Some Thoughts on Being a Collector (Maine Antique Digest, Sept. 2022)

Who am I? That seems an odd way to begin, I admit, but it is the one question that keeps cropping up most of our lives. Right now, I am a collector, a student, interpreter, observer, and fond owner of antique Americana. But “collector” seems slippery, excessively casual, and maybe even deliberately vague.

            In conversation, after declaring my bona fides, a friend said, “I don’t collect anything.” I was taken aback: whenever she visits a national park, she brings home mementos, putting them in a scrapbook. They mean a great deal to her because they preserve and evoke warm memories. I squinted at her and cleared my throat: “That’s collecting, isn’t it?” I asked hesitantly.  

I have another friend whose bookshelf is cluttered with bottles of fine scotch. Unopened. Pristine. He gazes on them affectionately, knows much about how they taste, the region in Scotland where they were distilled, aged, their casks for aging and such. He has not bought a single bottle himself. Friends have given him these as gifts. Behind this display, this collection, lies an irony: while he is a dedicated scotch drinker, he imbibes the cheap stuff. Is he a collector?

How about a woman who inherits a collection of art or American antiques and decides to live with and care for it because of the memories and connections to her family and its past it holds? Is she a collector? When I posed the question, some said she was merely a conservator of the taste of others, some said she was the lucky beneficiary of the goodwill of her forefathers (or foremothers or . . .) but some said, of course she was a collector.

            It struck me that the whole notion of collectors may very well exist on a continuum, from the diehards on one end to those much more casual on the other. It is not a question of “what” but “why” (to have your feelings elevated, to learn something new, to capture and preserve a shard of history).

             Antique dealers are used to folks who visit their shop or show with a decorator in tow, or vice versa, or only the decorator. The focus may be more on the appearance of a piece than its provenance, history, or even cost. The decorators’ clients may already have several antiques displayed proudly in their home; they need something that complements, not clashes. Antique dealers are realists; they value decorators’ business. Are the clients collectors? Alice Winchester, former editor of The Magazine Antiques in Living with Antiques (1941) calls them “selectors” ((p. 11), a wonderful term.

I am tempted to adopt a puritanical stance and say, “no, these are mere accumulators, not collectors.” We — ahem! — are real collectors, they mere poseurs. That rigidity may be uncalled for, as perfectly respectable commentators have reflected.

For example, “Nathan Liverant and Son Antiques” in an email (April 5, 2022) focused on those looking at pieces for decorating:

And here is something for you to think about. Next time you think about redecorating, consider buying a piece you can enjoy for a lifetime and pass on to your loved ones for more lifetimes. Antiques are aesthetic time machines, and the sentiment they hold binds families and memories. They are sustainable guardians in the home, they tread lightly upon the earth, and are solid reminders of history…The rarity of antiques makes finding the perfect piece feel like a real-life treasure hunt! They offer a polished touch to you home, which cannot be matched by contemporary furniture.

Take that, Ikea!

More than one paragraph has been written about the crying need for more collectors of Americana, especially those who tend younger. One way to hopefully rope them in is to extol and emphasize the “greenness” of collecting antiques. After all, the pieces have existed for a long time and the planet’s ecosystems have not worsened because of their existence. This pitch to those concerned about global warming and the environment has a great deal of validity. 

In the same April 5 email “Nathan Liverant and Son Antiques” took just that approach:

Antiques Are The ULTIMATE GREEN! Here is a question for you. If you found an object which would outlast you, your children, your children’s children, and their children, need minimal upkeep, would have minimal ‘carbon footprint’ or drain the earth’s finite resources, and was extremely useful to you and uniquely beautiful, would you buy it?

Let us suppose some of these ecologically tickled citizens start purchasing antiques. (I have been told by two very knowledgeable collectors that this is exactly what is happening in Europe.) At least initially, they are not inclined to be caretakers for items that centuries have writ large upon. Antiques to them are an often less expensive and more environmentally sound purchase than buying online or traipsing to a furniture store. 

“Are these people collectors?” I again ask. Does it matter? They certainly are good for the trade, happy with their purchases, and may convince other, young friends to follow their path. Add to that the fact they are preserving a fragment of history; they may not fully appreciate the piece, but cannot the same be said for some who seriously think of themselves as collectors? 

Regardless of their identification, mightn’t these folks develop connoisseurship, a sense of history and as deep a passion, (excitement, joy) for them as we more exalted collectors do? 

I specify history, passion, and connoisseurship because I see them as the cornerstone traits of a collector of American antiques. I wonder, at the same time, if I am too dismissive of the casual collector. How does one get individuals more interested in and passionate about preventing history from slipping away? Is the stepping over the line from buyer to collector a myth? Is such a metamorphosis an illusion that on cold winter nights warms us with the thought that a future cohort of collectors of American antiques exists?

I reached out to several long-standing dealers and collectors for some insights. The answer to a person was “yes:” individuals who are given, who casually purchase, who accumulate American antiques regularly become more serious collectors. Kevin Tulimieri, who has been at “Nathan Liverant and Son Antiques” for 23 years, takes an approach that I am sure many dealers do. Every person who enters his shop or show-booth is looked on as a potential collector, treated with respect, offered detailed descriptions of the pieces and their history. I find his eloquent description wonderfully alive, and his story of the 10-year-old one to treasure.

At our Shop we avoid trying to define people. As they say, you cannot judge a book by its cover. And even when you read a few pages, you can rarely have the complete story. At our Shop we try to engage this natural instinct and innate curiosity. We do this by speaking to people and find out what their interests are. This engagement hopefully develops into a rapport and mutual respect. For us, it is the context and history that brings objects alive and can lead to a deeper level of interest. But really [despite social media] there is no replacement for standing with someone and having a discussion.

We recently have had a young man, about 10 years old, stop by on his way home from school on a few different occasions. The other day he brought a friend too. I enjoyed taking the time to speak with them and share a few quick stories about a 17th century bible box. I had them touch the box and feel the softness of the wood, look closely at the detailed carving and peak inside. This is how we cultivate collectors in our Shop. We share our own passion for these wonderful objects. I approach my engagement with the boy and his friend the same way I approach a discussion with the most advanced collectors at a show.  Check this out, look at this detail, have you heard of this person or that family. For me that discussion starts inside, I want to know. I love letting my imagination wander back hundreds, thousands or even millions of years. It is this passion that I hope to share and if it can spark a similar passion in someone else that’s a huge bonus. 

            Yet another dealer talked about her strategy in speaking with clients who are using a decorator. When the focus is simply aesthetics and needs, the path narrows quickly. She is insistent in talking about what the piece is, not just how it looks. She wants the buyer to know what this small slice of a very large history means and why it survived. 

Do we need then to worry about the future of collecting American antiques? I am told more young parents with children are being seen at shows. Auction houses selling American antiques proliferate. It is as if the marketplace is alive and as Darwin’s theories predict, will adapt to ensure its own survival. David Schorsch whose mother was a collector and began dealing in American antiques in 1976 said, “No, there was never a concern.” In the 1960s people could buy American antiques for the same price as home furnishings and their quality was superior (we have come full circle). As for the present, he pointed among other things to the Americana auctions in New York City in January 2022 and said most pieces went to collectors and to the large number of auction houses that sell American antiques. 

Arthur Liverant told me that the market has always had its ups and downs, most recently the downs include the recession of 2008-09, followed by the Covid pandemic a decade later. He had a strong Philadelphia Show in April 2022 and both dealers and those attending seemed enthusiastic. He pointed out that doomsayers always exists and that the business is “dynamic,” mirroring the changing environment. For that reason, marketing must change from years ago and focus on keeping younger people active. He related that his father rarely sold furniture to someone under the age of 35 and that the children of baby boomers now have some discretionary dollars. He was bullish on the future of American antiques. (Of course, others in the American antique world, selling goods at different price points may have a divergent view of what the future bodes.)

And here two paths come together. On the one side, I think being too narrow in our conception of what makes a collector contributes to the sense that the “real-deal” types are aging and dying off. If you collect something insufficiently serious — wind-up toys, ray guns, playing cards — you are not as real as we are, you lack critical discrimination. Collecting is a very proper, highly restrictive club.

On the other side, people are ignoring that view. They are buying and cherishing Americana because they like it. They are respectful of craftsmanship, age, significance. Even — yes! — environmental impact. They may not call themselves collectors, but that is exactly what they are, just like us.

The tent of American antiques needs and has room for all sorts of folks who have American antiques in their homes. We now must adjust to collectors who show different tastes and impulses than the classic “collectors” did and do. Tolerance must be replaced with enthusiasm. Narrow conceptions of antiques must be stretched to cover a broad variety of genres outside the traditional norms. Good scotch, however, may be more difficult to give a pass. 

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