Notes on a Pandemic: As A Collector, What I Will Never Take for Granted Again

Thornton Wilder’s quintessentially American play Our Town, first presented in 1938, depicts an American small town in New England, Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, in the early 20th Century and the daily lives of its residents. The play is powerful (Wilder would win a Pulitzer Prize for drama). Its central themes: We live life without really appreciating what it has to offer. Once we die, and we are able to see what we had, it is too late. These themes resonate with collectors of American antiques. For it is the simple things in our lives as collectors that we take for granted that we should treasure. These simple pleasures of collecting life pass us by, typically unappreciated and unnoticed.

In Our Town, the narrator assists others in looking back on their lives from beyond the grave. Happily, we can look back at our “normal” lives from our self-quarantine. We do not know if this will be the only self-quarantine, the first of several, the first of many, or a new life. How much of our former collecting life may be gone forever? The question a simple one: What are the simple joys of collecting we never fully appreciate until they are denied to us? I have thought some of what these pleasures are. I know that I will take great delight in them once society returns to “normal.” What ordinary pleasures do you miss?

What surprises and informs me – after all it has only been a few weeks since the virus changed how we relate and behave in our society – is how much I think about the way collecting was only a month or two ago, and how much I already miss the “good old days.” What is informative to me is that the needs I meet collecting must be strong and important indeed to cause me to lament their passing so soon after my self-quarantine began. Of course, missing the way things were so recently helps me keep them alive.

Do not get me wrong. Dealers and auction houses are doing yeoman duty for collectors, despite or because of concerns about buying, selling, and diminished revenue. I enjoyed the half and full page dealer ads in the antique publications in glorious color. They reminded me what we used to read in such periodicals before dealers turned to the internet. Websites are being added to and updated and I have received several email blasts from dealers. On-line shows were and are ongoing. Dealers are reaching out to clients and sales are being made. But somehow none of these efforts can make up for the simple pleasures of collecting I miss so very much.

Like many or most collectors once confined to home I continued to do what I could as a “gatherer of antiques.” I bid at an on-line auction. I watched Instagram tours of a dealer’s shop and bought a piece pictured. I read this publication and The Bee in print and on-line. I followed the Americana Hub on Facebook. But I find that these “distance” activities do not sustain or fulfill me. There are numerous reasons I and others collect, many not related to adding pieces to a collection, and most of these motivations and pleasures are denied to collectors (and dealers) while self-quarantining at home.

I miss being around people – need I say more? For example, I will never take for granted or complain again about waiting in line for an antique show to open. I felt a pressing need to stay connected with others during the height of the virus, emailing, calling good friends and acquaintances, Skyping or using Zoom. Often there was little to say. We all shared the phenomenon of struggling to know what day of the week it was, our activities circumscribed, novice experts on masks and hand washing. The need for others, to belong, to connect, is powerful and omnipresent. I found such “distant” connections, although clearly better than nothing, did not truly meet the necessity of interpersonal connectedness. However, detailed an email exchange, I do not feel the anticipation I feel waiting in line.

Despite the fact that when using tele-communication, I can hear someone’s tone of voice or see their facial expressions, I miss being with others. Leaning over at a show during a quiet moment, talking with a dealer about a piece she has for sale. Learning more about it, negotiating cost, finding out how the dealer has been, thanking her for saving the piece for me to look at, for thinking of me. All of that can be done on-line but the experience, at least for me, is different somehow, not as powerful, as real. It does not meet my needs the way being with someone in person does.

But a line for an antique show. Have we truly appreciated as collectors all that it entails? Muted conversations about everything under the sun – the dealers at the show, our current collections, the economy, politics, a good place for coffee and breakfast, a better place for dinner. We gossip about the American antique community, for it truly is a small village and everyone seems to know everyone and their business. (I am not sure gossip can be luscious unless done with someone else in person.) The state of the market, what pieces are going for, the latest auctions or upcoming one and what pieces sold for and what went unsold, the venue we are waiting to enter, parking, the cost of the ticket, did you get a free ticket?, the weather. All banal I know, but such conversations are one of the simply joys of being a collector that I cannot wait to experience again.

And then there is the ambiance of attending a show. If the show is a good one the line begins forming early. Those at the front of the line watch it grow. The conversations tend to take place with lowered voices. But as the opening time draws near, the conversations seem to become louder, dare I use the word cacophony, the hubbub is noticeable if one simply listens. And the feeling, if a morning show people early in line are just awakening, tired, their coffee not yet propelling them into this new day. But as the opening time draws near, the energy of those in line is palpable, one can feel it! Collectors at the starting block, waiting to fall in love or be disappointed, wanting to spend money, wanting to lust, caress, have their breath taken away just once more.

The anticipation is intense, a feeling I never have experienced waiting for an on-line show to begin (my apologies to those promoting and overseeing on-line venues). You can see the expectations and hopes in the faces of fellow collectors, and they in yours. To be blasé at a time like that, unheard of.

Whether in an antique show or a dealer’s shop, one sense denied to collectors when collecting on-line is the sense of touch. Running one’s hand over a table top not necessarily to learn how smooth or crackled the finish is, but to caress it, to connect with the piece, to begin perhaps to fall in love. I believe the sense of touch is under-appreciated when collecting but a central component in the experience. To hold a piece of silver in one’s hand, to turn it over, to feel the weight, its balance, its essence. A simple joy of collecting I will never take for granted again. Of course, some genre, such as paintings or samplers, are not touched but the majority of what we collect is. We pull lopers out and lower drop fronts on desks, turn case furniture over to study its originality and construction, pick up candlesticks to look closely at them, examine redware plates in better light, hold dolls to see how much they have been loved in their previous lives. I long to touch once more.

To touch in many ways is to collect. And of course, there is the touching with others, the shaking of hands, the hugs, air kisses or pecks on the cheek, the holding of both hands in yours as you face someone and ask them seriously how he has been. Touch is a basic need, necessary for us, helping us connect with others and with objects. While not a “touchy feely” person, I miss the shaking of hands, the bumping into others at a crowded show. For the sense touch communicates being part of something, of belonging.

One of course listens not just waiting in line for a show to open. Have you ever stopped for a moment or two, or sitting down after a first walk through at a crowded show, and just listened? I miss what I have heard. “Excuse me” as people accidently bump into other “Did you see the painting in so and so’s booth?” Did you find anything, any luck yet? Did you see the price of that (fill in the blank) in ______’s booth?” “Have you run out of funds yet?”  “You should go back and buy it, to hell with the cost.” “This chicken wrap is really good.” “Thank goodness for water.” “couldn’t see anything in _____’s booth, it was too crowded.” “Oh, I want it but it truly is beyond my means.” “Come look at a piece I am thinking about. I need your opinion

And more mystical, I miss objects talking to me. I have never really had a piece pictured on a website take my breath away quite like what occurs when I am attending a show or visiting a dealer’s shop in person. Oh my. That moment when you know you may have found a piece to truly live with forever. “Psst, over here,” it whispers. “Look at me.” That feeling of being drawn into a booth by a single piece, approaching it with reverence, my heart beating faster with every slow step. The wanting to connect with it, to find it true, to bond with it.

Of course, there is more to see than objects at an antique show and I miss what I used to take for granted once again. Have you ever stopped and made a list of what you see at a show? Crowded aisles or empty ones, objects displayed in different ways, the collectors who walk intensely, talk intensely, collect intensely. The couples who walk together, the disappointment when one falls in love and the other does not, the negotiations of collector with spouse or significant other, of collector with dealer. Those who walk leisurely. Those casually dressed in shorts, those spiffier. Dealers casually dressed, dealers who always wear a suit or dressy outfit. Small bags of purchased items, a short queue at the shipper, the hard floor (it always seems to be so at indoor show), people resting. The age of collectors, sobering for the future of the marketplace. Smiles, frowns, perplexed looks, anxiety, pleasure, happiness, sorrow – the universe of human emotions.

Visiting a dealer’s shop is something I truly took for granted. Hours were posted for those dealers who still had a shop, and all I had to do was show up. I miss the ambiance and rituals. Coffee and cookies often available, (now we are in the realm of the sense of smell) or something a bit stronger on a quiet afternoon, good conversation, pieces to look at for the first time or again. Typically, wooden floors, the story of how this piece was acquired or the history of that piece over there. I find dealers’ shops part of the soul of collecting and to be denied that soul was disconcerting, dangerous to my being almost. Again, gathering information or visiting a shop on-line seems different, less fulfilling than being there.

Of course, during these difficult times, I cannot share my antiques with others if they are interested in looking at them. Rain checks for a visit are given. There was no sitting around our Queen Anne table for a Passover Seder. If someone wanted my opinion on a piece they own that visit also had to be delayed. A class about antiques, postponed. So many facets of being a collector put on hold and lost.

Perhaps I am a romantic. If so, I wear the label proudly. I hope I am not waxing nostalgic and that the “good old days” will return soon. But the pandemic has reminded me again why it is I collect. If I can hold these thoughts and feelings in consciousness, I will be better for it. I need to remember and hang on to what it is I miss so dearly, so that when they return, and they will, I do not take them for granted the way I once did. For these are the simple pleasures of everyday collecting life just as Wilder described everyday life in Our Town.

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