In Defence of Aesthetics over Practicality

Even though I have some really nice pieces in my collection, I wouldn’t necessarily call myself an antique collector in the traditional sense of the word. That somehow always makes me think of very conservative people who won’t let you near their collectibles, and I don’t think that having that attitude allows them to enjoy owning their antiques, because they’re constantly worried that somehow they’ll be damaged if anyone touches them. I like to think of myself as a free-spirit collector. I value my antiques, of course, but I don’t want to feel like they possess me, instead of the other way around.

I’ve had many debates over why impractical antiques are just as valuable as those that are still usable, like a chair, or a vase, or even a brooch. I actually own an antique pocket watch that cannot be repaired, but it’s gorgeous, and I’ve repurposed it as a medallion. There are many antique-looking pocket watches nowadays that are much more practical, ta to Patrick at Timepiece Quarterly, but if you’re like me and get giddy about antiques regardless of their useability, then you’ll understand what I’m trying to say.

Aesthetics is very important to me. It’s not just about practicality with antiques. These are objects that carry a unique story from centuries ago. It doesn’t matter if you find the most expensive, well-preserved antique Turkish Oushak carpet – which is totally usable, it’s a rug! – but if you don’t think it’s that pretty, or don’t like the design, or it just doesn’t match your space, you won’t get any joy from it.

Similarly, you can buy the most impractical Edwardian teacup set, or a pair of French Art Nouveau wall sconces which can never be restored to proper lights, and if you love it, or can find a different way to use it, you’ll be happy, and that’s the most important thing. What I’m saying is – only buy things that make you feel good. That’s how you’ll get your money’s worth.

There’s nothing wrong with aesthetics if it makes you happy. Antiquing is definitely not for everyone, especially not for those whose attitude is ‘practicality first!’. Sure, you can get some use out of some antiques, but even if they’re there in your space just for the purpose of decoration, it’s not wrong and it’s definitely not a big deal!

You do you, and enjoy it! Byeee.

Helping an Old Friend

Let me tell you right out of the box that my friends and family all know about my “hobby” and take advantage of my skills. If I accepted every offer to find unusual things that I was asked on Facebook and decorate someone’s home, I would never have time for myself. Not that I mind helping. It’s just time…time…time. I am very flattered that people are paying attention to my interests. Not everyone is that lucky. We all wander through life focusing on ourselves. But recently I gave in because a friend seemed to be in desperate need of my services, such as they are.

Here’s the job: redo an antiquated bathroom with updated plumbing and accessories. No, I do not fix pipes, but I know how to find an expert.  I decided that new tile was required and an interesting vanity. Of course, I repurposed an old night stand with drawers that could do double duty. I love juxtaposing the old and the new to create a modern context with flair. Antiques are not just for old ladies. They can be accent pieces to liven an existing dull décor. You can paint or whitewash wood to suit the bathroom’s palette.

My help even extended to choosing a new gas water heater from here. I don’t know any more than the average person but I can read descriptions and reviews. My friend delegated every detail to me in this reno so I obliged her. I picked out a good mid-priced unit for her size of home that would be reliable in producing the quantity of hot water she needed on a regular basis. It wasn’t an issue of appearance although the new models, tankless or not, are smaller and take up less space. The new materials last longer and need fewer repairs. Wow, listen to me, the new expert.

Secondhand Shop or Antique Store?

If you look at things objectively, buying an antique means you’re buying used furniture. Sometimes the antique is so old or valuable that you cannot actually use it for its intended purpose, or its intended purpose is obsolete. They can also be more expensive and hard to take care of. Having said all that, antiques are often prized because of their high quality: durable materials and quality assembly help them stand the test of time; they are also more valuable than ordinary secondhand furniture.

Taking all of this into consideration, could you not go to a secondhand store or a flea market and see what you can find? Antique stores sound dusty and expensive, don’t they? The term secondhand shop, on the other hand, makes you think of discount prices, with aisles packed with merchandise and people. I can say that the two types of stores do not always live up to the stereotype.

For what it is worth, my opinion on this matter depends on the person, their budget, and their needs. Allow me to explain:

If you know exactly what you are looking for, like maybe a Tiffany lamp, you can do research before you shop so that you have a better idea how a real Tiffany lamp is made. You will discover, for one thing, that knocking gently on the shade should make a slight rattling sound as the wax used to hold the stained glass together dries out. Knowing these types of things will give you more confidence when you are shopping. Of course, a good antique store will tell you these kinds of things as you shop, and will show you what to look for to confirm its authenticity. However, you are likely on your own in a secondhand store. If you trust your ability and don’t really care if you’re wrong, then by all means, shop there.

If you’re in love with the style but maybe not the price, a secondhand store or a flea market can be a real lifesaver. It is entirely possible that the previous owner didn’t know what he or she had, for one, and for two the store might not know they are sitting on something valuable (there’s nothing saying the employees have to be trained in spotting antiques). At a secondhand store, you may find a cheaper reproduction, a forgery, or a piece that has been refurbished – and likely pay only a fraction of what the real thing would cost. If you’re fine with that and just like the look or the reasonable price tag, more power to you! However, if you want to be really sure that the piece you’re buying is what you think you are buying – maybe you want an Edwardian bookcase with the original beveled glass, say – an expert who studies these things will go a long way toward easing your mind.

I don’t concern myself with certificates of authenticity too much. Sometimes they aren’t worth more than the paper they were printed on. If the same store who is selling it to you is the one who authenticated the antique, there is always a possibility that they only did it for the extra profit. Taking it to an expert who confirms its authenticity in front of you is a more secure assurance.

Lastly, if you want the piece to be functional, you may have better luck at a secondhand store. Some antiques are fragile or so expensive you are afraid to use them – the aesthetic is more important than the actual use of the piece. Whereas you probably wouldn’t think twice about reinforcing a wobbly table leg you got at a secondhand store, or even possibly reupholstering a chair. So take that into consideration as well.

Like I said before, it depends on the person. How much are you willing to pay? Does it matter if it is real or a very good reproduction? Will it stand up to the purpose you are buying it for? Once you have your answers to questions like these, you can figure out the type of stores to start your search.

Antique Mirrors

I like antique mirrors. Some people don’t because they just want to see their own reflection, but I think that antique mirrors really add to the look and feel of a room. If you have an antique bedroom set, why would you have a regular old mirror on the wall that anybody buy just about at any store?

However, antique mirrors do require extra care. You can’t just spray it with some glass cleaner and a newspaper like you can with the mirror in your bathroom, but they are not much harder to keep clean than keeping streaks off regular glass.

I’ve talked it over with some professionals and have come away with three different methods. All three involve using lint-free cloths. There are some microfiber cloths that work well, and some people use camera lens cloth. You can get packs of them online.

However, I was given a warning by every single person I spoke with. You have to be extremely careful to prevent “foxing,” which happens when moisture gets behind the glass and fogs up the silver. Slight foxing can give a piece a great look, but too much and you make it useless.

You can use a little paraffin (or kerosene) on your cloth. It helps protect the glass. You put it on, wipe off the excess, and let it dry. Please use paraffin in an area where you can open windows or keep it well-ventilated.

Ammonia is another good choice. Add a few drops to a bucket of water. Dip your cloth in it, wring it out very well, and then wipe from top to bottom in an S shape so that you don’t go over the same place more than once.

Lastly, you can use denatured alcohol (sometimes packaged as methylated spirits). It may have a bad smell because additives have been mixed with the alcohol in order to discourage people from drinking it. And while that does make it toxic, it is actually healthier for you than many artificially created cleaners. Denatured alcohol evaporates quickly, which will prevent streaks.

When a mirror gets too foxed, it will lose its reflective properties. If you like the frame and don’t mind, don’t worry. There is a process called resilvering, where a professional can try to restore or replace the layer of silver (or aluminum) behind the glass. Oddly, restoring a mirror can actually devalue the piece, so consider what your ultimate plan is. There is another option if the mirror is in really bad shape. An expert may be able to scrape the silver off the back of the original mirror and cut a new mirror to the same size. They make a vacuum seal with a water mixture to make the new glass stick to the old. This way, the original mirror remains but the reflection will be brand new.

As for the frames, it is best to simply wipe them down with a soft cloth and beeswax.

Follow these tips and hopefully you will be able to enjoy your mirror for a long time to come.

Favorite Pieces

I love decorating a space. I like making things feel comfortable, welcoming, and beautiful. Antiques help me do that. Warm colors, lovely details, and beautiful lines can strengthen any room’s aesthetic and make it a place you want to be. That is always my goal.

I have slowly been working my way through my house, changing out a piece here, adding a rug there. I keep my eyes open every time I am out shopping. It is so rewarding to find the perfect antique porcelain table lamp or a mahogany chest of drawers that makes the guest room look complete.

Antiquing for me is not about buying things. I could shop anywhere to do that. It is about connecting to the past and bringing it into my own life. Sure I could go anywhere and buy a reasonably priced coffee table. It may look nice, but it is probably made cheaply and will only last me a few years. That is an option. You may like your assembly-required, mass-produced particleboard coffee table. It’s probably very pretty and suits your needs perfectly.

I would rather have something with some history. I found an old WWI era steamer trunk that had been refinished, and that is what I use. I can sit in my living room and imagine the incredible journeys that trunk has been on and the people it may have belonged to.

By far, though, my favorite pieces are part of my bedroom set. I could not believe it when I saw it in the antique shop – a gorgeous Victorian bed frame and dresser. It looked like a beam of sunlight was shining right down on that corner of the store, calling my name. Everything was in fantastic shape. It was also on consignment, and the owner was very interested in making a sale.

I made what I thought was a very fair offer. I tried not to do a little dance at the shop when it was accepted and we made arrangements to have it shipped to my house – the top of the dresser is marble, and that added to the solid wood construction meant it was quite heavy, and would need to be carefully moved to my place.

Even after it was installed in my home, I couldn’t believe my luck. The dresser had the original mirror and tiny hinged glove boxes. The headboard is a summer/winter headboard, designed with a clever panel that can be removed, allowing for cooler breezes to reach the sleeper in warmer months. The first night I lay down to sleep, I thought to myself, “This finally feels like my bedroom.” As I fell asleep that night, and many nights since, I wonder who originally owned these pieces and what their life was like. I wonder how the furniture stayed in such great condition and all the items of clothing the dresser must have held over the years. I wonder what dreams people have had while tucked in under the swirling designs of that headboard’s woodwork.

And that feeling, that connection – even if it is imaginary or tenuous – is the reason I like antiquing.

What Makes an Antique

I have had friends call me over to their homes or the homes of their parents to look through their attics or storage units. It is something that I might enjoy if I just got to poke around and look. However, usually there is an ulterior motive. Everyone is hoping that whatever has been stored there was worth saving. More importantly, that it is now worth quite a lot.

Now, I like antiques. I’ve looked at loads of them in stores, at markets, and online. I’ve talked to dealers and read books. But I’m no expert. I am always so nervous when someone asks me to look over an item. How can I tell if something is authentic or a reproduction? There are ways, yes, and some of them are easy. Others are not and require an expert eye. For all of my enthusiasm, I would not call myself an expert by any means.

The difference between a piece just being old furniture and being an antique is simple: an antique is “collectible.” Your great granny’s rocker might be in good shape and very old, but if nobody would buy it, you have a useless old piece of furniture gathering dust and taking up space. Another thing that sets antiques apart is that they can usually associated with a time period or a certain style. For example, a Louis XVI chair or a Sheraton table. If it’s just “old” or from “long ago” it’s probably not antique.

When determining if something is antique, start by looking for any information you can find about where it was made, when it was assembled, or who made it. We call this a maker’s mark. If you can narrow it down to a certain company or even a location, you can research the piece and find out valuable information. An expert will know where to look and be more familiar with names and companies.

Look at how it is put together. That can also tell you a lot about when it was made. For example, you can pull out a drawer and see if there are dovetail joints. You may be able to tell if they are handmade or done by a machine. You can look at how the hardware was attached (many antiques don’t have screws). What are the inside of the drawers or the back made of? If it is plywood, it can’t be older than the 20th century.

Also check out the details: look at the hardware. Does it look brilliantly shiny, or does it look like it is original to the piece? If it looks new or has Philips screws holding it in place, it is likely a forgery or at least partially restored. How is it finished? There weren’t a lot of options for wood finishes, so it was usually shellacked, which usually led to a dull (not mirror or high gloss) shine. You might even be able to see the thickly applied layers.

For every attic I’ve climbed up into and every dust-mote infested storage unit I’ve been driven to, I have really only seen one or two pieces that were probably valuable. That is OK. Sometimes things have a different kind of value to them: if a piece brings you happiness or reminds you of a family member, bring it out of storage and display it proudly. What does it matter if it has little monetary value?

Should You Buy Online?

I am used to buying things online. I bet you are, too. It saves a lot of time and sometimes it can save you money as well. It can make finding something you’ve been looking for very easy, too. There are all kinds of things that you can find for sale on the internet.

As I said, I’m comfortable buying a lot of things online. However, I have been hesitant to buy furniture online. For one thing, I really like going antiquing in different places and going on the hunt for a new piece. For another, it can be hard to tell the quality of an item through photos online. There’s also no guarantee that the photos you see are of the item you’re going to receive.

I do have a lot of faith in people in general, but I am also realistic. I understand that there are people out there who knowingly (or unknowingly) sell forgeries, restorations, or replicas. Some people do it to make a quick buck and others may honestly believe they have the real thing – I was told by one antique store owner that almost everyone really thinks they have a genuine Tiffany lamp.

There are also times that people misrepresent the condition of whatever they’re selling. Maybe their piece is actually a reproduction or has been refurbished or restored. All of these things would change the value of the piece you are looking at, and might be easily discovered if you saw it in person.

While I don’t think that buying online is something that would work for me, as I like to see things up close before I make a payment, I don’t want to discourage you all together. There are apps and websites that allow you to do a bit of both.

There are some sites that allow you to connect with people nearby and the items that they are looking to sell. You can look on these sites and then meet up with the other person to check the validity of the ad and make your payment. You might luck out using one of these to find a piece you want or that will look just great in your home. Just be sure to meet them in a public area that is safe for both you and the seller.

While not everyone on the internet is a thief or a liar, the internet does seem to an easy place to con people. So, I do recommend you use a site or an app that either allows you to purchase the item in person locally, or one with a good return policy in case what you ordered is not the item you receive.