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What Exactly is an Antique?
by Bob Brooke

 

To anyone who browses antique shops these days the question "What is an antique?" seems to have many answers. Side by side with ancient-looking furniture and. old- fashioned china, browsers may find ruffled pink glass and souvenir spoons, no older than themselves. The problem bewilders not only buyers but dealers, too.

In 1930 the U.S. Government ruled that objects had to be at least a 100 old to be classified as antiques, so they could be admitted duty free into the U.S. But that was a legislative tax decision. Since then antiques have often been defined as objects made before 1830.

In Europe, items as recent as that seem quite young. In contrast with a classic Roman head, an 18th-century chair is modern. Antique shops in European cities are often called “antiquities” shops. Except for Indian relics and a few Spanish buildings in the Southwest, the oldest American antiques are but 300 years old.

Yet Americans experience the same contrast in their shops. To a New Englander who knows the pine furniture of Pilgrim days, a Victorian sofa doesn’t seem antique. But in Nebraska or Oregon it does, because it represents the earliest furnishings in the region. The age of antiques seems to vary in relation to their environment. And so the perception of “What is antique?” changes from region to region and one part of the world to another.

Americans often count among their antiques items made by machine as well as those wrought by hand. Most of these are later than 1830. That date does, however, serve as a dividing line between the age of craftsmanship and the machine age.

Legends grow on antiques the way moss grows on trees. As a family heirloom is passed from one generation to the next, its history takes on added flourishes. A spinning wheel made in 1820 becomes the spinning wheel brought over on the Mayflower. A bed of 1840 becomes a bed George Washington slept in.

But while the personal associations of heirlooms add to their interest, they can’t be relied upon to place their date and source. Not every old piece has a pedigree or a maker’s mark or label, but every one has characteristics that identify it which make it valuable to someone else. The secret of where and when and by whom it was made is in its material, its design, and its workmanship. So an antique is what the collector knows or perceives it to be. Nothing more.

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