manufacturing of the piece. Excessive or sloppy repairs can greatly reduce value. We've all heard that refinishing can destroy much of the value of a really good, really rare, really old, antique and it's true. But most antiques are none of the above. If you've got a really scrungy 1890 mass produced oak dresser, proper refinishing that brings out the beauty of the wood will help it's value. (Use waxes and polishes and period finishes. Polyurethane will greatly reduce the value.) Watch for embellishments or marriages. Embellishment is recently added decoration. A marriage is a piece made up from several unrelated parts. Marriages are often exposed by inconsistent design, decoration, or sizing. Both embellishments and marriages are frauds intended to make a piece look better than it is and both greatly reduce the value.
Just a styles change, taste in antiques change. Realize that fluctuations in value will occur. Some pieces will prove great investments, others will simply hold their value. But compared to the rapidly declining value of most modern pieces, any antique will seem a brilliant investment.
Even with all of the logic of antiques, there will still be some people who disdain them. "I would never have anything used in my house!" they'll exclaim. Of course that's their prerogative. They have the right to reject their cultural heritage; disparage the durability, quality, and hand craftsmanship of the authentic; revel in the surface artificiality of items they can throw away next week without remorse. To them, we say enjoy your particle board bedroom set, don't use it too vigorously, and hope the landfill disposal fees don't increase in the next year.
© 1997-2002 Coxsackie Antique Center