Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Future of Antiques

I note in the New York Times today that Albert Sack has passed away at the age of 96. He was the last member of a family business that opened in 1905 and dominated the top level of the antique business for a century. His passing marks the end of an era.

I first met Albert in his store in the early 1970's. I was dressed in typical West Coast winter mountain gear: Swiss leather mountain boots, Levis, Pendleton and down jacket. Not exactly your upscale client. However, Albert invited me into his store, took several hours to walk around with me discussing the merits of each piece, and then showed me dozens of photographs of items he had sold in the past which were very helpful to my research. He knew I would never be able to purchase anything, but he recognized a fellow enthusiast of the field.

When you live with Antiques you live with history. American culture is fairly young. The value of understanding different periods of antiques is that it tells the personal story of how this country has evolved from one coast to the other. The transition from a farming based culture to a merchant and consumer based economy can be documented by the objects left behind.

During those early years of my travels around the country, searching for antiques in odd places, I called my research "cultural anthropology." That was before that term actually became a real class in some colleges. My idea was to visit some obscure antique store and ask the owner which pieces he had that he knew were made in that region, and why. I learned about regional characteristics, secondary woods, unique forms not made in other areas, and how each area reflected its particular ethnic origins, whether it was French, German, British, Canadian, or some other source of design.

At that time it was normal for the antique dealer to have a good understanding of his stock. Most dealers were connoisseurs of their speciality, and visiting a shop was always a learning experience. Just ask a question and you would usually get a lecture on the merits and qualities of any object. They had a passion for collecting and wanted to share their enthusiasm.

I remember a distinguished dealer, well into his 80's, shaking with Parkinsons desease, who insisted on showing me the mark under a huge Chinese porcelain bowl. He lifted it off the table and turned it over, while I tried to get into a position where I could grab it if he dropped it. I had only remarked in passing that it was a spectacular bowl, and, in truth, I didn't know anything about Chinese porcelain. However, I now think of that bowl and that mark.

Antique shops today are filled with junk. The business has transformed into swap meets, garage sales, flea markets, storage unit auctions, and pawn shops. Even the roadshow focuses more on the money and less on the history and culture. Albert Sack was the last of his breed.

Like any business, the antique business is transforming and evolving. My generation is older and has collected for years, and now looks at downsizing but our children do not appreciate the stuff we want to give them. They want their post-modern environment and their electronic toys, but not something which was made centuries ago. They do not care about history or culture in the same way that Mr. Sack did.

That may change, and the change could come in a surprising form. People who care about the environment, climate change, carbon footprints, recycling, and all the other progressive ideas which are topical these days, will learn to appreciate antiques for another reason. Antiques are carbon neutral and "green". Antique furniture was harvested by human and animal power, shaped into their final form with sweat and skill, and represent the survival of historic old growth forests. Modern furniture is made with toxic glues and finishes, often transported around the world with petroleum based ships and fabricated and assembled with industrial machinery, consuming precious resources. Modern furniture is also designed to be disposable, since it does not survive many years and is usually not repairable.

Support your local antique dealer, if you have one. Support your local furniture repairman, if he is using hand tools and organic materials. Save the antiques your parents are trying to pass on. Cherish the history and culture of the past. It is your heritage. The real value is knowing how we got here and understanding the meaning of living with antiques.


Anonymous said...

Patrick, it was so lovely to get to finally meet you this weekend! I could have listened to you wax on this very topic for at least another hour at lunch.

The things you discussed in this blog post are the major reasons why I have found that antique furniture has been able to grab my attention more than silver or ceramics or the other things we work on in our office; people really lived through their furniture, and you can see their influences and the "life" of the piece of furniture in its structure. Fine art will always be a great tool for understanding the cultural anthropology of the past, but I just love how tactile furniture is. Paintings you look at and admire, but generally furniture you can also still use. It kind of feels like whoever made that chair or cabinet or desk, etc. lives on as long as their creation still has use.

Anyway, I have a lot of posts of yours to catch up on. Looking forward to it.

W. Patrick Edwards said...

There is more to this than you think...

Of all the decorative arts, furniture involves more organic, living materials than any other. The wood comes from trees, the leather comes from cattle, the horsehair, burlap, cotton, silk, and other traditional upholstering materials all were once living. Rush seating, cane and splint are from plants. Tortoise shell, ivory, bone, mother-of-pearl, straw, sharkskin are used in elegant marquetry designs and they all once lived. Even the animal and fish glues are derived from protein collagen which was alive, as well as the shellac and wax which are a product of insects. Sandarac is the product of trees and produces an amazing finish. Just a last note: turpentine is derived from pine trees!

Perhaps the most impressive use of living materials is the craft of making instruments. How touching is the sound of a 400 year old piece of spruce and maple, strung with catgut and played with a horsehair bow?