a growing interest HE interest in all sorts of early American articles both
_ useful and decorative has tremendously increased throughout our land. It would seem that almost every cultured American home shelters at least one member who collects or at least has some knowledge of those things which were made and put to daily use by our ancestors. Museums which, not so long ago, gave scant attention to things American, now have fine collections properly classified and displayed. Local historical societies flourish, and, by means of frequent exhibits, bring to light fine examples of early American craftsmanship long hidden in seclusion. The popular magazines devote much space to articles on the collecting of American antiques.
We Americans have discovered that like other peoples we have a glorious past, and the discovery has stimulated us to investigate the lives, habits, and possessions of our ancestors. We absorb tales of our revolt against English rule, read eagerly about how the White House was furnished in 1830, and yearn to know precisely what things President Andrew Jackson was accustomed to eat for breakfast. Finding ourselves involved in a life of terrific speed and continued demands for high efficiency, we perhaps feel that some elements of the breadth and fineness, leisure and peace which our forebears enjoyed are no longer with us. As a hard-driven and much worried business man may, in enticing daydreams, return in thought to boyhood days, so has America turned with a touch of vain regret to thoughts of early American men and women, their times, and the objects with which they surrounded themselves. And, while we may not restore the past, we may gather together souvenirs of the olden days that lie so far away under a softening haze of happy illusion. So we have collectors of American furniture, pewter, glass, pottery, china, quilts, ironwork, lighting-fixtures, valentines, miniatures, prints, and whatnot else.
It is almost axiomatic that, sooner or later, all of our collectors will become collectors of furniture. Of course we often encounter families who, among their modern possessions, boast a few first-rate early American examples— "'family pieces." Here, however, we are likely to find faint knowledge, strongly flavored with very inaccurate family tradition which insists that we regard with interest, and at least the simulation of reverence, late mahogany and Empire pieces which their owners optimistically assume to be a heritage from the Pilgrim century. But uninformed and accidental ownership of antiques entitles no one to membership in the great fraternity of collectors. For to be a collector we must collect, and we must, besides, exercise both knowledge and discretion in the process.
methods of collecting
Collecting may be undertaken in various ways. Some will buy only from reliable dealers. Others prefer to haunt junk and secondhand shops, small country auctions, or to travel from house to house in the country seeking bargains at their original source. Collecting from old country homes is most interesting, but it requires infinite patience, tact, and the ability to absorb vast quantities of sometimes not very interesting conversation. However, if occasionally such measures bring access to a real old-time attic crowded with ancient things, the recompense for much trouble may be considered adequate.
Collecting antiques from any and all sources is very closely allied to gambling, and, as a good gambler is supposed to lose with indifference or a smile, so should we meet our reverses and disappointments. And if our effort and our consequent experience should ever bring us to a position where our opinion is credited with some authority let us be a bit humble with it all.
Many of our most successful American collectors are, even with their great experience and knowledge, modest and open to new impressions. They do not give harsh and unasked criticism, correct every inaccurate statement of the enthusiastic beginner, or sneer at the possibly rather pathetic stock of some struggling dealer. They can politely view the Empire treasures of a newer collector without aspersions, always remembering that they themselves were once new at the game. They do not pretend, after one hasty glance in a bad light, immediately and infallibly to name the American woods used in a piece of furniture; nor do they broadcast the opinion that "dealers are a bunch of robbers," or "their prices are simply awful."
In justice we indeed may admit that the business road of the average dealer in antiques is not strewn with easy money. Every dealer works, and works hard, for any profit he may gain from his transactions. Knowing the rapidly increasing scarcity of antiques, I am in a constant state of wonderment that it is still possible to buy very good examples from dealers at such reasonable prices. I say this advisedly, for I am certain that, given a reasonable time, I could furnish a house with a very fair lot of antique pieces at an expenditure no greater than would be necessary for the purchase of good reproductions or modern furniture-store atrocities. And I could buy these antiques from the dealers. It is, however, only fair to admit that this home, when completed, would shelter few original butterfly tables or Philadelphia lowboys.
A friendly interest in our neighboring antique dealers, coupled with fair and honest treatment of them, particularly in the case of the smaller dealers, will be found a great help in collecting. But, if we wish both preference and the lowest prices, we should always pay cash. The collector who establishes a reputation for invariably paying "on the spot" gets the first look at the choice pieces after the dealer brings them home. An old Spanish proverb aptly covers this whole matter: "Will Pay is a fine bird, but Cash Down sings." Unless a purchase is covered by some special agreement or guarantee it should never be returned. Dealers soon learn to avoid the fickle and changeable collector who buys a piece one day and returns it the next with the excuse that "it didn't look well," or "it was too high," or "its legs were not quite enough cabriole."
I have many friends among the smaller dealers and "scouts," and have often been called by telephone at weird hours of the night to come and inspect some latest find. In city firehouses, the gallant firemen when they retire, place their trousers over a pair of rubber boots so that in the event of an alarm, they may spring from bed, jump into their boots and adjust the rest of their costume as they slide down a perpendicular brass rod running from the second to the first floor. My family has been kind enough to suggest that I should install the same system in my own home so that I may lose no time in answering these midnight antique alarms. But my family, I regret to confess, is, at times, given to gross exaggeration.
the satisfaction of antiques
A home completely furnished with a good collection of American antiques, acquired piece by piece from many sources, and in almost every conceivable way except theft, is, indeed, a delightful environment in which to live. Every piece will seem a friend, bringing to mind some interesting happening connected with its acquisition. In moments of leisure, and alone, the owner will often stroll through the
A LMKrL AND riNC CHAIR OI ABOUT 17*0, "AS FOUND ' Such a piccL ' in ihe rough" can les a com incing jura o< age and aiuhemiuiv entire place again admiring the fine details of his choicest pieces, and, perhaps, reminiscently smiling as he recalls the troubles and difficulties of their capture. As the Captain of a Salvation Army post may honestly glow over the reclamation of some human wreck, so may the collector virtuously congratulate himself over the redemption of a fine old piece from a condition of wreckage and ruin to its present state of beauty, completeness, and utility. The biggame hunter, standing in his trophy-room and recalling each patient stalk and fortunate shot, has no advantage over the collector of American antiques.
To descend to more material considerations. A home completely furnished with good American antiques is no unimportant financial asset. If, for instance, a shrewd collector has, during the past decade, furnished such a house at a cost of, say, ten thousand dollars, using due care as to prices paid, he has a very sound asset, quickly and easily turned into cash. Probably such a collection would sell at auction for more than its original cost. On the other hand, ten thousand dollars invested in modern home furnishings is not a sound asset. If the owner found it necessary to dispose of such belongings, he would be fortunate indeed to realize a fifth of his investment. As an ancient and unique friend of mine in the country once observed: "Yes, sir, when you got a house full of good old stuff, you kin set right down front of the stove at night, light the pipe, and say—Well, I'm sure worth more tonight than I was this mornm'."
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ABOUT fifty years ago, when the subject of English furniture first began to be studied and to be written about, it was divided conveniently into four distinct types. One writer called his books on the subject The Age of Oak, The Age of Walnut, The Age of Mahogany and The Age of Satinwood. It is not really quite as simple as that, for each of the so-called Ages overlaps the others and it is quite impossible to lagt down strict dates as to when any one timber was introduced or when it finally, if ever, went out of favour.