The Young Collector
Call it sentimental reflection brought on by our new arrival (Nathaniel Byrne, or Nat, as we call him, arrived on November 16 at 2 a.m., and we’re all fine and deeply in love already), but sometimes we like to look at Nora and joke about how she came to be here. (No, not that... Geez.)
How, actually, did any of us come to be here? How far back do you want to go? Perhaps Nora’s here because Hollie was reading some escapist British fiction with charmingly flawed children when her biological clock went off. Perhaps she’s here because of a chain of events that brought Hollie and Andrew to the same small Ohio town, events that began, in part, because someone in Cleveland in the 1970’s sat through a timeshare presentation to get a free microwave. It’s an interesting diversion to sometimes look back and think about all the links in the chain that led to where we are now.
Andrew’s been doing this kind of reflection professionally as well because he’s coming up on the end of his first decade in the field. He actually gets asked that a lot—“How’d you end up in the antiques business?”
The honest answer is that it may well have started when he received a Brownie merit badge, or so he likes to tell people. Andrew had two older sisters, and his mother always joked that he was her “just a minute” baby, because that’s what he was always hearing—“Wait just a minute.” One afternoon she had to “just a minute” him into tagging along to a sister’s volunteer project at the local historical society, and he was effectively bribed into dusting display cases in exchange for a Brownie merit badge. It planted a seed of some sort—an appreciation for local history, an interest in community or objects that took root. Then again it might have been his first semester in college of science courses that weren’t as engaging as his high school biology courses, which led to a change in majors and a history degree. Or, it might have been a slow Saturday afternoon that found him watching an episode of America’s Castlesthat profiled Henry Francis du Pont’s Winterthur, which piqued his curiosity enough that he went on line and discovered a graduate program. Somehow, here we all are.
This reflection was probably also spurred by our fall visit to “Nerd Nirvana,” also known as a reunion/symposium at Winterthur. In celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Winterthur graduate programs, “Reaching and Teaching Through Material Culture” brought a couple hundred people together to discuss how the larger “we” got where we are; how we feel about where that is; and where we’re going from here.
Overall, the take-home message seemed to be that we need to start asking hard questions of ourselves, of the marketplace, and of our historical and cultural institutions. “Why do we value what we value?”; “How do these objects represent us and our history?”; “How are ‘old’ things (antiques, museums, history) perceived, and how are we working to shape that perception?”; “Have we become so bound by tradition that we’re being strangled by it?” (Disclaimer: all information is paraphrased, as Andrew’s penmanship is on par with Nora’s “handwriting.”)
For instance, there’s a belief that the average American isn’t interested in “old stuff,” but according to Ford Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums (formerly the American Association of Museums—that name change is one of the results of asking difficult questions), there absolutely is interest in art, history, and antiques. AAM reports that around 850 million people visited American museums last year; that museums employ around 400,000 people; and that cultural tourism generates approximately $200 billion every year. Add this to the dollars generated annually in the antiques and art trade, which, according to retired FBI art crimes detective Bob Wittman, is more money than is spent on professional baseball, football, basketball, and hockey combined, and you’re talking serious interest in “old stuff” on the part of the American populace (and we haven’t yet mentioned the numerous antiques and collectibles-related television shows that are drawing huge ratings every week).
As technology evolves, it seems that our popular culture becomes increasingly ephemeral. Think about it. Forty years ago, if you were talking to someone about your favorite book, you could pull a copy off your shelves and offer to lend the book. If you were talking about last Christmas, you could pull out a photo album and show someone actual printed photographs. If you were reminiscing about an old friend, you’d likely be able to pull out a bundle of letters and cards spanning the decades of your friendship.
Today, for a growing segment of the population, every single one of these things would be a digital file. Of course, you could print them all up, but they’d carry the same sentimental weight as your tax returns (also likely to be an electronic file). We can talk positively about reducing waste, saving space, and file storage, etc., but many feel that the disappearance of the permanent and tangible in our everyday lives leaves us yearning for contact with those attributes, which are offered by antiques in public or private collections.
On the other hand, there is a visible (and annoying) segment of the population fixated on the cult of celebrity and, perhaps in an attempt to experience it vicariously, on the cult of consumerism. Bill Hosley referred to these obsessions as “cultural maladies” and even asserted that high-profile big spenders hinder the antiques world and, by extension, the development of an appreciation for history, as the headline-grabbing prices alienate “regular” folks from attempting to participate. This celebrity/consumer focus also ignores a huge portion of the material out there, and as Sumpter Priddy pointed out in his talk, we need to ask ourselves how many Newport high chests and Willard tall clocks do we need to line up in a row before we say “Enough!” and shift our focus elsewhere? Perhaps we’ve allowed our vision to become too limited and our minds to be narrowed. With each passing day, objects that might be considered less desirable disappear and take with them whatever it is they could have taught us about history.
What does all this mean? Andrew’s take was that it means we may need a willingness to break with tradition, to take risks. For us, that’s certainly the second part of how we came to be where we are today. In 2003, when Andrew was finishing up at Winterthur, we were nervous. It seemed as though 9/11 had just happened. Jobs were scarce. He didn’t want to take the traditional post-Winterthur route of museum work (not that there were any museum jobs in Ohio anyway), and we were dealing for the first time with relocating as a couple and the challenges of finding gainful and fulfilling employment for both of us.
We’d spent a great deal of time doing thesis research in the Marietta, Ohio, area, which was also located midway between our families, and Hollie got a first job offer in that area, a solid job at a library with decent starting wages and the benefits of public service—good insurance, reasonable vacation, retirement fund, etc. The kind of work (any kind of work) that Andrew would have enjoyed, however, just wasn’t available there at the time.
Andrew, on the other hand, got an offer in Cincinnati for a part-time job cataloging in the newly formed decorative arts department at a rapidly growing auction house. Of course, we did all the reasonable things, like renting an apartment sight unseen, borrowing money from our parents for a rental truck, and hauling ourselves ten hours away for 25 hours a week of work for one of us. (We still have no idea who approved our application for a $750-a-month apartment.) But, as John Burroughs said, “Leap, and the net will appear.” Within three days, it was apparent that 25 hours a week was going to be 52 hours a week. Within six months, Andrew was running the department. (And within three days, Hollie’s three-day task of cleaning up the mailing list became two years of full-time employment as well. We did say “rapidly growing!”)
Risk-taking is, well, risky, but it’s necessary for growth and change, and we feel as though it is important to support people who step forward in innovative ways, whether their efforts meet with success or not. (And perhaps when we’re back to the point of asking hard questions, one of the questions we should ask is, “How do we define success?”) We’re fortunate enough to see lots of risk-takers—folks adapting their catalog formats; folks reaching out to young people (folks like Jeff and Amelia Jeffers, Andrew’s employers at Garth’s, who collaborated this summer with Hollie’s employer, Prices4Antiques, Maine Antique Digest, and other trade publications to sponsor “A Biography of an Object” writing contest); auctioneers taking auctions on the road; and show promoters like Jon Jenkins experimenting with more vintage material and different venues.
We need to acknowledge these efforts and applaud them. Of course, not every attempt to do something different is going to work out the first time around, or maybe work out at all, but the marketplace will be strengthened only if we recognize and appreciate those who are willing to experiment and who continue to explore alternatives and options. Maybe we think their trials and errors are more errors, misplaced energy, or misguided thinking, but we need to separate our critique of the outcome from our critique of the intent. After all, how we got “here” isn’t a neat and tidy line, and the path to where we’re going won’t be either.
We welcome ideas, tips, criticisms, and questions regarding “The Young Collector.” Andrew and Hollie may be reached by e-mail <firstname.lastname@example.org>, via their blog (www.youngantiquecollectors.com), or by writing The Young Collector, c/o Maine Antique Digest, PO Box 1429, Waldoboro, ME 04572.
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest