The great—from Homer to George Washington to Winston Churchill—have long been fascinated by courage. And who can blame them? Bravery on the field of battle is one of the most admirable and inexplicable virtues imaginable. How and why, then, can we indulge ourselves, talking about “bravery” in the pedestrian field of antiques collecting?
The answer strikes me as persuasive, if not obvious. Examinations of courage provide us with object lessons: We learn to be better by assessing, evaluating, and imitating the behaviors of those who have acted admirably. Those actions do not have to be confined to the world of armed conflict or the world of political struggles (see Abraham Lincoln, if you need an example) or even science (Marie Curie). Our varied worlds, including antiques collecting, offer examples of individuals acting wisely, selflessly, and contrary to popular opinion.
Generally speaking, courage is defined as facing, usually with equanimity, something that is frightening. Courage involves doing the opposite of what common sense would tell us: running toward danger rather than fleeing, risking personal wealth to preserve something most people would abandon, even enduring criticism rather than conforming to popular opinion. We shall see these and other traits in action as we progress in our deliberation. Courage can be psychological—strength in the face of pain, grief, or difficult uncertainty. It can be marked by action. I differentiate between risk takers and those with courage. Risk takers may not know the consequences of their actions but have decided their hoped-for outcome is worth possible negative consequences. Those with courage may be risk-takers, but they feel compelled to move forward because of a belief, a moral code, or an imperative. Those who behave courageously may believe in a better future for others.
Anyone who collects antiques knows about passion, about following one’s heart even when one cannot articulate the reasons for purchasing a specific piece. We collect what we do because we appreciate and love the genre. We want to build a collection. Collectors know of the competition in the auction house or in a dealer’s booth at a crowded show, know that to develop a truly “sweet” collection that reflects one’s interests and uniqueness, a collection different from others, courage is sometimes required. The “courage of one’s convictions” is most relevant for collectors and dealers when we do what we believe in, sometimes courting failure, or enduring the potential or actual disapproval and ostracism of others.
There is also “fool’s courage,” under which people do brave things thinking that some beneficent force will protect them. While collectors may dream of an antiques collector’s god or goddess who offers such protection, I have never found one.
I assume it takes some courage to put a collection up for auction with your name attached for the entire (antiques) world to critique. Will the market value and respect the choices you made in what was purchased? To what extent does our reputation suffer if people think our collection is mediocre? And if you are a private citizen—as opposed to a public figure—will anyone care? They certainly will.
Israel Sack believed so strongly in this country and its traditions that he created a market in American antique furniture. In developing his business and sticking with it, he put his family’s well-being at risk. He showed the courage of his convictions. So did Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who bought folk art because she liked it, long before it was recognized, researched, and required in any serious collection of Americana. While her collecting had few financial consequences for someone with her resources, in the face of potential ridicule she trusted her tastes. History proved her correct. Would she have been just as courageous if history had not validated her decisions? After all, there have been collections of art and jewelry in the past that were brushed off as “mere bagatelles.” If Rockefeller’s folk art had been dismissed as no better than the stuff we see on American Pickers, wouldn’t the adjective assigned to her pursuit have been foolish rather than gutsy? She collected (as Sinatra might have sung) “her way.”
Rockefeller was not the only collector in the forefront. Those who purchased paintings by Picasso, Monet, and numerous other artists—even Grandma Moses—when they were alive and painting showed the courage of their tastes when the cognoscenti were casually dismissing these artists’ works. People collected weathervanes before they were thought of as sculpture and became central (to many) in any collection of Americana. Outsider art is a current example, and those who collected it early on and spoke in its favor expanded the genre’s legitimacy and desirability. These collectors abandoned the familiar and marched in unfamiliar lands.
My point is this: If someone goes against prevailing opinion and risks precious resources and public disapproval because he believes in the aesthetic, historic, or intrinsic worth of a genre or object, that takes guts. That’s exactly what bravery is all about. Collectors and dealers who take the path less traveled, who persevere in the face of adversity, display courage. So do those who sacrifice their resources to knowingly own something everyone else, at least in the moment, dismisses as unoriginal, aesthetically trite, and more lusted after than worthy. Of course, there is a chance he or she is merely deluded. Then again, “delusions” have to stand the test of time and taste, and it is surprising how often what looks to be aesthetically marvelous and classy ultimately proves to be little more than a popular tchotchke; 45 rpm records come to mind.
Well, I am no Abby Rockefeller. But I believe that I and many other collectors make our courage known by what we purchase, group together, and display. My collection of American antiques has its idiosyncrasies. Displaying a John Bachelder Battle of Gettysburg with pieces a hundred years older may to some tastes be jarring. I like it. To mix my wife’s aviation posters with painted rope beds and blanket chests may be unique, but it seems to work. To believe in wooden clockworks enough to own four of them (perhaps more of an act of stupidity than courage) certainly reflects bravery (they are oh-so-difficult to keep running and can be a pain to coddle and endure).
In that vein, I applaud those who opposed the zeitgeist of stripping the paint from furniture, who loved and preserved painted pieces and extolled their virtue. Thanks to them, other collectors and I can own painted pieces today. Those who saw and loved the ingenuity and just plain funkiness of make-dos or fragments may have in their own way also been courageous.
The courage of one’s convictions comes to mind for the collector who buys a piece that has lingered on the market for some time. After all, hasn’t everyone else passed on it, found it wanting? Isn’t something fresh for sale more desirable? And what do we say about a collector who finds herself surprised to fall in love with a piece from a genre she has never explored, her first Hudson River valley school painting for example? It takes courage to trust one’s gut, one’s emotional response, one’s love for a piece.
Some collector courage is largely unnoticed. She who stretches financially to own an antique she loves may have a lump in her throat, a funny feeling in her gut, and a hole in her pocketbook, but she is willing to face (down) those feelings despite the lack of a safety net. After all, her ardor for Americana may not last, and no guarantee exists that she will truly love, over time, the piece she trusts her instincts to purchase. There is no safety net for her decision. But she carries on. My wife and I experienced all of this when we purchased our first expensive antique.
Dealers also display the courage of their convictions. I imagine even becoming a dealer takes a certain amount of bravery, a faith in your tastes, confidence that there are others who will respect your expertise. In that case, the conviction is not generally in the thing (art dealers being an exception, I suppose) but in the process. What we see in their booths and shops are items they bought that they believe buyers will approve of, covet, and cherish. Knowing there may be only a few customers for a certain hooked or shirred rug or a piece of painted furniture or redware, they still plow ahead. Of course, collectors may not always validate their sense of an antique’s worthiness, and they may end up holding a piece for a long time, or sell it at a loss. But they’ll buy again and again. No longer do we live in those halcyon days before the Great Recession, when just about anything seemed to sell, often at, compared to now, high prices indeed. The so-called Good Times have not returned, instead exposing a collecting era when people move more carefully and spend less liberally. Dealers seem to work harder now, their courage more necessary.
There exists yet another form of dealer courage that might be explored: when one spends a great deal of money on an antique for stock, not representing a collector. For instance, an Edward Hicks Peaceable Kingdom was purchased for stock at over $1.5 million, and so was an Ammi Phillips painting of a girl in a red dress for nearly the same amount. You have to respect anyone willing to put his love of antiques and belief in a piece’s inherent worth into a purchase of that magnitude. Here, the individual’s faith is not in the painting but in his taste and expertise. Dealers believe in themselves more than in what they sell, I expect.
Another form of courage entails standing up for what is right. I remember a dealer who recognized that an item up for sale at a well-known auction house was a fake and used social media to spread the word. I am sure some dealers and collectors rolled their eyes, believing that “buyer beware” is the cardinal commandment of the marketplace. Fortunately the item was eventually removed from the auction. To act alone—as this dealer did—shows the courage to do what is right.
All dealers and collectors at one time or another face defeat or are haunted by memories of pieces that they should have purchased. In other words, collecting and selling both involve suffering. To bear it with dignity, faith in the future, or a spirit of respectful concession to the winner is classy. Dealers have suffered a lot in the last ten years. So have some collectors. Those who stay involved, maintain their passions, and promote the health of the profession/hobby/vocation are the folks we want to be around and to be like.
The sheer rarity of the bravery required to admit a collecting error should not be minimized. Human nature is not efficiently designed to admit personal blunder. It takes courage to admit I should not have bought a piece that I did, to admit an attribution to location or craftsman was in error, or to state publicly that I interacted inappropriately with a dealer or at auction. Such honesty is both rare and welcome in our small universe of American antiques. I remember telling a dealer long ago, with trepidation, that I should not have purchased a piece I did from her. Much to my amazement she agreed, pointing out that it did not fit in my collection and that she was surprised (but pleased) to hear me realize the error. My disclosure showed her I was growing as a collector and developing a higher level of style and connoisseurship. Sometimes courage has its rewards.
Collecting to many is more than a mere hobby, a passing fancy, or the distribution of excess wealth. By examining the exercise of courage in collecting we better understand the complexities inherent in our world of American antiques. A quotation often and erroneously attributed to Winston Churchill (but useful nonetheless) says: “Success is not final; failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.” Yes, we make mistakes as collectors. Yes, it takes time and nerve to build a solid collection. The process can be daunting and disheartening. What we say and what we spend our money on reflect our visions as collectors or dealers. Sometimes we must have the heart to march to our own drummer. Now and then we have to overcome obstacles, act unselfishly, reach for the moral high ground, or fly in the face of conventional wisdom. It is hardly too much to call a response to challenges such as that “courage.”
Baron Perlman is a retired clinical psychologist, an antiques collector, and the author of Come Collect with Me: Musings on Collecting and American Antiques. If you have comments or want to add your two cents, e-mail him at <[email protected]>. Better yet, write a letter to Maine Antique Digest.
Originally published in the November 2019 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2019 Maine Antique Digest