Distinguishing Verity From Fantasy
inOctober 25, 2007 - 4:21pm
When reading item descriptions in some online antique and collectibles shops, the age or authenticity of items sometimes appears to be based on the age of the person from whose estate it was acquired, or the length of time that person had been collecting. Another popular theme is if it was originally purchased in a brick and mortar antique store, either years ago or just last week, it must be old or authentic because who would sell something as an antique or collectible if it was not. And then, of course, there are those who when describing a supposed antique or collectible will start by saying, "I was told...", to introduce 'provenance'. The common thread that runs through each is the willingness to believe; to suspend proper judgment of an item in favor of what is hoped for, suggested, or assumed to be true about it.
Sometimes we so want something to be true, we allow ourselves to be taken in by assumption or rhetoric. We find something so wonderful, so woefully under priced, or an item so rare that even for the price being asked, it seems a bargain. But is it? Please consider the following examples:
Imagination: "These Jadite bowls came out of the kitchen of a woman who was eighty-eight when she died, so they have to be old."
Reality: While traveling home after a visit with her daughter three months before, Grandma bought those bowls in the General Store section of a Cracker Barrel Restaurant where she and her companion had stopped to eat lunch.
The lady may have been eighty-eight when she passed on but that doesn't mean everything she owned at the time of her death was at least her age, or older. These days people may still be bopping about, shopping and traveling at eighty eight, if not older; most certainly they don't stop visiting the local Wal-Mart or receiving gifts from others just because they happen to have grown older. Assigning an age to any particular item based purely on the age of the person to whom it last belonged is absurd.
Imagination: "The auction flyer said he began his paperweight collection as a little boy in 1930, so I am dating this unmarked Baccarat piece I bought out of the collection to circa 1940."
Reality: That clear glass paperweight with swimming fish inside that this dealer purchased when this collection was dispersed was in actuality given to the late collector last Christmas by his 10 year old great-granddaughter. She bought it at a beachside gift shop, while on vacation.
That it was a cheap, poor quality paperweight, not at all like the extraordinary Baccarat and Clichy pieces he owned, didn't matter to the collector. It was precious to him and was added to the collection because it was a gift from someone he loved.
Note: A collector dedicated to a particular niche will rarely suddenly stop buying or accumulating. In general, the adage, “Once a collector, always a collector” usually holds true. Unless every item in a specialized collection is cataloged and clearly identified as to date of acquisition, an item could just as easily have been purchased last week, as twenty years ago.
Consider also, that when a collector's preferred item is well known to family and friends those thoughtful souls will often try to 'assist' the collector through gifting, even though their gifts are unlikely to be something the collector would have chosen to acquire for themselves. A collector of antique Staffordshire spaniels, for instance, may find himself staring into a box containing a large, new, English porcelain poodle figurine on his birthday because his mother-in-law, having seen his collection, thought he liked English porcelain poodles. Never mind that the dogs she mistook for poodles were curly-coated spaniels, that the collector was only interested in figures made from 1840 to 1880, or that he concentrated on attempting to always attain matched pairs. And last but not least, she also failed to notice that he collected pieces of pottery - not porcelain. But it's the thought that counts.
For a variety of reasons, it is reasonable to expect that one might find newer items and items of low quality, even some fakes or reproductions, in any authoritative collection or great estate. In point of fact, items of a more recent nature often enter into aged estates and better collections entirely without announcement or fanfare. If you don't know how to tell the good from the bad when buying at a dispersal sale, you could end up taking home something the mother-in-law bought, not the collector.
Imagination: "Of course it's authentic, I bought it at an old antique store out in the middle of nowhere!"
Reality: The store proprietor used a catalog to order it from a metropolitan wholesale reproduction supplier. They have five more of those 'rare' items, just like the one they sold to you, still in boxes under the counter.
Note: If you don't know enough about a certain type of item to be able to identify a fake when you see it, someone can easily make you believe you are seeing the real thing, when in fact you aren't. In short, there is no substitute for doing your homework before you buy.
Imagination: "This Colt .45 once belonged to the famous Kansas lawman, Sheriff Pat Sughrue. It was given to him by the town fathers of Dodge City in recognition of his fine accomplishments in helping to civilize the town in the late 1800's. My Great-Uncle Dale saved his life so he gave him the gun as a 'Thank You.' Great-Uncle Dale gave it to my Dad, who gave it to me."
Although Great-Uncle Dale never told anything but the truth about how he came to own it, somehow, over the years, the Sheriff Sughrue 'connection' was embellished, grew more elaborate and became a part of family history. Eventually supposition became fact and a later generation believed that the illustrious Sheriff himself had bestowed the firearm on Dale out of gratitude (why else would someone part with an item that would have had considerable value to themselves and their own children as a memento?).
In 1901, having survived the evil machinations of many a pistol packing desperado as a younger man, Sheriff Pat Sughrue was uncharacteristically dry-gulched by gravity and treacherous big city technology, traveling rather expeditiously from the fourth floor to the lobby of Topeka's Copeland Hotel. Dale's descendants not having ever bothered to research the story about the Colt .45, did not realize how impossible it was for it to be true. Because Great-Uncle Dale was only two years old in 1901, the year of the sheriff's demise.
Note: A verbal family history for an item, no matter how entertaining or believable, cannot be relied upon as fact. Nor can it give an item added value without credible and substantive supporting documentation. Yes, it may very well be true, but to be considered 'provenance,' you must be able to prove it is true.
There is no substitute for research and learning in the field of antiques, collectibles or Fine Art. Check your facts, or check your wallet. Without achieving a reasonable knowledge base concerning a particular item or artist prior to spending your money, you may be kissing your hard-earned dollars goodbye for good.