Buying the Best you Can Afford

I was late to the party, figuratively. For years I had wondered about a question to which I could articulate no answer. The question: What does a collector do when his eye exceeds his budget? After all, a collector is repeatedly urged to look at a variety of pieces in a genre and then look some more. That is why Albert Sack’s Fine Points of Furniture: Early American, known as “Good, Better, Best” is so valuable. (A revised version added “superior and masterpiece.”) We can put three (or more) versions of the same table, chest, or clock side by side and compare them, one with the other. We do the same in dealer’s shops, and at shows and auctions. And after a while, if we are diligent and observant, we begin to learn what makes a piece desirable, at least to us.

After many years I had trained my eye, in the parlance of today; I had refined and deepened my sense of style, even become a bit of a connoisseur. I didn’t know then that there existed clearly delineated criteria for assessing a piece of Americana, yet I did know what I liked and why. What I did understand was that pieces I lusted after were often beyond my financial means. I could not afford the pieces I knew were the best. A friend was kind enough to offer me the consolation of Robert Browning: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” Aspiration, ambition, ideals are deeply human traits, and indeed we should revel in being human to the extent we chase perfection. That said, I was still frustrated. How, I wondered, was I to deal with this dilemma . . . a conundrum faced by every collector – well, almost every – at one time or another?

Let me propose that in any genre of Americana it is usually agreed upon that certain forms are ideal. These are the 10s, beautiful to behold, usually expensive to purchase. By definition they are almost always beyond the means of the general run of collectors. When certain antique toys sell for over $100,000, paintings for seven figures, Windsor chairs for tens of thousands the air gets thin at the top of American antiques. Fortunate indeed is the rare collector for whom the best of the best is affordable and even for her an object might sometimes be a painful stretch.

Lately I have turned my attention to collecting redware plates and platters with slip used to spell out letters, names, and words. I did not do so because such redware was within my means but out of passion, yet it turns out it was a wise financial decision, too. A fabulous “ABC” plate at auction from a well-known collection was affordable. Yet I fantasize about coming across a redware platter made when Lafayette visited the United States with the names “Washington” and “Lafayette” on it. Could I afford it? How many other redware collectors and dealers would also covet such a treasure? How deep would I be willing to reach to own it? And what condition would be acceptable to me? It might be possible. My point is simply this: Collectors are only enabled by taste and connoisseurship. Beyond that point we have to be reasonable, to assess our capacity and limits, and to be knowledgeable (and realistic) about both the market and our competitors. We pursue the best we choose to afford . . . and accept that as a limit.

What I believe is that most collectors, although I have never seen this process discussed, develop their own “sliding scale” of a piece’s characteristics based on which are important to them, in other words what they appreciate and like the most about any genre. They have developed and refined their tastes. Their preferences, no matter what, remain grounded in established and personal criteria. What then are the attributes that collectors weigh and balance against each other as they develop their preferences?

In 1999, a book was published, Evaluating Your Collection: The 14 Points of Connoisseurship, written by Dwight Lanmon as part of the Winterthur Decorative Arts Series. He dedicated the tome to Charles Montgomery, whose collecting criteria had previously appeared in a little known and less-read 1961 work: the Walpole Society Notebook and in A History of American Pewter (1973). A leading expert in American decorative arts, Montgomery held the directorship at the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum. His central revelation is that the design elements of objects do not exist in isolation. For instance, Queen Anne pad feet on a chair or a table relate to a particular period, taste or style. An eagle weathervane from the 1870s and the inlaid eagle on a piece of 1790 furniture each may reflect differing periods of history and unique ideas of patriotism. Wonderfully, Lanmon teaches us not to mistake informed, refined taste for elitism; the first example of collectibles in his book when talking about condition is a Honus Wagner (Pittsburgh Pirates) baseball card!

So, what are Lanmon’s (Montgomery’s) criteria for understanding, talking about, and judging an antique?

  • Overall appearance (Useful when comparing two or more examples. Does what the craftsman or artist tried to do actually work?)
  • Form (An object’s outline, border, angles, curves. Short or tall, is it in proportion. sturdy or delicate?)
  • Ornamentation (Decorative traits. Do they add to the piece?)
  • Materials (What is the object made of?)
  • Finish (Original or aged, rough or smooth?)
  • Period (When made?)
  • Color (Muted, vivid, intense?)
  • Craft techniques (Quality, how constructed, uniqueness?)
  • Trade practices (Part of a set, labeled?)
  • Function (What the object was used for, why was it made?)
  • Style (How the visual features combine? A summary judgment of the piece.)
  • Attribution (Signed, stamped, by a known hand, forgery?)
  • History of the object and its ownership (Documented and if so how?)
  • Condition (Wear and tear where one would expect, originality, softening, aging?)
  • Evaluation (A collector’s overall assessment of the object. Is it beautiful to you? Is it worthy of purchase and at what price? Your preference.)

(For those readers counting the criteria, yes, 15 are listed. Lanmon presents “finish” as one of the 14, Montgomery in his book on pewter presents “date” and omits “finish.”)

Frankly, I do not believe most collectors consciously work their way through this list when they see a piece. Instead, over time collectors develop a sense that many, most or all of these qualities contribute to the worth of an object and, at the same time, that there are some few of them that make an antique personally appealing and worthy of pursuit. For example, disparate individual values are recognized at an auction when, say, an item of furniture far exceeds its estimate. Oftentimes what has taken place is that two or more bidders have done their homework and made an attribution as to who the craftsman was or that the antique while unattributable to a specific craftsman was probably made at his workshop. It is “in the school of.” This style criterion is not terribly important to me but to some collectors it is the holy grail. Even if the chest of drawers is not a 10, for these collectors attribution trumps other connoisseurship criteria and its price soars.

Somehow I managed to reach an inflection point in collecting. High country furniture filled the house. Though I had been collecting for years, I suddenly realized I was instinctively applying a host of criteria and that I had developed my own rank order of desirability. What did I learn about myself and my collection? Scale and proportion, originality (but selectively applied), and minimal ornamentation where most important to me. Give me a drop front desk that is 36 inches wide (a very desirable proportion) that had been refinished, and one in original surface that was a bit wider and I would choose the original surface. A highboy with all the bells and whistles, and affordable because it had been refinished, would be less interesting to me than one that was plainer but with original or a very old surface. A painted surface is appealing to me, but only in the plainer, New England style. I own no Pennsylvania blanket chest with unicorns, flowers, scroll work, and curlicues painted on it. My wife and I love a Pennsylvania blanket chest we own in original blue with muted salmon trim. I like a desk with a carved fan or two but have seen them with several interior fans which is “too much” for me and unappealing.

What it comes down to is that I will sacrifice some desirable traits if the piece has great scale and surface. Replaced brasses if appropriate are acceptable to me, though there are purists who would blanch at the thought. Hence, I own a highboy with several replaced brasses that are later 18th century than the originals and even a chest of drawers with period accurate Ball and Ball reproduction brasses. The chest is so very good in other ways. Replaced hinges on a drop front desk (someone forgot to pull out the lopers and the lid was unsupported and broke off) do not cause me to reject the antique. No, none of these items is perfect. None meets all the criteria so painfully listed for consideration. Being both a realist and somewhat less than wealthy, I settle for what makes me feel good about what I collect rather than whining about a piece’s imperfections. I have created a list of connoisseurship criteria important to me and apply it in pursuing antiques. And that is precisely what I believe almost all collectors do.

I value condition, ornamentation and form for the redware I collect. I saw an example that was most affordable with “Mary’s dish” fired on it in slip, but its condition did not meet my standards and I passed on it. I will wait to buy another, nicer example if one enters the market Rim chips bother me if numerous and large but I learned repairing a piece of redware is affordable and at the level I am collecting probably does not affect its value. So, if I most desirable piece became available and I loved it aside from its chips, I might have it restored. I like smaller round plates and those in an oval shape but not large round platters. I can give you no reason for the latter; it is more an issue of what appeals to me as an individual. The “ABC” plate I mentioned has slip decoration all over its surface – wonderful ornamentation.

The only criterion that Montgomery omits, I would add, is “sentimental value.” My wife and I have held onto several pieces we could have upgraded but because of the stories associated with them, or the fact our children sat when young at the table, or we purchased them from dear friends. In other words, there are times that the criteria are thrown out the window for other considerations. In my small but growing collection of redware is a plate in relatively good condition but with a somewhat objectionable rim chip or two. But the piece reads, Sarah’s Dish and Sarah was my mother’s name. If one enters the market in better condition, I will be interested in it and I can always sell the one I already own. But the dish makes me smile and that was all-important to me.

I wish Good, Better, Best books existed for genres other than furniture. I would love a book on weathervanes that shows the same vane with minimal wear with the gesso showing, one weathered with a great patina, one painted, and perhaps a fourth with numerous bullet holes or visible repairs. The same vane could be shown in different sizes as well. Such a display would help me (and I assume other collectors) develop our style and connoisseurship preferences for this genre in a relatively short amount of time.

What it all boils down to is that all is not lost when a collector develops his eye even when he knows the best is beyond his financial means. What a collector does is purchase items that he will be most happy living with, that have the style and connoisseurship design elements most important to him. He buys, what is to him, the best he can afford.

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