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Tips for collectors

People collect just about any type of item that’has ever been made, from 18thC furniture to potato chip bags, either because they find the object appealing or because they want to make some money or, most likely, a combination of the two. However, I always advise people to collect only for the first reason! It is of course relatively easy to choose an area to collect and you just need to decide whether to collect everything within a category, such as twentieth century ceramics, or narrow it down to, say, 1950s Poole freeform vases.

Three Kingfisher Blue Dartington glass vasesIf you would like your collection to accumulate value, choosing an area to collect can be more difficult as you need to find something affordable now that will rise in value in the future. Predicting the future is not an easily acquired skill, but fortunately, with a little research, it is possible to make a few educated guesses. Find areas that are likely to increase in desirability, that are currently overlooked by collectors. Dartington glass by Frank Thrower is perhaps a good example of this, although only time will tell. Many of his pieces can still be picked up for around $50 or less and yet examples by an equivalent designer working at the same time, Geoffrey Baxter, who designed for the currently more sought after Whitefriars, are now sky high.

(Above, right) Three Kingfisher Blue Dartington glass vases, designed by Frank Thrower.
C1970 $90-100 each.
Courtesy of Graham Cooley.

A 1960s rosewood, aluminium and leather Eames 670 lounge chairMore generally, Decorative Arts, modern pieces and items that would sit happily in the contemporary designer home are thriving while ‘brown’ furniture and Victorian pieces are struggling to find a market. There’s also a tendency today for pieces that have a strong ‘look’ to be popular, and as such highly priced. This is primarily due to demand from interior decorators looking for special statement pieces for clients. Rare and exceptional pieces across all areas tend to perform well, especially if they are in good condition. Although it may seem obvious, well-made and attractive pieces in excellent condition are more likely to increase in value than mass-produced, poorly made items.

(Above) A 1960s rosewood, aluminium and leather Eames 670 lounge chair and 671 ottoman, designed in 1956-7 and manufactured by Herman Miller.
Courtesy of Freemans Auctions

Once you have decided what you want to collect, it’s a good idea to try to develop your experience. Knowing almost everything there is to know about a collecting area can take a lifetime, or more. The one thing I’ve learned is that the more I learn, the more I realize there is to learn! However, it is surprising how soon knowledge accumulates, especially if you have a passion for your subject. The best way to learn is to see – and handle – as many antiques as possible so that you can begin to recognize the distinctive differences between objects made in different periods as well as the gulf between a well and a poorly made item.

A reproduction SylvaC fawn ceramic rabbit.
A reproduction SylvaC fawn ceramic rabbit. 4.25in. high $9-13
Courtesy of Mick Collins Collection.


A period original SylvaC fawn ceramic rabbit.
A period original SylvaC fawn ceramic rabbit. 4.25in. high $27-45
Courtesy of Mick Collins Collection.


Lalique mark on red glassOf the two similar and highly collectable SylvaC rabbits above, one is a modern reproduction of no interest to collectors. Not only is the color different, but the glaze also feels less ‘smooth’ on the reproduction. Comparing items made from different materials and by various designers is also incredibly useful for learning to identify style or indeed an object, as is examining reproduction pieces. Learn makers’ marks too as these can not only help you identify fakes, but also the period a particular piece was made in. Lalique marks are a good example.

(Above, right) An engraved ‘R. Lalique’ signature on a ‘Perruches’ red glass vase. c1919.

To get a real ‘feel’ for antiques, immerse yourself by visiting fairs such as the Brimfield Antiques Show in Massachusetts and local antique fairs. Don’t feel worried about visiting reputable dealers, who can be found through The Antiques and Collectibles Dealers' Association (ACDA), The National Art + Antique Dealer's Association of America (NAADAA) or in the listings at the back of reference books such as my price guides or collector’s guides. Most are more than happy to talk about their specialist subject to a genuinely interested collector and potential customer, but please remember that they are running a business, so may not warm to people who turn up on a regular basis just to pester and ask questions. Building up a good relationship is useful as they will be more inspired to help you select quality pieces. At times in your collecting career you may need to rely on a network of friendly dealers to call you when they have acquired that elusive tea bowl that you have been pining after for years.

Another useful relationship to cultivate for learning about antiques is the one with your local, or a specialist, auction house. It is often easier for you to examine antiques and collectibles to your heart’s content at the views –which are generally busier and more impersonal than shops – that are held a few days prior to an auction. However, views are as personal as you want to make them, and if you have a query about a particular piece, don’t be afraid to ask the staff about it. It is common practice for both novice and expert collectors to visit or telephone salerooms to ask about the condition, date and quality of a lot, or even to request a valuation on a piece of their own. If you have never been to an auction, it is worth sitting in on one to get used to what happens. Don’t worry, auctioneers are very knowledgeable and you won’t accidentally buy a Chippendale chair by scratching your nose inappropriately!

An Art Nouveau WMF pewter siphon stand.As well as contacting experts and handling pieces, getting to know more requires thorough research. An antique or collectible price guide is essential and a browse through the various sections will help you to start to recognize names and styles as well as the sorts of prices you can expect to pay for them. A full color version is particularly useful for identifying color schemes and designs. For specific collecting areas, there are hundreds of fantastic books – my collector guides for Costume Jewelery and Art Nouveau are among them – and building up a reference library on your chosen subject will prove to be an excellent investment. If you don’t want to or can’t invest in books, try your local library as many of them have, or can order in, a surprising amount of relevant material.

(Above, left) An Art Nouveau WMF pewter siphon stand.
c1900 8in high $320-450
Courtesy of Law Fine Art

A 1940s Trifari flower pin and earrings designed by Alfred Philippe
(Right) A 1940s Trifari flower pin and earrings designed by Alfred Philippe. $550-850
Courtesy of Roxanne Stuart.

Studying up will help you to make informed decisions about which pieces to buy and which to make a hasty retreat from. In general, always look for pieces in good condition, remain alert to the number of fakes on the market and look out for pieces that are ‘marriages’ of old and new sections. Check that wear marks are in appropriate places. Be suspicious of series of parallel or circular scratches, or scratches of uniform size, that look like they have been made with a machine. Look out for areas of restoration and modification. Different woods, uneven coloring and wear, mismatched mounts and filled in holes that don’t align with handles could mean replacement handles, refinishing or a marriage. Reproduction and fake ceramics are also on the market so learn to recognize the differences in materials, finish, weight and condition. Be aware of fake signatures on glass objects, even those that are only a few decades old. Learning signatures and marks on all types of objects can be a useful and ultimately money saving exercise.

When you know what you are after, it is time to start buying. Despite recent price rises, great bargains can still be found at auction houses, on the internet, and in antique shops and fairs. Dealers are a good place to buy as they can give you guidance, but do remember to negotiate on price, especially if you’re looking to make a profit in the future.
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