Objects of Desire
You can judge a book by its cover
By Bruce McKinney
The human mind is a fabulous and sometimes disordered mechanism. It recognizes the red and green of traffic lights, registers differences of temperature sufficiently to keep us from plunging into icy waters unprepared. It recognizes sunlight when it's too intense and we avert our eyes and it recognizes sirens and flashing lights in the rear view mirror, increasing our blood pressure and instantly organizing our pretexts and excuses into a hopefully convincing narrative while averting our eyes in a way that recognizes authority in an accepting way. We do all these things because we are human and human beings are intelligent.
When we apply this intelligence to the buying of antiques, old books, curios and collectibles all bets are off, at least for some of us. The issue is emotion. I was reminded of this when I recently read Objects of Desire, a book recommended to me as an inhale-able non-fiction account of three antiques' migration from obscurity to the top tier. The book, first printed in 1993, is by Thatcher Freund. Copies are available around the net in paper from $1.00, in hard cover from $3.00. Don't let the prices fool you. It's a great telling.
Every collector will recognize the story in a general way and I'll quote the description given on the bookjacket.
"Among the many desirable objects on offer during the 1991 Americana Week in New York - the annual high point of antiques sales - are three prized pieces. One stands in a spotlight at the Winter Antiques Show: a pine blanket chest made for a farmer in the 1750s and still wearing its original coat of robin's egg blue paint. The asking price is $250,000. A few blocks away, on display at Sotheby's, is a rare Chippendale card table, created in Philadelphia in 1759. The auction house is hoping that bidding for the piece will reach one million dollars. Also on display at Sotheby's is an inland sofa table from the Federal period, valued at $100,000, one of the prized possessions of a collector forced by circumstance to sell his cherished objects.
How these three pieces came to be at the apex of the American antiques market is the story of the evolution of the world of antiques: a world of bold enterprise, canny deal making, consuming aesthetic vision, and obsessive pursuit - all fueled by a passionate attraction to objects."
Exactly. "By a passionate attraction to objects." All of these items survived in very original condition into the modern era where "original condition" emerged as the linqua franca of the quality-phobes. It turns out there are lots of antiques around because nobody throws them out. To then differentiate between run-of-the-mill antiques and exceptional examples the standards adjusted, in my opinion, into a self-serving approach of difficult to explain [or duplicate] judgments and feelings dependent on having a professional eye that no amateur can attain. Except...
Objects of Desire
Three objects: a single goal
This leaves the collector in the uncomfortable position of being dependent on others for judgment and in the antiques business that judgment costs money. The fallacy of this approach becomes clear, when you read this book and learn that not only do the eyes not have it, they often do not agree among themselves. I suspect it mostly comes down to ownership. A dealer who owes a piece will naturally prize it and another dealer, who doesn't, despise it. It probably comes down to communication and business skills like just about everything else.
Comparisons to the book business are interesting. It too is awash in collectible material and also faces unique challenges. Invisibility in the pre-internet era was the bookseller's boon companion. Material was generally difficult to find and led, with some dealer encouragement, to casual application of the label "rare" to many things it's now painfully obvious are common. Even today it is possible to see this most over-worked adjective applied on eBay to items plentiful and cheap on the listing sites. What is actually rarer is accuracy. And this makes it difficult for book collectors to get comfortable collecting.
For books, manuscripts and ephemera this is inexorably leading to a confluence of great cataloging and easily accessed research. The facts are increasingly available. What sells a collectible is its story and the buyer's ability to confirm the story before closing the deal.
It turns out, by degrees, easier to be a skilled collector of works on paper than it is to know furniture. But don't take my word for it. Objects of Desire is a very satisfying book, available for less than the price of a Big Mac, not fattening and more satisfying.