If you are a flea market scavenger who would like to learn more about the art of collecting, Antiques Roadshow 20th Century Collectibles helps you distinguish a treasure when you see one.
The book focuses on 12 major areas: furniture, photographs, posters and illustration art, costume jewelry and wristwatches, dolls, toys, advertising memorabilia, sports, glass and pottery.
Here is an excerpt:
Steinbeck was either prescient or had a true collector's soul, for he was absolutely right about that car and that toaster. Today collectors are snapping up Danish modern furniture, Venini glass, Roseville pottery, Norman Norell dresses, Hamilton wristwatches, and toasters from the 1940s. Collectors come in all shapes and sizes, from all socioeconomic brackets, and from all parts of the country. They track down this potpourri of objects at yard sales, on the Internet, at auctions, and in shops.
But how did "they" become "us" — a nation of collectors, in the midst of a collecting epidemic, evidence of which is the devoted weekly following Antique Roadshow has enjoyed since 1997?
The Collecting Bug
If you've got the collecting bug, it's more than likely that you know it. The bug insinuates itself into many aspects of your everyday existence. It makes its home in your heart and feeds on your yearnings, memories, and emotions. Once it has insinuated itself into your life, it seems to be a bug that's virtually unkillable. The usual pesticides — guilt, being the butt of long-running family jokes, insufficient funds — are ineffective. It's impervious to snow, rain, and dark of night (think of those 5 a.m. flea marketers with flashlights). Overflowing shelves and lengthy rationalizations barely slow it down. It has adapted to its difficult environment and is wholly at home in your home. Nobody is immune. Says Peter Cook, the producer of Antique Roadshow, "Every so often somebody walks into a Roadshow event with a collection that's been lovingly pulled together over the years. Baseball cards, vintage eyeglasses, fountain pens, snuff bottles, silver hairbrushes, fire-fighting memorabilia. It's always a great moment for our appraisers. Their excitement reveals that they aren't simply experts, they are collectors, too."
So, if all this seems to tell — more or less — the story of your life, you, too, have been fatally bit. You're a collector. You may even be a "born collector."
The Born Collector
A "born collector" is many things, most of them deeply passionate. He or she is utterly addicted to that heady blend of thrill-of-the-chase and thrill-of-discovery. He or she is someone who generally prefers that the desired object be a trifle difficult to obtain — because (and, surprisingly, studies confirm this), if it's too easy to get, it's a whole lot less interesting. A born collector's usual MO is to collect either in quantity — acquiring, for instance, every single Madame Alexander doll that's ever been manufactured — or to collect for rarity-acquiring just the rarest Madame Alexander dolls in existence. A born collector is knowledgeable about his or her subject, fiercely competitive, and willing to stand for hours in the rain waiting for tag sales to open. For all born collectors, there is never too much. The hunt is all.
The Latent Collector
Luckily, only some of us are born collectors. Otherwise, it would be truly a jungle out there. Compared with such unquenchable thirst, such burning passion to acquire absolutely all the Lalique perfume bottles ever manufactured or the fifteen best and rarest toy robots, the rest of us are furnishers or accumulators at best. Perhaps one of the nicest things about Antique Roadshow is that it introduces us to hundreds of people like ourselves, people who already are — or soon will be — collectors.
Often, latent collectors start out as innocent heirs of their grandfather's toy cars or grandmother's dolls, things that they had loved as children. Maybe they were forbidden to play with these toys — or allowed to touch them only on special occasions. Today, these heirs have become the careful conservators of that inheritance. While many of them are a little reverential about the family "thingamajig," they have rarely been interested in even semischolarly diggings into methods of manufacture, for instance, or in tracking down makers' names. Most of them are simply curious and not too knowledgeable about values other than sentimental.
Until they visit or watch Antique Roadshow, that is. Because any time a latent collector learns a little more about his grandparents' thingamajig, he starts to look around a lot more carefully. Sporting a similar thing in a shop window, he may go in to ask the price. Often, although it's pricier than imagined, he buys it to complement the one he inherited — first, because it's like the one he already owns and second, he now knows a little about it. Then he adds another and another of the same type of item to something that is suddenly on its way to becoming "The Family Collection of Thingamajigs."
From here, it's just a tiny step to purchasing a good magnifying glass; tracking down reliable reference materials; reading every book available on the subject; ransacking the Internet; attending specialty shows, flea markets, tag sales, and auctions; and always upending, touching, pinging, and turning inside out any and all examples of thingamajigs that cross his path. Now, our latent collector begins examining inner workings and condition (that's what the magnifying glass is for), searching for labels and indications of age, analyzing materials, and thereby expanding his knowledge. Excited and in love, our passive caretaker has become a full-blown collector-late blooming, perhaps, but passionate and thrilled, joining thousands of others drawn to his field by accident, or by interest, or by the object's eye appeal, or — like our collector — by nostalgia.
Unlike born collectors, this group isn't usually driven to own the "all" or the "every." The latent collector's fascination with the object of choice is grounded basically in curiosity, accident, and — all right — some smidgen of acquisitiveness. Love of collecting Mickey Mouse memorabilia, Buddy L trucks, or Norman Rockwell posters has less to do with omnium gatherum than it does with the latent collector's interest in this particular thing and its relevance to the social and historical past — most frequently, his own.
What Is a Collectible?
Just because someone collects something — clothes hangers, wedding cake tops, ticket stubs — doesn't make it a "collectible," and coming up with an exact definition for a "collectible" isn't easy. Even the experts disagree (see facing page). A collectible is generally an object that is plentiful, because enough of it has to exist for a market to be made in it. A wide and enthusiastic collector base is also a prerequisite. So it has to be an object that is being purchased by more people than just your Mom and three first cousins, because the more collectors there are who are in pursuit of an item, the more collectible it is.
In addition to that plentitude of objects, and the crowd of people who want them, there needs to be at least one or two collectors who are willing to write down and share what they know about their field, thereby providing the imprimatur of scholarship. (As of this moment, many areas of twentieth-century collecting are so new that they are just being studied and defined. This is why collectors of certain types of fifties glass, for instance, may not yet know just how many pieces of it were actually manufactured. Nor do they begin to know how many are still in existence-hidden on the top shelves of china closets or, terrifying to the collector's soul, stockpiled by the thousands in warehouses.) We are still at the beginnings of scholarship for certain fields of twentieth-century collectibles — and just because something is less than one hundred years old doesn't mean that there is always a lot of information available about it.
What Are Collectibles, Anyway?
When a group of Antique Roadshow collectibles experts shared their opinions of the history and meaning of the word collectible, it soon became clear that it was one of those things that even experts disagree about.
Eric Alberta, who is familiar with the workings of the auction salesroom, says, "My experience has been that 'collectibles' include anything the auction people don't know what to do with. It's a word that has become overused, perhaps because modern manufacturers have appropriated it." Tim Luke, also referring to his auction experiences, says, "At Christie's, where I worked in the 1990s, it was a term that made it easy to lump all the odd things together. Also, the proliferation of licensed products seemed to make it a value-added word: If you collect them, they're 'collectibles.' It's a great, convenient word, but now it probably includes too much. What else could we call it? Popular culture, maybe." Leila Dunbar notes that although her father collected popular-culture items, such as advertising memorabilia and Disney toys, she doesn't remember hearing the word collectibles until the 1980s, when the first price guides using the word began to appear. Gary Sohmers, also remembering his father's collecting habits, says, "In 1960, my Dad, who collected political campaign material — he specialized in Lincoln and Kennedy campaign buttons — explained to me that such things were called collectibles.'"
Chris Kennedy agrees that the term has become a huge catchall but suggests a definition: "I think it should only be applied to objects that are both compelling and affordable." Noting that the word describes a category that needs a word to describe it, David Lackey says, "When I first heard the term, I was happy to know that a word actually existed to describe all those things that it seemed to me people really wanted to collect."
Some of the appraisers don't like to use the term, which they think has been appropriated by manufacturers and merchandisers. "Collectibles is not a term I like especially," says Ken Farmer. "It brings to mind all those modern companies that create and market what they like to call collectibles, and the very idea of a plate-of-the-month club kind of takes all the challenge out of the thing for me."
Noel Barrett points out that, "In the late 1960s, collectibles were things that were mostly new and that were marketed specifically to be collectible-like Christmas plates. Now, the word tends to be used for things that aren't necessarily old-Pez dispensers and McDonald's happy-meal toys, for instance. It's not really a word a serious person wants to be involved with." Rudi Franchi added, "Today, 1970s figurines and items from the Franklin Mint are tastefully and certainly more accurately described as 'cherishables,' but many Americans think of these as collectibles."
Throughout this book, our definition of collectible is based in part on when the object was made. Things that are more than one hundred years old are legally antiques, and the term collectibles has come to be a convenient catchall term for many things — ceramics, furniture, glass — that are not yet old enough to be antiques. (Some collectibles, however, may never be considered antiques — baseball cards, toy robots, or fishing lures, for instance. See page 515 for a roundtable discussion of this issue.) The items featured in this book date-generally speaking-from the period between the end of World War I and about 1975. World War I provides a convenient starting point because of postwar changes in manufacturing techniques, as well as stylistic shifts that occurred in many of the categories covered in this book-furniture, glass, fashion, ceramics, and so forth. Many of these technological advances and new forces in design came about as a result of the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs Industriels et Modernes, which was held in Paris. The Exposition launched the style that was later named for it — Art Deco. The Bauhaus too, a school of art, design, and architecture in Weimar (1919-1925) and Dessau (1925-1933), Germany, gave us such important modern designers as Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Marcel Breuer. You will read more about the Exposition and the Bauhaus in the ensuing chapters.
The year 1975 makes a convenient ending point because it takes about twenty-five years for a collectible to begin to prove itself in the marketplace. Before an object has stood the test of at least a quarter century, the market is still too volatile to know what will be significant and have lasting desirability. Like any good rule, this one has its exceptions, as you will see below.
No one volume, naturally, can cover in detail a subject as diverse and amorphous as this one. We've chosen, therefore, to give you a brief overview of the types of collectibles that are brought most often to Antique Roadshow, believing that these categories best represent the types of things that Americans own, collect, and are most interested in learning more about.
Can a Collectible Also Be an Antique?
As previously noted, legally an antique is at least one hundred years old from the current date, but there are certainly a number of things that are usually considered collectibles but that also qualify as antiques. There are golf clubs, for instance, that are more than one hundred years old, as are Art Nouveau posters. Along with several other types of century-old objects, however, golf clubs and posters are generally placed in the collectibles category rather than in the antiques category, because their collectibility is rather a new idea. The concept of mass-manufactured items like golf clubs or posters or advertising memorabilia being something that people would want to collect in multiples is, in fact, a twentieth-century phenomenon. Posters, after all, were produced by the thousands and left out to disintegrate in the rain. Millions of advertising gizmos — all "throwaways" — were distributed nationwide. And golf clubs, like all sports equipment, are purely utilitarian. Such things, whether they were manufactured in the hundreds or just five at a time, were never intended to be anything other than useful tools of one kind or another. This, too, makes them legitimately collectible, for true collectibility is always inadvertent.
Is it Art?
Some collectibles — including some of the photographs, posters, glass, and furniture discussed in this book — are recognized as being works of art. One definition of art may be its closeness to the cutting edge. Art is always modern in its own time, fresh seeming, probably unfamiliar, and very possibly unloved or misunderstood. In every era, the truly cutting edge design will incorporate a concept without historical precedent. (Folk art, on the other hand, is always sui generis.)
On your way to assembling a great collection, therefore, it might help to keep in mind that some great collectibles (such as Pez dispensers and baseball cards), will never be considered works of art, but furniture, ceramics, glass, vintage clothing, and photographs are all collectibles that have been the subjects of extensive exhibitions by influential and important museums. Once that happens, formerly overlooked objects, even the most utilitarian ones, begin to be seen by others as works of art.
Indeed, if your collection of Eames furniture or Orrefors glass were an exact duplicate of the Eames and Orrefors pieces that comprise museum collections, that museum imprimatur would ultimately make your own collection more admirable and more desirable to other knowledgeable collectors of similar things.
How Is a Collectible Created?
Certainly never by intention. The modern-day manufacturer creating thousands of dolls, ceramics, or bronzes and calling them collectibles does not make them collectibles — not even by advertising such products as "limited editions" or by promising to "destroy the original mold." Such artificially created collectibles are not included in this book, because although someone might some day choose to collect them, there is really nothing to learn in studying them. They are synthetic collectibles, and despite the hype that surrounds them, they will never be as desirable or valuable as the collectible that springs directly from the taste and idiosyncrasies of the individual collector and our culture.
What actually does make an object collectible is a combination of several things, of which the ever-questing eye of the museum curator is perhaps among the most important. When such a scholar takes a fancy to a particular 1930s industrial designer or a 1950s couturier, then works by that person almost immediately become collectibles among the cognoscenti. When newspapers review the ensuing exhibitions, and when magazines publish articles about this next new thing, that heightened visibility serves to reinforce the perception of the thing as a collectible among a wider audience.
Curators aren't alone. Dealers are always looking for the next collectible thing, too. They have a genuine interest in the newly discovered or rediscovered, of course, but they have a commercial agenda as well. So if they have been priced out of Tiffany glass by a lack of supply combined with too much of a market demand, they turn, instead, to Loetz glass. When they're priced out of Loetz, they find carnival glass (also known as "the poor man's Tiffany"). As they buy these things from each other, which they do regularly, dealers spread the word of growing interest in a field or manufacturer. Eventually, specialized dealers appear, and the national community of dealers begins to seek out and stock what is suddenly becoming the latest trend. It wasn't until dealers began to carry fifties furniture, for example, that it became a recognized and highly sought-after collectible. The public can buy only what it is offered, after all.
Sometimes, however, collectibility begins at the other end of the spectrum — in the grass roots, so to speak — as it did with baseball cards and comic books. Kids traded these items among themselves, and even if they packed them away when they got older, that didn't mean they had lost interest. However, their moms, who have been known to toss, give away, or sell stuff at a yard sale, often unintentionally divest their children of treasures. As adults with discretionary income, the former traders went in search of the cards and comics they once owned. Eventually, specialty card and comic booths appeared at small local markets. In due course, an entire show was devoted to baseball cards or comics — or to toy trains, or dolls, or vintage textiles — interest in which sprang, initially, from the private passion of a few devoted enthusiasts.
Each country, of course, has its own homegrown collectibles. Americans are partial to American toys and sports memorabilia — although we do fervently collect Japanese ceramics and robots, English china, and Scandinavian and Italian glass. In Great Britain, the going price for a handkerchief printed with the portrait of a champion cricketer is $400. If such an item were to turn up in the United States, however, no one would be particularly interested in it. So if you owned that handkerchief, and if you were somehow aware of its popularity in Great Britain, you'd have to travel to England, or go on the Internet, to find a fellow enthusiast — or, for that matter, to sell it profitably.
Where Do Collectibles Come From?
While not everyone owns antiques, there's probably not a household in America that doesn't have-somewhere in the cellar, attic, or toy chest — something that someone somewhere considers a collectible. Thus, the collectibles market is fed by deaccessionings from thousands of retirees and simple chucker-outers. And it follows that the more of a thing that has been accumulated, the more things for collectors there will be. Metlox dinnerware, half-dolls, Beacon camp blankets — "If your Mom sold it at a yard sale," says Antique Roadshow pop-culture expert Gary Sohmers, "in twenty years, you'll want it back."
Tips for Collectors
Antique Roadshow appraiser Eric Alberta offers a few words of advice regarding collecting and investing:
Collectible is perhaps the most misunderstood and overused word in the English language. Two of its definitions are frequently used interchangeably. Collectible, "such as may be gathered," is an accurate definition of practically any object new or old. People often confuse this with another definition, "exchangeable for cash or value." Just because an item is described as "collectible" doesn't mean that you can exchange it for more than, or even as much as, you paid for it.
Dedicated collectors usually say that they collect for fun, and if the prices of their items increase, it's a bonus. If the value of their collecting area goes down, they can then afford to add more items to their collection.
In reality, however, most collectors rationalize and justify their passion with the thought that their collection is a good investment. As we all know, collecting is not necessarily rational. People who invest in memorabilia run the risks of fluctuating markets. What goes up can come down. A savvy collector recognizes rationalizations and assesses his tolerance for risk. The up side of collecting is that-monetary value be hanged!-whether your collection increases in value or not, you'll always have the pleasure of the objects themselves.
How Do You Decide What to Collect?
Actually, collectibles probably choose you. If you are thinking about starting a collection, however, and the choices seem almost limitless, the criteria you apply should be yours and yours alone. Whether you concentrate on excellence of manufacture or cuteness, your choice and collectible yardstick should reflect only your own preferences. Don't be influenced by what others collect or by what they have told you is a good thing to collect. And never, never — say Antique Roadshow appraisers in unison — collect purely as an investment. If the objects you can't help but love turn out to be unexpectedly valuable, that's a plus. Even if at first you're the only one around who is interested in Corgi toy garages, it's not altogether impossible that in years to come many people will want Corgi toy garages, a development that, naturally, will make you look smart while it makes your own collection that much more valuable. But if no one else ever shares your passion, it will still offer you the enormous satisfaction of both discovery and ownership. The real joy of collecting is a lifetime of pleasure and becoming more knowledgeable-not richer.
You may, nevertheless, be happy to have some help making your initial choice. So be aware, first, that there are different collecting styles. Some people like to collect items that are inherently useful, like eggcups or handbags. Others collect for shape or color or beauty, although none of these attributes is mutually exclusive. It will help to begin by noticing if the same sorts of things seem always to attract you. Maybe you're drawn to little round vases or certain shades of blue or electric trains? When you're wondering what to collect, keep notes of what attracts you, and look for patterns.
Once you've settled on a type of object, however, you should also realize that a collectible as simple as the eggcup, for example, is divisible into numerous collecting categories. There are silver-plate eggcups, treen (turned wood) eggcups, and ceramic eggcups; if you prefer one type of material to the others, then that's one possible way to collect them. There are also chicken-shape eggcups, and those painted with human faces, both of which allow the eggcup collector (or pocillovist) to generalize or specialize within the field. There are also, to further tempt collectors, souvenir eggcups, cups made in Art Deco styles, cups that are "Made in Japan," cups that are all yellow and white, and those that have one large end and one small-that is, doubles. Such a wealth of choice is hardly restricted to this one field. Twentieth-century glass or advertising memorabilia or toys can-happily-be broken down into the same sorts of specialties.
Don't forget the display element, either, when choosing what you want to collect. Functional or not, many collectibles are suited to being "cabinet pieces"-in other words, to being amassed solely for display rather than use. Wristwatches and vintage evening gowns may present a challenge, but shoes, toy soldiers, and Barbie dolls all lend themselves well to display. (Eggcups do, too.) So despite the fact that the item you've chosen to collect actually has a function, it can still be enjoyed as pure display. Catcher's mitts look super on a wall; and Andy Warhol, you can bet, never used those cookie jars.
What Makes a Good Collection?
A good collection, first and foremost, is composed of things you truly love. If it pleases you, if it reflects your own taste and individuality, it will be a satisfying and wonderful collection, whatever it is.
There is, nevertheless, a formal definition of a good collection, one established by the taste and preferences of the general community of your fellow collectors. When a category of object is of national or international interest, enthusiasts frequently set standards to help them evaluate their subject.
Consequently, when you decide to collect something really popular, like Fiesta ware or dolls, you should make yourself aware of how these things are classified by your fellow enthusiasts — of what makes one piece of Fiesta more desirable than another piece, for instance, or which are the really rare Shirley Temple dolls.
As your collection grows and you seek out and read specialty publications to learn more about your favorites, you may find that like all of us, you've made a few-well-mistakes or that you need to narrow or expand your focus. You may choose to weed out your duplicates or to give away or sell at auction, on eBay, or at a local show those pieces that no longer appeal to you or that no longer fit in with the focus of your collection. Eventually, if you work at it (for the dedicated collector, however, this really isn't work), your collection will someday be refined to the point that it contains only the things you really care about and really want to own. When it reaches this stage, it will probably have become a collection that other collectors admire, not just because it conforms with accepted standards, but because it also contains rarities, pristine examples, or early examples. You should be gratified, then, to know that you've assembled a good-maybe even a great-collection.
From a practical point of view, a good and satisfying collection is usually made up of collectibles that can be easily displayed and enjoyed. You want to be able to touch and handle your favorites, to show them to other collectors, or, at least, to be able to see them easily. It's not a satisfying collection if it has to be packed up and put away in boxes or a vault for safety's sake. What is more, a good collection is never so large that it makes your living room — or any other room — un-navigable.
Consequently, if you're new to collecting, try to pick some specialty that you can live with comfortably, not one that will make you feel anxious. Are you simply all thumbs? Don't decide to collect Italian glass. Do you have seven cats? Textiles may not be for you. Always be guided in your choice by a combination of aesthetics and practicality. It never hurts to check out a mate's preferences, either, before putting heart and soul into a collection of breweriana. It's not everyone, after all, who wants to entertain guests in a room full of Budweiser ads. One way to avoid making embarrassing or costly mistakes is to choose a collectible that hasn't been or isn't currently being reproduced. It's not too hard to determine if this has happened. Visit a reputable dealer or collector in your field (there are reference books at libraries that list clubs and dealers) and mention the word reproduction. Because specialists usually get pretty hot about reproductions (once an item is being copied, it clouds the whole field), they will often be happy to tell you how to recognize impostors. In fact, even the best can be taken in. Antique Roadshow appraiser David Rago comments, "This is an inexact science at best. Part of what makes experts experts is their willingness to learn from new experiences." Reproductions are particularly painful in the area of twentieth-century collectibles because scholarship is often so sparse that frequently collectors feel safer avoiding areas in which there are reproductions.
Antiques, which have been around for a longer period of time, tend to have lengthier histories of reliable scholarship than collectibles, and — theoretically anyhow — it's easier to distinguish the genuine from the reproduction. Once the expert collectors, curators, and dealers sort out all the recognition factors for twentieth-century objects, however, there's no reason that the existence of reproductions should continue to affect collector interest in the genuine article.
Incidentally, don't confuse legitimate reproductions with fakes. Fakes intend to deceive; they won't be addressed here because they require books of their own. You should begin to collect by learning, first, to recognize the genuine. Reproductions, thankfully, are often clearly marked with the name of the reproducer. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art's reproductions of Eva Zeisel's Town and Country dinnerware, for example, are clearly marked as such, as are most museum reproductions-which, by the way, are generally of excellent quality.) These reproductions should be considered (as the Chinese think of all those copies of Ming ceramics) as significant tributes to design and the continuing popularity of a classic original.
Become a Successful Collector
How? First of all, learn to focus. Decide once and for all whether you want to own examples of all the Bakelite bracelets in existence, or only the Bakelite bangle bracelets. Decide if you love the color green well enough to restrict yourself to collecting the hundreds of examples of Jade-ite kitchenware that would constitute a complete collection or if you really need a touch of red among the plates and bowls. Decide if you want to own only vases by Weller or if you'll allow yourself that great piece by Hull that's a virtual steal.
Before you go out hunting, get yourself a notebook so you can jot down information on the pieces you discover. Include where you found the piece, price, condition, portability (size and weight), and manufacturer. Also keep track of your plans for your growing collection. Are you willing to have it include some examples that are in mediocre condition? Do you prefer exciting design to excellence of manufacture? Is it important to you to know that you own things that are rarities or unique in the field? The more you know about your own likes and dislikes as they apply to collecting, the better satisfied you will be with your collection.
Work on self-discipline. Try not to purchase a piece that doesn't fit within the parameters of your collection just because it has an attractive price tag. And always be prepared to spend more on occasion than is entirely wise. If you're pricked by guilt as you cart home find after find; if you fret about spending far too much on your "frivolous" passion, try to remember that compared to numerous other compulsions (some of them carved in stone), collecting is a harmless vice. Keep in mind, too, that the pain of paying more than you intended will eventually ease and pass into forgetfulness, but the pain of letting some irreplaceable treasure go will return to haunt you for decades to come-usually at 3 a.m.
Finally, keep in mind that melding rarity, fine condition, great design, and high quality in a single assemblage of objects is possible to achieve, but unbelievably difficult. So, be prepared to give it half a lifetime, for starters.
It is helpful that, almost across the board, collectors use the same criteria to judge the objects they love. From dolls to furniture to fishing rods, there are standards for valuing collectibles and the same vocabulary can be used almost interchangeably. Whether you're examining a find in your great-aunt's attic or a potential purchase, whatever it is, you can ask yourself the same questions.
As a preliminary to handling the item, stand back and look at it. Is the object pleasing to look at? If it exhibits a distinctive style (Art Deco or retro, for instance), does it look its age? Is it a good example of its kind?
Style is, essentially, a distinctive and characteristic manner of expression, and there is a style, fortunately, to appeal to every taste. Most collectors begin with, or develop, a preference for a particular style. One person likes Art Deco design while another prefers the biomorphism of the 1950s. If you've familiarized yourself with the design characteristics of the style you've chosen for yourself, you will seldom develop eye fatigue at a collectibles show because your selective eye will automatically rule out everything that doesn't conform. Developing an eye for a style will also help you recognize the great mirror in the junk shop that everyone else has ignored or the one Balenciaga gown in a thrift shop otherwise full of secondhand clothes.
Form refers to the shape of an object as separate from its materials, and is an important component of its style. The ability to discern form is important. If you're starting to collect dinnerware, for example, you'll get to know that frequently the same decorative patterns were applied to different shapes of plates, cups, and bowls. You'll learn to "see through" the decoration to the form of the underlying ceramic. As you become increasingly familiar with your field, you will increasingly be able to recognize the unusual form and to ask yourself if the toy or vase you're considering is a rare form of that particular collectible or simply run-of-the-mill.
Materials can give you an immediate sense of an object's age. Plastics are postwar. Chrome finishes tend to be from the twenties and thirties. Satin evening gowns are often from the 1930s. Aluminum kitchenware is from the very late 1940s. The materials of any collectible should be consistent throughout. If four buttons on a Chanel suit are labeled with Chanel's double C's and one is unlabeled, then the unmarked button is likely to be a replacement. That makes a difference to Chanel collectors.
The buttons on a dress, the handles on a desk, the engraving on a piece of glass-all are categories of ornament. Ornament is often an indication of the quality of a collectible, so study it carefully. Is the decoration made of exotic materials (ivory, jade, or lacquer, for instance)? Is it painstakingly rendered or incongruously crude? Does it seem to be stamped out by machine, or is it cast? Does it appear to be handmade? Is there a great deal of ornament, and if so, does it suit the style of the piece? Since certain types of ornament-such as inlay, figures, animal forms-are typical of certain designers, they can aid in attribution. The study of ornament brings out the latent Sherlock Holmes in many collectors.
As location is to real estate agents, condition is to every Antique Roadshow appraiser. Indeed, for twentieth-century collectibles, condition is absolutely paramount, because when nearly everything has been mass-produced, the piece that survives in the best condition will necessarily be the most desirable. And when there are some two million of a thing out there, the one that you choose for your collection can even be one of the perfect ones.
In fact, it can be almost more than perfect when it's unused and still in its original, unopened box. "Mint" collectibles like these are infrequently available, and in some categories, they may be extremely rare, so your fellow enthusiasts have agreed to allow certain deviations from perfection-dirt, dings, and slight discolorations, for example. If a thing is suitably rare, however, even scratches, dents, and chips may be acceptable if you keep in mind, always, that somewhere, perhaps, an unopened box awaits.
Anyone who watches Antique Roadshow knows that original finish is the absolute bottom line-on toys, on tables, on paintings or dolls. If someone in your family, with the best of intentions, repainted an otherwise rare clockwork toy ship, your ship may still float, but its market value has sunk. Original finish-whether paint, varnish, the set of a doll's hair, an unaltered hemline on a dress, or an unshellacked baseball-is always preferable to any type of prettying up.
This hasn't always been the case (which explains all those well-meant repairs), and the experts may change their minds again. Until they do, however, don't touch a thing. Patina — otherwise known as dirt — is always a personal preference. Some collectors like it, others don't. Patina, however, is most acceptable on furniture and metal wares. You can't call perspiration stains on a dress patina. Nor can you dignify the brown spots on posters with that name. Note and be wary of creases, tears, trimmed edges (on paper memorabilia), old repairs, replaced parts, missing veneers, rust, cracks, and splits in whatever category of collectible attracts your interest. To be safe, and to determine what is dirt for yourself, when you're out hunting, keep a flashlight and a magnifying glass handy at all times.
On posters, in tablecloths, on Nancy Ann Storybook dolls, on vintage peanut-butter tins, on every sort of collectible, color is at its most desirable when it is as strong and fresh as the day it was printed, woven, painted, or dyed. Any sort of fading, staining, or discoloration is detrimental to collectibility. One exception to this rule is Bakelite. Clear Bakelite, over the years, has turned the color of apple juice, and collectors have come to love it.
Color can also be a useful gauge of the approximate age of a collectible, because certain color combinations typify their eras. Art deco ceramics, for example, are often boldly colored in primary hues, while Italian glass of the fifties is particularly noted for its vivid-some say too vivid-color combinations. (Vaseline yellow and tomato red are typical.) When you recognize that the colors on a piece you're examining are appropriately combined with a characteristic shape of the era, you'll go a long way toward satisfying yourself that it's legitimate.
Functional items are neither more nor less desirable than nonfunctional items in themselves. Among glass and ceramics collectibles, in fact, it is often the decorative wares (vases, cachepots, figures) rather than the functional tablewares (plates and cups and saucers) that are most highly sought after. Collectors generally prefer their furniture to be functional, however. There's not an active market in unsittable chairs.
If the object does have a function, it should be in working order and retain all its parts. While it may not be working at the time you're thinking about buying it (many old watches, for example, are not), if all the parts are there, it may still be repairable.
The wonderful thing about twentieth-century collectibles is their frequent and reassuring labeling. Yet labels and makers' marks don't necessarily guarantee quality, and they can also be faked, so look at the entire piece carefully. Attribution to a particular maker is most convincingly made on the basis of a label, but the piece itself should support the attribution. Some experts, in fact, think that the label is the last thing you should look at. When there is no label, scholars and collectors can often make an attribution based on the object's stylistic and material resemblance to known, labeled pieces. Despite the possibility of eventually making an accurate attribution, however, almost every collector prefers to own an item that retains its original label to owning the identical item, unlabeled.
History of Ownership
History of ownership is among the least reliable methods of evaluation for twentieth-century objects, but luckily, it is usually one of the least important ones, as well. Consequently, it appears fairly low on this list. Twentieth-century objects haven't had time to accumulate much of a history. Despite the wonderful things that have been saved and brought into the Antique Roadshow, a great deal of the past century was more about disposability than about preservation. Many Americans no longer saved their material culture to the extent that their ancestors did. Thus, the history of ownership of many objects is often no more than anecdote, and anecdote is almost always dubious. It is altogether a different horse from the far more rigorous history of ownership known as provenance, which is a very important part of evaluating antiques and works of art. A painting by Monet with a complete, documented history of ownership from the time it left the artist's studio is much less likely to be a fake than one that has mysteriously appeared on the market for the first time. An eighteenth-century desk from Newport is more likely to be authentic if it has been passed down in one Rhode Island family for the last two hundred years.
For most collectibles, on the other hand, unless a piece is known to have belonged to illustrious owners (in which case, most if not all of its value is "celebrity" value-see previous page), provenance is not of much importance. A well-marked Weller vase in excellent condition is unmistakably that, and knowing who all its owners have been since it came out of the factory won't really add much to how the market values it. But history of ownership is an important aspect of evaluating some collectibles. Certainly, in entertainment memorabilia as well as in sports, there are endless questionable claims. This is why it is particularly important to keep that photograph of the celebrity or sports figure wearing or playing with that item in your collection. If you've ever owned a signed game ball or photograph, for example, you know that it's hard to verify that the star actually signed it himself. He may have had a representative do it for him.
Different Kinds of Value
As Antique Roadshow appraisers demonstrate on every show, there are many kinds of value, a number of which can operate simultaneously.
Sentimental value: Anyone who has watched Antique Roadshow guests carefully unwrap and show their preserved and cherished family artifacts is familiar with sentimental value. Indeed, sometimes sentimental value is the only value an object has.
Historical value: Many of the objects brought to Antique Roadshow are significant (sometimes even important) documents of their own time: they're our national heritage. Photographs taken by your GI grandfathers, for instance, of subjects as dissimilar as Polish prison camps or celebrities at USO shows, have real historical value.
Aesthetic value: Photographs of GI's in Europe taken by important photographers like Margaret Bourke White, however, have more than simple historical value. They have aesthetic value, that element of artistry, indefinable and indelible beauty that appeals to audiences other than just war historians. The plywood splints once designed by Ray Eames for wounded soldiers are beautiful and rare, and because they are as much biomorphic sculpture as they are splints, they, too, have acquired aesthetic value. Intrinsic value: Items made from costly materials, such as silver, diamonds, and gold, have intrinsic value. A silver wristwatch has some intrinsic value, but a platinum wristwatch is considerably more valuable, because in the precious-metals market, platinum is more expensive than silver.
Not surprisingly, collectors love those artifacts that once belonged to the famous. There is magic in acquiring John Lennon's piano or a set of presidential golf clubs. It's almost as if the original owner's spirit has somehow infused the object he or she once used.
Market value: The legal definition of market value is the price agreed upon by a willing buyer and a willing seller. It can be stimulated by design trends or diminished as time passes and interest fades. Witness the late twentieth-century fashion for midcentury furnishings, sparked initially by interior designers and vintage dealers simultaneously discovering a neglected, but aesthetically worthy field. As the design world moves on to the next discovery, however, second-tier midcentury furniture (not the top-of-the-line things) becomes correspondingly less desirable. And while badly designed or manufactured objects may be collectible for a moment, in the long run they don't hold up in a volatile marketplace.
An example of a collectible that might have all the bells and whistles, so to speak, would be a platinum Patek Philippe wristwatch worn by your uncle John Fitzgerald Kennedy during his presidential debate with Richard Nixon. Here you have not only sentimental, historical, aesthetic, intrinsic, and market value, but you have celebrity value, too. Because the same market may have differing values worldwide, our hypothetical wristwatch may not be as desirable in Brazil, for example (because JFK is not as much of an icon there) as it is in the United States. Other collectibles, however, such as certain types of entertainment memorabilia — say, Beatles collectibles — do enjoy worldwide currency, and for these, international interest magnifies market value. (An aging collector base, however, weakens a market, and the Beatles, and their fans, are aging. Imagine.)
A Final Word
Have faith in yourself and your love of dolls, toys, furniture, glass, ceramics, vintage clothing, textiles, posters, photographs, fishing tackle, entertainment memorabilia, baseball bats, costume jewelry, and watches, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. If you're not an expert now, you will be.
Excerpted from Antiques Roadshow 20th Century Collectibles, by Carol Prisant, copyright 2003, courtesy of Workman Publishing.
Antiques Roadshow is a trademark of the BBC. Produced under license from BBC Worldwide. Antiques Roadshow is produced for PBS by WGBH/Boston.