What Makes an Antique?
In today’s world, much of the furniture we come across is of mediocre quality, yet once in a while, we come across a piece that was built a century or more ago that has stood the test of time. As woodworkers, we all have the opportunity to create one of these pieces, but we need to do so consciously.
As a craftsperson, I set my sights high: to create pieces that one day will be cherished as family heirlooms, and passed down through generations. With this in mind, I was interested in hearing from a seasoned professional about what it takes to create a heirloom.
Antique specialist Eric Cohen, owner of Renew, in Vancouver, (renewgallery.com) was the perfect man for the job. I was looking forward to meeting Cohen, as his store has been an appreciated mainspring for antique aficionados for 25 years and his strong internet presence makes him a sought-after virtuoso of antiques. I was also excited to see his much-hyped new location. It has been set up to showcase his ultimate passion, his carefully curated collection of antique lighting.
The first lesson learned was “just because a piece is an antique does not mean it has monetary value; emotional value perhaps, but not necessarily monetary.” It was great that Cohen mentioned this. I have personally encountered clients who assumed that a one-of-a-kind piece in which they invested would retain, or even gain monetary value, over time. I have my own way of having this conversation with clients, but I was now curious to learn some tips from Cohen that may support this conversation with clients in my future.
Built to Last
Older pieces of furniture that are still around tend to have details, unlike today’s pieces. Quality carvings, marquetry, inlay and other details were only added to high-end pieces, like this oak table with figural lion carvings circa 1895. This table is still around today because the makers took the time to engineer it properly and use sound joinery techniques.
This 19th century American folk art marquetry sideboard is a great example of a stunning antique. The veneer work, hardware, turnings and intricate details make this piece stand out from most furniture made today. (Photo above by Meredith Nicole)
“The power of the story,” he explained, “is that when something has provenance it can really make a huge difference in the value. The historical value can dramatically increase the monetary value of an otherwise unimportant piece.” He stressed, however, that the provenance needs to be proven, so documentation is key. Documentation supplies the opportunity to connect emotionally to the work, especially in the case of a family heirloom. This is what gives it historical value and can potentially add monetary value.
A good example, albeit perhaps a little extreme, that Cohen gave to illustrate this point was the 1996 sale of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s estate. Just one of many items that contributed to the mind-blowing $35 million estate sale was JFK’s inscribed humidor, a piece which was purchased for $600 in 1961 and was auctioned off for $520,000.
Start with quality
We then turned the conversation to another factor that determines whether an object makes the cut: quality. The quality of work not only greatly increases the chance of the work surviving generations, but work that exhibits fine craftsmanship and attention to detail can also contribute to a piece being more attractive to buyers if one ever wants to sell.
Cohen said to “look for pieces with good bones”. This means paying attention to the joints, the finish, quality of materials, looking to see if it has all the original parts, examining the back, top, sides, inside, and also touching and feeling it. When buying online, Cohen stressed getting as many close-up images as possible to look at how the piece is made to see whether it is of good quality. He further pointed out that “often on eBay the seller doesn’t even know if the piece is of quality, so buy from someone reputable.” Cohen also reminds us to pay attention to our gut, saying, “if something does not feel quite right it probably isn’t.”
Next time you design and build a piece of furniture, take a moment to ask yourself if you hope it will, one day, become a sought-after antique. If the answer is yes, take the time and care needed to engineer and build a piece with strong, lasting joinery so the piece will be around for a long time, and have the opportunity to be passed down through the generations. Whether or not it will be a valuable antique, only time will tell.
Overall though, the task of recognizing quality is a honed skill and Cohen suggests when investing in something to ask yourself honestly, “do I feel qualified to recognize if it is quality?” When Cohen finds a piece he really likes, he keeps it for himself. “Core pieces, once in my possession, have never left. Some items I may upgrade, but key pieces become a love affair.”