6/13/2013 - An antique has a soul.
That, according to Tom Longacre, is the biggest difference between your now-wobbly table trying and failing to stand straight in your kitchen — hey, it was nice when you bought it — and the 19th-century toffee-brown English mahogany tray table on display at the New Hampshire Antique Co-op in Milford.
The same difference exists between your perfectly fine and functional bird clock (that chirps, tweets and squawks every hour on the hour) and the grandeur clock created by John Clifton in Liverpool, 1794, made from rich, brown wood with knotted crown molding, gold leaf trim and delicate, pointed hands. Each hour, this clock presents a commanding dong, which sounds nothing like a large-lunged animal that gets up too early in the morning.
To outsiders, proclaiming that a table has a soul probably sounds a bit dramatic.
But even people outside the antique business, people who opt for yard sales and outlets over century-old treasures, can see that this clock is not just a clock when they move close to examine it. Heck, this centuries-old clock has likely seen more places and met more people than you ever will.
“The fact that it’s still here today tells you a lot about it,” Longacre said.
For many of us, this soulful clock will be out of our price range, particularly those younger collectors whom dealers are most eager to draw in.
But you don’t always have to take out thousands of dollars for these old, valuable items. The antiques market today is much more accessible for the buyer on a budget than one may think. You’re just as likely to find something cool for $20 as you are for $2,000.
But of course, the real fun is in the hunt, anyway.
What’s an antique? And where do you find them?
Traditionally, antiques are, by definition, handcrafted and 100 years old. Usually they’re items like tables, chairs, benches, or chests that were made by craftsmen and textile artists. They were meant to be passed down from generation to generation, and meant to last, which they have.
“When you speak of an antique, you think of something from our history made for a specific use,” said Tom Longacre, a dealer who sells in Marlborough. He is quick to differentiate antiques from the exploding collectibles market, which consists of mass-produced items like baseball cards, sporting memorabilia, cars, etc.
Many of the dealers interviewed are sticklers to this definition; if it’s not 100 years old, they won’t sell it. But some, like Jason Hackler, owner of the New Hampshire Antique Co-op, say the definition has blurred a bit since the “antiques heyday” in the 1980s and 1990s.
“The word antique, I think, we look at almost generally,” Hackler said.
Today, he said, it’s almost an umbrella term that incorporates a number of different kinds of antiques, like collectibles, repurposed antiques, refinished and “upcycled” antiques.
People collect antiques for a variety of reasons. Some antique because of a particular interest — sailors, for instance, might collect New England nautical antiques. Some take to collecting because their Native American-made artifacts or Victorian furniture remind them of their heritage.
But often, when you’ve got student loans creeping up on you, a mortgage to think of a car payments to make, it’s hard to justify spending a good chunk of cash on old furniture to decorate your house. However, as many dealers have argued, there are many good reasons to start today. To name a few:
1. Antiques don’t lose their value. If you play your cards right, you might even profit.
“If you do decide to get rid of them, you might even get more back. … For the most part, the older they get, the rarer they get, the more valuable they get,” said Tom Thompson, president of the New Hampshire Antique Dealer’s Association. (Of course, you may lose money too, depending on where the trends are, but it’s an arguably worthy risk, since you’re likely to get very little back at all for something mass-produced.)
In that case, it’s sort of like investing in a house.
“I think there’s a myth that antiques are all really expensive. Some of them are. But there can also be financial rewards,” Hackler said. “You might be able to sell an item you bought for $3,000 for $6,500 later.”
2. They’re extremely well-made. After all, they’ve lasted this long. “Your typical piece of furniture from the 19th century has already lasted more than 100 years, and chances are, it will last another 100 or 200 years, as opposed to something made from particle board or staple construction,” Hackler said.
3. It’s green. “To me, antiquing is the biggest recycling business there is,” said Colleen Pingree of R.S. Butler’s Trading Company.
Michelle Generaux, a dealer who shows in a number of shops and shows across the state, agrees. “They’re not disposable. That’s the whole point. Once you’re done with it, you can always give it away,” she said.
4. It holds history. Because how cool is it to wear a ring that someone else wore in medieval times?
Also, for older generations, it offers a sense of nostalgia. Fern Eldridge, owner of Fern Eldridge and Friends in Northwood, says that many of her customers love seeing the things their parents or grandparents used to have in their home. Or, in some cases, the items they used to have. Old fashioned toys, she explained, are extremely nostalgic.
5. Antiques can be … less expensive? Often, you can find antique items for less money than your newer items, particularly those lower-to-middle-end antiques, and particularly today. Many department and furniture stores are creating furniture with an “aged” look, and in some cases, they’re selling these pieces for more than its antique counterpart.
“You can buy a beautiful dining room table for $300 to $400 bucks that’s hard as a rock, looks great and will last forever, as opposed to spending $800, $1200 somewhere else,” Genereaux said. Why pay more for the mimic when you can have the real thing for less?
The hunt: find and assess
Though at one point, perhaps in its “heyday,” geography was an indicator to what you’d find in antique shows and sales, antiques today are kind of all over the place, said Michelle Genereaux. Dealers travel far and wide to sell and buy, and as a result, you’re likely to find an assortment of antiques when you attend a show or enter a shop.
That’s a plus for us — we don’t have to travel as far to snag a Roman medieval Bronze ring, such as one featured at the Antique Co-op. “For our customers, it gives a chance for them to see what they wouldn’t be able to see otherwise,” Hackler said.
The important thing is to go into each shop with an open mind (even if it doesn’t look promising), and to buy what you like.
There’s no getting around the fact newbies will benefit from advice from a seasoned antique dealer — especially if they’re looking to purchase high-end items. A hefty number of dealers attested in phone and in-person interviews that there are far too many reproductions and newer items disguised as antiques today, many of which are sold in shops that throw the “antiques” name on their sign. As such, it’s a good idea to do your research beforehand.
A few things to look at while you’re shopping: first, rarity. Mass-produced items are not valuable antiques. As such, don’t pay for them as they are. Donna Welch, owner of Out of the Woods Antiques, says the next things to look at are condition, quality and design.
“The more craftsmanship in the piece, the higher the value,” she said.
A dresser with five slats will have required more work and is of more value than a dresser with one. Similarly, a figurine standing straight, arms to her side, won’t be worth as much as the one with her arms free flowing, whose hands have fingernails and eyes eyelashes.
How the internet affected antiquing … sort of
There’s no question that people still enjoy antiquing in person, but, as true with many hobbies, the internet has caused it to evolve — and, in some cases, decay.
“Standalone shops and group shops have taken a big hit from internet buying,” said Michelle Genereaux, a dealer who shows around New England. Ebay, etsy and craigslist became hubs for antique dealers and shoppers, and many upper-end dealers have created websites for online shoppers, as well. (Though, Genereaux said, this was also a bit unfortunate for some dealers — these websites expanded antique availability, for sure, but it also unveiled that certain antiques and collectibles, once seen as very rare, were, in fact, not that rare at all.)
Shopping online is easier, for sure, but if you’re buying something that’s high-end and expensive, many dealers will argue that it’s not such a great idea, anyway.
“If you want to buy a piece of furniture for your house, it’s hard to do it online. It’s not like buying from Pottery Barn, where everything will look like what you saw in the catalogue,” Generaux said.
The internet’s dispelling of not-so-rare items has an upside, perhaps not for dealers, but certainly for buyers: they’re no longer as expensive.
“There’s a lot of middle market stuff. Not all antiques are precious. People who don’t know antiques think everything is precious and rare, but there’s a lot of cool stuff that’s not rare or really valuable. It’s just usable,” Genereaux said. “That’s the angle we’re hoping younger people can find out about … This stuff is better-looking, better-made and less expensive.”
Drawing younger crowds
Genereaux says there’s a big push to try to get younger dealers interested in antiquing. Traditionally, it’s been something that older generations have honed. After all, she said, most people in their mid-20’s won’t have disposable money to buy and sell high-end stuff.
“And yet, many people who buy from me are not elderly in the least. They just tend to go to different venues. They [younger antiquers] don’t go high-end. They might instead go to flea markets and local shows. There are plenty of young people out there who understand it,” Genereaux said.
She feels that there’s a slow appreciation that comes with antiquing, anyway.
“I don’t know if there were ever a slew of young buyers. I think it’s something you grow into … I have confidence that it’s going to be okay,” she said.
Genereaux also thinks the housing market is an indication of antique consumer growth. After all, she said, “If people are buying houses, they’re furnishing houses, too.”
Another way to draw in younger crowds: show them that antiques can work with a modern decor.
“I think the key is to show them that it can work in a modern decor. To lure them [younger collectors] in, you have to show them that they can fit into simplisticity,” Welch said.
Nonetheless, show attendance is up a bit, Genereaux said, and she hopes that it will translate to shops down the road because antiquing, she said, is a fun experience.
“You’re going somewhere new, traveling somewhere you’ve never been,” she said.
Many people antique down Route 4 or in the co-op as part of a day trip, stopping along for food, ice cream or coffee along the way.
Repurposing vs. upcycling
Welch knows a thing about repurposing old furniture. Most recently, she turned a 1930s boat into a functional couch. She opts strictly to use antiques and old things in her repurposing, usually items that have been damaged or no longer have a use in this generation anymore.
“Nobody wants an old grain bin from a Pennsylvania boat. It’s big and clunky, and nobody is going to buy that. So we take it, cut it down, threw butcher blocks under it and made an island for our kitchen,” Welch said. Of course, she’s been repurposing before it was “cool.”
And it is cool — while the internet and shady economy has affected how we buy antiques, they, along with a greener movement, have also affected how we use antiques. Shows like American Pickers, Flea Market Flip and Pawn Shop haven’t hurt either, said Hackler.
Young collectors Hollie Davis and Andrew Richmond described this phenomenon in a recent article in the Maine Antique Digest.
Repurposing, they explained in the article, is using something as it is but for a purpose for other than what it was intended. These are the coffee tables made from broken-down chests, the old drawers that are hung as shelves, the old mason jar that’s now used as a lamp, and, as Welch demonstrated, an old boat that becomes a couch.
Now, it’s important to note that it’s extremely inadvisable to do any sort of work on an antique unless you know its value and you know how your work will affect its value. Jason Hackler’s wife, Rebecca Connolly Hackler, for instance, used to own a shop in Charlestown, Boston, and would take mid-century pieces, sand them down and paint them. Most of these pieces were “younger” than your traditional antique, by definition — Hackler said that they were typically pieces from the 1930s, 1940s — and her “lift” made them more attractive.
“She wouldn’t do something that would take away from its value. She’d be making it ‘sale-able.” There are some things you can do that would add to an antique’s value,” he said.
Stripping the paint from a chest from the 1700s, though, might not be such a good idea.
Davis and Richmond would describe Rebecca’s work as upcycling, taking something intact and transforming it into something of higher quality. (Think Flea Market Flip.)
This, they argue, may be where antiquing is heading. Need proof? Google upcycle and you’ll find about 2.5 million results. Repurpose gets nearly 3 million.
The future of antiquing
The status of the antique business seems to be varied among the opinions of New Hampshire antique dealers. Many say it’s going downhill, particularly those who work in old-fashioned antique shops. It’s hard to ignore the fact that many shops in New Hampshire, particularly those along Antique Alley, have closed. People just don’t have the extra money to spend on these old items today, they say.
But others are more hopeful. Colleen Pingree, owner of R.S. Butler’s Trading Company in Northwood, is one of them.
The shop she and family owns, “Butlers,” as many people call it, has anything and everything you could want to decorate your space, from inexpensive wooden trunks to blue and white china cups and saucers. Gold-colored bedposts, fringe-trimmed lamps and a collection of miniature rocking chairs are clustered among the old-fashioned baby strollers. Along one wall sits a basket collection that nearly reaches the ceiling.
Butler’s, she said, has seen more foot traffic this year than last, which faced a particularly steep drop after Sept. 11.
“We have a wide customer base. Younger people like buying records like crazy here,” Pingree said. “I think there’s this generalization that many people have, that antiquing is expensive, but I think there will always be people who enjoy interesting pieces with character.”
Hackler, too, has begun to see younger people in the NH Antique Co-op on a regular basis.
“There are so many shops off the beaten path that are fun to come across. I find stuff at new places all of the time. It could be a mom and pop shop on the side of the road that’s not advertising,” Welch said.
But the effort, she says, is worth it. “Everything you do in the antiques and collectibles industry has a history.”