Monday, October 3, 2016

The Ebb and Flow of Antique Collecting

There’s an ebb and flow to the antique market, which in part is caused by the state of the overall economy.  There are other factors too. Personal taste and social trends also play a part in determining what’s popular currently and, more to the point, what's not.

Let’s take a moment to look more closely at antiques that have fallen out of favour in recent years.

While prices for all antiques have been down considerably since the economic slump of 2008, in large part due to Wall Street zealots who sold the world investment community a pig in a poke, otherwise known as mortgage backed securities, some categories of antiques have suffered more than others.

“Brown furniture” - mahogany and walnut furniture have really taken a beating in the last decade. The dark colour of these furniture pieces doesn’t seem to resonate with today’s collectors.

Although not antique, but still well crafted, solid walnut and mahogany furniture made in huge volume between the wars, 1920 to 1950, has reached almost give-away prices.

I have seen entire dining room sets struggle to make a few hundred dollars at auction.

Of course, since this furniture was made in such a large quantity, it is sitting in many, many homes and apartments across the country.  It continues to flood the market but is met with a cool reception by dealers and collectors. Brown walnut and mahogany furniture has been sent to the sidelines by mid century modern, shabby chic and other popular trends.

It’s a shame actually, because the brown furniture of that period was made from solid wood, following classic lines and will be around a lot longer than some of the trendy furniture examples that have replaced it.

True antique furniture from the 19th century and earlier fares somewhat better although prices and demand for this category is also weak.

Canadiana pine furniture, so much of it stripped of its original colour in the 1960’s and 70’s, has also suffered the same fate as the walnut / mahogany category. Good form in a piece of Canadiana furniture will help preserve the value over time but run of the mill pine furniture struggles at auction and in shops.

To a large extent, we are generally living in smaller quarters. The reduced size of homes and condos are not conducive to larger antique furniture pieces. This is another factor in the weak demand for furniture.

Glass, china and ceramic figurines have also suffered a similar fate. Once steady performers and always in demand, these categories have sunk in popularity to a point where there is a barely a pulse in their market.

Chintz china was in vogue several years ago but that ship has certainly sailed. At one point rare stacking teapot sets in hard to find patterns fetched $1000. Not anymore.

There are exceptions of course, certain specific types of glass, pottery and ceramics continue to fetch robust prices. Some Moorcroft pottery, American art pottery and French art glass still fetch good prices but the quality, condition and particular style have to be exceptional.

The rarity of an antique or collectable has a huge impact on its value. It stands to reason that if an antique item is available in large quantity, the price will reflect the availability. It’s simply a case of supply and demand. That rule can be applied to just about any type of antique or collectable. If a collector or dealer has only seen a particular antique the, generally speaking, the item will be more valuable. There are many exceptions however to this rule.

While prices may be down, antiques and collectables are still extremely popular. Design magazines and TV shows promote antiques with continuing zeal. The problem though is that so much material has become “collectable”, there’s a veritable sea of stuff out there. It’s flooded flea markets and other venues, which further adds to the problem. It’s much more difficult to seek out good antiques when they are surrounded by junk.

It’s perhaps only natural to equate the quality of an antique to its monetary value. For some collectors what an antique object is worth in hard currency is secondary to their joy in finding and collecting a particular item. If you enjoy an antique or collectable, that’s terrific. This is how it should be. The majority of collectors don’t plan on selling their things so market value is totally secondary. Sentimental value can often far surpass market value. I don’t happen to own any family antiques but if I did, wild horses couldn’t drag them from my grasp, let alone a bundle of money.

A wise individual once said to me once, “Only collect the best”. Those words are still true to this day. If you are going to put the time and effort into finding certain antiques, be patient, wait for the best example to come along. Buy that one. Excellent things will always hold their value.

 This column also appeared in the Kitchissippi Times newspaper in Ottawa, ON.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Antique Collectors as Canaries – Welcome to the Coal Mine

In the world of business, from my tiny perch as a communications consultant, nothing surprises me any more. In the world of antiques, from my tiny perch as a collector and sometime dealer, nothing surprises me anymore.

If you have a job that you go to every day and have the luxury of knowing that scenario is going to continue for the foreseeable future. Count yourself lucky. You’re one of the fortunate ones. You have some occupational certainty in your life.

It seems to me, antique collectors, not to mention communication consultants, are like the canary in the coal mine. The first subtle frisson of gas in a mine and the canary does a swan dive to the bottom of the cage. 
OK it's not a canary but the closest I had in the photo archive!
Collectors like to collect. Passionately. And I don’t care what you collect. If you’re passionate, hooked, you’re going to act on that passion, poor economy or not.   

But a key point here is the degree to which collectors continue to collect and at what cost?  Should you spend that $10,000 on a very good cupboard? Pull the trigger on that $4,000 folk art painting? Is the time right for that $2,500 top-notch bucket stand? How about shelling out $3,000 for a stellar piece of decorated stoneware? Or, does one keep the money liquid in a cashable GIC – even if it’s earning next to nothing in interest? Some collectors will buy. Some will not.  There are lots of good things to collect for less than $1,000 – maybe that’s where everyone has gone to play.

A point to make here is that collectors like a good deal as much as the next person. Once armed with knowledge and experience, collectors put their noses to the ground and start searching for antiques and collectables – especially ones that can be had for a bargain or for prices at below market value. The majority of collectors also dabble on the sell side of the market and making a tidy profit on a flea market find is a bonus that can occur frequently.  Again, in this economy, for most of us extra dollars are welcome.

I think it’s obvious that there aren’t as many collectors now as they’re used to be. Maybe the new collectors are all off searching for and collecting “mid century modern” items, advertising and nostalgia or whatever, thus leaving the country furniture domain populated mostly with dotty seniors, including myself, wandering about their houses noting inventories on their smart phones facing the uncomfortable prospect of what to do with these prized collections in their declining years. 

Of course if you’re sitting on heaps of money, enough to make you and your family financially secure, then all these points and counter points I’m making are irrelevant. Those with bags of moola are free to indulge in their collecting passion without constraint.  Still, folks with the deepest pockets are often the ones that don’t like taking a loss, ever. And, they also like a bargain as much as anyone.

However, if you are on a budget, like most of us, you’re going to face the balancing act - to buy or not to buy. Not surprisingly even in the face of uncertainty, collectors will often opt to purchase. The urge to own a particular piece is often too strong to ignore and damn the consequences.

Leaving the economy and financial circumstances aside, collectors desire objects that have character, colour, uniqueness, rarity, strong graphics, visual appeal, good design, form, age and provenance, none of that should surprise anyone. It’s what we all look for in antiques. Good things sell. Very good things sell quickly. And excellent things sell instantly. It’s the price at which they sell that is the moving target.

Of course when objects that meet that criteria, in whatever category, appear on the market they usually sell. What that leaves behind is the inferior objects and lots of them. There is more and more of the below average on the market. Those are objects that prove difficult to sell especially in a sluggish economy. So, there they sit taking up space in shops, stores, flea markets and anywhere else where marginal antiques and collectables are stored, frustrating the advanced collector and confusing the beginner. Heck, in this market even pretty good items languish in the shops and booths of the dealers.

Where is this all going to end? I certainly don’t know. I like most collectors, continue to pursue the hunt, spending what available dollars I have on antiques and folk art.  The thrill of the hunt, the discovery and the acquisition is the equation I love to solve, over and over again. 

The economy may be doubtful. Harsh events may be just around the corner. I don’t want to think about things at that level. I can’t do anything about it.  What I can do is enjoy the simple yet exciting pleasure of discovering more of this great country’s material history and adding these items to a small collection which brings joy and satisfaction on a daily basis.

Perhaps in preserving items of the past, I am doing some good at a minute level. That’s the philosophy I am going with and I think it’s a pretty solid one given all the other nonsense that’s happening around us.

Further, at the risk of extending this notion too far, I’d suggest that if we all spent more time studying and enjoying art and antiquities that our world would be a better, saner, more peaceful place in which to live. Not that that's going to happen, regrettably, any time soon.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Kitchissippi Times, Community Newspapers and our Material History

On the face of it, community newspapers seem an unlikely vehicle through which to promote our material history - antique objects made by our ancestors in Canada and used on a daily basis or for special purposes in days gone by.
Several months ago, with the guidance of one of the best editors I've ever encountered, Andrea Tompkins, I started to contribute a monthly column to my community newspaper in west end Ottawa, The Kitchisssippi Times.
 It's been a fun and interesting assignment which I thoroughly enjoy. Over time, it's become clear to me that writing in community newspapers may well be one of the most effective means of helping people understand and appreciate Canadian antiques and collectables. Given the in-person comments and emails received, I know one thing for sure - people read their community newspaper.
The Kitchissippi Times connects and informs west end Ottawa residents perhaps more effectively than any other communications vehicle. Certainly, no other media outlet can or would cover stories at the granular level like a community newspaper. Writing for the paper enables me to comment on readers' antiques and collectables. I am also writing about trends and influences in Canadian antiques. The material objects themselves may not change but the interest in them, values, new discoveries, exhibits and general happenings about antiques are constantly changing. On top of that, in part because of the research I conduct for my writing, I am learning new things about Canadian antiques, practically on a daily basis. After 35 years of collecting antiques, I know one thing for certain - there's a whole lot I still don't know!
My latest column in the times delves into collecting miniature or small scale furniture. I thought to post a link to the article as part of this blog.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Enjoying the Cure for Cabin Fever - The Kingston Winter Antique Show!

Timing, as they say, is everything. And arguably, the promoters of the Kingston Winter Antique Show, Cabin Fever have the timing of their event spot on. As it has done so effectively for the past years, Cabin Fever is a timely elixir for the pent up desire of collectors to indulge their passion in mid winter, when the prospect of outdoor antique shows in the warm days of Spring and Summer still seems like a distant fantasy. After a long drive on the 401, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of hustling through the frigid parking lot of the Portsmouth Olympic Harbour Building and entering the main exhibit space filled with colourful antiques and collectibles. I have to warn readers in advance that this is not a detailed, booth by booth account, of show. It is more of a general over view, a quick snapshot of the event as I moved quickly, along with hundreds of other patrons, through the show. I'll also admit that there wasn't rhyme or reason to my viewing. I simply started to wander through the aisles. If I had an objective, it was to key in on one particular piece in each booth that impressed me. My tendency at shows is to to do one fairly quick circuit and then proceed more slowly through the booths on subsequent passes. And even with this rather sketchy plan, it is easy to be distracted.
At its’ heart Cabin Fever is a “country” antique show with other areas of collecting added here and there to contrast with the main theme of pine furniture and accessories, much of it in original paint. And while the 2016 event is smaller in size than previous versions, this year’s dealers put on a show that still packed a solid punch.
It’s an almost dizzying experience, at least initially, trying to take in all of the interesting antiques and collectibles on display. Crowded aisles and booths also make viewing a challenge but that’s all part of the opening day’s chemistry. 
There's no such thing as "early" entry at this show. By design, this produces a heightened sense of anticipation and eagerness among the hundreds of patrons lined up in concentric circles in the lobby of the Portsmouth Olympic Harbour building. Keeners are there one to two hours in advance, if not longer, so as to be among the first in the door.  
If you want the chance to buy certain objects, you have to be there early. Since the show is promoted in advance through social media channels, collectors know in advance about particular pieces being brought to show by dealers. The rumour mill also works in high gear weeks and months before the show and this also adds to the sense of anticipation in the line up. Grey haired and aging collectors, myself included, may not have the spring in their step like they once had, but they are still a very determined bunch.
So, let me now try to get down to specifics.
Michael Rowan is a veteran of both Cabin Fever and the Bowmanville Show and always brings interesting and quality items to the shows in which he participates. On the back wall of his booth his small bucket stand with some nice stoneware and a neat little miniature blanket chest caught my eye. The pail stand was in an old surface, dated to about 1850 and was priced at $875. Beside it was a honest, small tapered leg side table from Nova Scotia. It too was in an old surface and priced at reasonable $350.
The Rowan pail stand with stoneware.

The NS two drawer stand.
David Purcell's booth caught my attention early on. David was rightly proud of a c. 1840 harvest table that was front and centre in his booth.  The H-stretcher base table had an untouched two board top with an early green over paint on the skirt and legs. The table was just over five feet in length. The stretcher was set unusually high up which made it  more practical to use. All in all it was an impressive piece of country furniture and it sold within the first half hour of the show.  

Waterloo high stretcher based table of David Purcell. Elegant burl bowl sits centre on the table. What will now be known forever as Colin's Cow sits in the background. David also sold two other pieces of furniture likely becoming the Furniture Man of Cabin Fever for 2016.
Sitting on top of the table was a large wooden carving of a cow. It was an attractive piece of folk art for $595 and as we know from other postings on the FB Canadiana site, Colin Latreille pulled the trigger early on and bought it for his collection.
Also placed on the harvest table was an elegant burled bow at $2,500  in fine condition. Roughly 16 inches in diameter, it also sold, this time to a visiting dealer. 
Gary Dawson's "shoe" trade sign sitting atop a small brown jam cupboard quickly caught my eye. It was in nice original condition and priced at $1875. 
The Davies Shoe Repairs sign in Gary Dawson's booth.
I saw Ben Lennox zone in on the piece and as evidenced by photos on FB later in the evening, the sign went home with him. 
At $465, I liked the little jam cupboard in original grained paint upon which the sign was placed. Gary and I are both perplexed as to why that little gem doesn't find a home.
Talking to Ben later, he mentioned several other purchases he made including three pieces of redware from Scott Wallace of Maple Leaf Auctions. Those purchases included a redware syrup jug which I had picked out of an old Ottawa collection a year or two ago. 
Whenever I passed by Scott's booth during the morning, he was busy concluding transactions with other collectors.  
In decorated stoneware, it doesn't get a whole lot better than this! Several lines of script and a great blue decoration. Offered by Scott Wallace.
As many readers know, Scott runs Maple Leaf Auctions which typically has two on line auctions per year. Last Fall marked auction #40 in which Scott sold the now famous amber coloured American Beaver fruit jar for $14,500. Scott has shrewdly, over time, focused almost exclusively on the sale of stoneware, redware and bottles. As he has proved with his auction results, these are areas of collecting that have withstood the vagaries of our longstanding sluggish economy.
Just one grouping of stoneware and redware of several in Scott Wallace's booth. Scott was so busy "wrapping and packing" he only had time for a quick "hello."
There was one item in Locke and McKenzie booth that was hard to miss. It was a  model canoe from the Chestnut Canoe Company of New Brunswick. I was at the show with a friend who is a vintage canoe enthusiast and he explained that this was a showroom sample. It was likely made he said for a retailer of the canoes. The model dated to the early 1900's was in original, as found condition and was priced at $8,500. It had apparently shown up in a Cornwall, ON auction this summer. My friend was out of town that day and missed the sale. His attempts to buy the canoe from the successful bidder did not, much to his frustration, bear fruit.
The Chestnut Canoe model in Ed Locke's booth. About 8 feet in length in as found and remarkably good condition for its age.
Bill Breeze of Otter Creek Antiques had what I thought was an attractive D table that he purchased recently in Lanark County. It is not a form that one sees often especially in Eastern Ontario. In an old varnish finish, Bill had the table price at a reasonable $675. 
Quite rare this D table from Lanark County in as found old varnish, $695. Would look good in any collection.
By this time, "sold" stickers were popping up all around. I noticed that Adrian Tinline had several sold stickers on furniture items in his booth. As I passed by on another circuit, customers were picking up their purchases from Adrian including a cute little side chair in over paint and a small wall box. I missed the prices on those items. Later, I lent a hand as Adrian and Ben moved a drop front desk in paint out of Adrian's booth and into the foyer for pick up. 
Adrian Tinline likes a full booth! And this is only a partial shot! After two hours it was looking much less so as the drop front desk on the left and the sideboard in centre had both sold.
Country furniture was also moving in the booth of Smith's Creek Antiques (Clay and Carol Benson). An open corner cupboard in paint sported a sold tag in fairly short order. I am sure the purchaser was attracted to the paint and to the convenient size of the cupboard. 
Small, open corner cupboard in old, two tone paint. No restoration but at one time had a door added to the top portion. About 1830. Smith's Creek Antiques. Sold. Photo by Colin Latreille.
 Clay and Carol always have a superb line up of painted furniture, several furniture examples in figured maple plus folk art, stoneware and redware.
I admired this folk art painting in Smith's Creek Antiques. Of course it was sold. $675
Carol Telfer offered some beautiful quilts, hooked rugs and textiles. Nicely presented, all in superb condition, the soft textures and strong colours of the textiles are a refreshing change from the harder surfaces of furniture and stoneware. Carol's textiles are colourful, graceful and elegant and obviously chosen with great care and attention. One stunning Grenfell rug of a polar bear etc priced at $1250 certainly caught my eye.
Larry Foster had many nice small pieces of accent furniture, several folky ship paintings in various sizes, a nice blanket box in paint in full size.
Grenfell Rug in the Foster / Telfer grouping. Great subject, bright colours, excellent condition. This image should be on a Canadian stamp! $1250
Dealers from Quebec were prominent in this year's Cabin Fever. Peter Baker always sets a high standard for his booth at an antique show. He met the mark with this year's offering. Peter always seems to have a terrific long table, one or two excellent case pieces of furniture and a variety of smalls that round out his booth. In the first hour or so it was difficult to even get into Peter's booth. I saw furniture selling from the booth. My friend Steve Cunliffe left Peter's booth with a very nice tavern stool held over his head as he threaded his way through the crowd in the aisle in front of Peter's booth.
L'Oiseau Rare had an elegant offering of furniture and folk art. It was hard not to miss the child size blanket chest perched on a table in the centre of their booth. I photographed the accompanying price tag and include it here for accuracy.
The "petite coffre" in the booth of L'Oiseau Rare
I broke off my tour of the show around noon to have a pre-scheduled lunch with a friend. Returning to the show an hour or so later the opening melee had tapered off and I could meander more slowly through the show.  
On this sober second tour, I was able to look more carefully for items in booths that I missed earlier in the morning. At one point, I stood back to admire several stunning hooked rugs in the booth of Barry Ezrin. Folky, colourful and in a great condition, Barry apparently found the rugs in the attic of a house on St. Joseph's Island in North Western Lake Huron. St. Joseph's is the second largest island in Lake Huron after Manitoulin. Dating to the 1930's, the rugs were wrapped and well preserved when Barry found them. He offered the large ones at $1,000 and the smaller ones at $600. Now don't you wish that every house call turned out half as well as this one! I do!
Instant folk art collection for a reasonable sum! The St. Joseph's Island hooked rugs of Barry Ezrin. Wouldn't they look good in a cottage!
Barry's other noteworthy items included a stellar six foot harvest table with a set of six green arrow back chairs to go with it. 
I would be remiss if I didn't reference the booth of J. C. Miller Antiques. This booth doubtless had the most impressive flat to the wall cupboard in the show plus many other interesting and high quality pieces. I also admired a small-scale chest of drawers in walnut with burled walnut drawer fronts. If I recall the price was in the $700 range. In superb original condition, it was sold and gone when I wandered through their booth an hour or two later. For my money, their colourful folk art plane was one of the nicest pieces of folk art in the show.
Nifty, colourful folk art airplane, J. E. Williams Antiques $425.
At this point I want to wrap up this review. I apologize to all the dealers whose booth's and wonderful antiques and art are not included in my writing. It was a case of just too much to see, to photograph and document. 
In closing, I also want to acknowledge the work of the organizers and their team in putting this year's Cabin Fever event together. It is no small feat creating, promoting and implementing an antique show, especially in today's economy. Cabin Fever is such an important outlet for us all. Regardless, if you are participating as a dealer or as a collector, it remains the most important winter meeting ground for antique and folk art enthusiasts from around Ontario and beyond.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Collecting - The Relationship Between Price and Quality

As a collector, it’s frustrating to conduct the hunt for your particular type of antique amid reproductions, fakes or all those millions of items that faintly resemble the real thing, whatever that might be, and which vendors everywhere continually offer for sale in the hope that they catch the interest of some collector, somewhere.  A short walk through most flea markets should be sufficient to convince you that the barrier to entry into the business of selling antiques and collectibles is so low as to be barely off the ground.

Other factors, like price, may put objects you desire beyond your reach. Price is most always aligned with quality. If you’re buying a quality item, you should expect to pay for it. Sure, there are pleasant surprises when you find a quality item for far less than it should be worth. That’s why we’re all out there hunting. There’s an extra element of excitement that comes with this sort of “find”.

Knowledgeable dealers understand the significance of “quality” and they strive to stock desirable items. Don’t be hesitant, assuming you can afford it, to step up and buy a quality item from a dealer. However, before you pull the trigger on the purchase, make sure you understand, completely, the attributes of the piece.

The reason why the price of some antiques and art escalates is that the awareness and understanding of work by a certain artist accelerates over time. More and more people, including dealers and collectors, come to realize the significance of what a particular artist was attempting to accomplish at a certain point in time and their success in doing so.

I’d love to own a Grandma Moses painting, for example, but with entry level pricing on good examples running at $75,000, I’m not likely to acquire one unless by accident. The same can be said for 18th century Quebec furniture, Shaker pieces, Tiffany lamps, or Gustav Stickley furniture. The quality of these pieces is such that over time it shines through for people and drives the prices up as demand increases to a point where only collectors with the deepest pockets can collect them. This fact leaves early collectors of those pieces in the wake, unable to afford to buy them. I may not be able to buy certain art and antiques but as a collector I should understand their significance and the associated trend, if any, associated with them.

"GrandmaMosesStamp1969" by Bureau of Engraving and Printing - U.S. Post Office; Smithsonian National Postal Museum; Image enlarged and rendered for tone, clarity by Gwillhickers. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

In the context of my collecting, I should strive to understand, why a Shaker harvest table can sell for $150,000? Why paintings by Grandma Moses sell for $100,000? Why an Addison Model 5 radio is worth several thousand. Understanding the underlying design, form, color, the factors which make an object desirable, will help you realize greatness in another object as yet unheralded.

It’s not surprising that many superb collections were put together on the advice of dealers working closely with a collector who had the desire and the necessary funds to underwrite the cost. Dealers know the sources for excellent material and, more importantly, they know what makes a great piece – great.  Advanced and experienced collectors also know quality and they are always ready to spring into action when they see a terrific piece to add to the collection. 

Your budget may constrain you but regardless of that fact, one can still find quality antiques at an affordable price especially in the turbulent economic times in which we now live. The key is to be patient and to know in detail what defines "quality" in the objects that you strive to collect.


Monday, September 14, 2015

Vision, Quality, Fads and the Frivolous

When I first started to collect country items (furniture, decorated stoneware, traditional folk art and early nostalgia) were pretty much the only games in town.  Certainly formal antiques were a factor too but they were considerably up market, at least it seems to me now, from country furniture and the related accessories I collect.

Today, in addition to the above collecting categories, we have: imports from seemingly everywhere, industrial, mid century, 50’s style, deco, teak, contemporary folk art, shabby chic, country style, mission, arts & craft, art nouveau and likely a bunch more collecting categories that I can’t think of at the moment.

It’s perhaps human nature that we continue to be preoccupied about the design of the environments in which we live and work and want to find new ways to incorporate special objects into our lives and have them close to us. Further, we put a monetary value on such items and in a free enterprise society, many people build businesses on the basis of buying and selling these objects. 

"AltamiraBison" by Rameessos - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -
 If an object or work of art has true quality in its design and form, it will stand the test of time and be recognized as such. However, this isn’t a transition that happens in isolation. It’s a big, messy, often confusing collecting world out there and if you’re in the middle of it, actively participating as a collector or dealer, you’re going to witness the comings and goings of trends, be it a the local antique mall, auctions, flea markets or in the booth next to you at an antique show.

On occasion, it takes a visionary to recognize quality and to take action which is quite often the start of a trend toward collecting a specific set of objects or work by a certain artist or artists.

Edith Halpert (1900 - 1970) was ridiculed when she opened a gallery where she included modern art downstairs, traditional folk art upstairs and counted among her early and longstanding supporters, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller who Halpert assisted in building an impressive collection of folk art. Not only were her folk art offerings deemed unworthy by the majority of collectors but geographically she opened her gallery in a decidedly non-gallery area of New York City – SoHo - the short form of the phrase South of Houston Street
In their time, the great American industrialist collectors Mellon, Flick, Havemeyer felt the only important thing to collect were the “old masters”. It took visionaries like Gertrude Stein and more importantly her brother, Leo Stein, to recognize and promote the artistic genius of Picasso, Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse and others. But even they avoided artists, George Braque among them, who went on to acclaim.

Shaker furniture and accessories are among the most sought after antiques in the USA, yet there was no interest in them until 1923 when Edward and Faith Andrews began to document and collect the furniture and accessories of this dwindling utopian sect.  The Shakers designed and constructed some of the most beautiful furniture and accessories ever made by human hands.

"Hannah Cohoon, Tree of Life or Blazing Tree, 1845" by Hannah Cohoon - made in 1845 - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -,_Tree_of_Life_or_Blazing_Tree,_1845.jpg#/media/File:Hannah_Cohoon,_Tree_of_Life_or_Blazing_Tree,_1845.jpg

In the 1940’s, the Second World War drove many notable artists out of Paris to the United States thereby effectively transferring the centre of the art world from the “city of light” to the “city that never sleeps”.  Arguably, it has remained there ever since.

When art critic Clement Greenberg (1909 - 1994) coined the phrase “abstract expressionism”, he was describing the work of Jackson Pollack and his contemporaries who rose to prominence in the mid 1940’s and 50’s.

They continued on with much notoriety with the help of art promoter Peggy Guggenheim until the early 1960’s when a strangely wigged commercial artist from Pittsburg, Andy Warhola, his name later shortened by a publishing error to Warhol, began silk screening repeated images of modern cultural items and famous individuals onto canvas and a new movement, Pop Art, began.

Warhol knew, perhaps better than any other artist or gallery owner, the importance of promoting his own work. And he did so with great gusto.

Art has an advantage over antiques in that, as a medium, it is perhaps more broadly accepted albeit not necessarily understood by the public at large. This is do in part to the mass media, who respond to the perennial hype of international auction houses by regularly reporting on the sale of the next Van Gogh or Picasso or similar iconic painting for multi millions of dollars.

Rare is the individual who recognizes the genuine new movement at the time of its creation. In your collecting career, you may not be that individual and that’s fine. What you can be however is a collector who understands as best you can why certain antiques and art are so desirable in whatever category you choose to collect. Avoid fads and the frivolous. Train yourself to recognize quality and be prepared to pay for it. You won’t regret it – ever.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Folk Art and the Question of Age

I’ve been asked as of late to comment on various pieces of folk art in terms of their quality and value. I thought a summary of the points I made in my replies might make for a short series of worthwhile blog posts. So, here goes.
First of all, let’s deal with the notion of “age” and how age plays a role, or can play a role with dealers and collectors, in their appreciation and acquisition of folk art.
As the title indicates, John Fleming and Michael Rowan, in their most impressive book: Canadian Folk Art to 1950, do not include any works made after 1950. The rationale behind this date, in their opinion, is that after 1950 folk artists would have been influenced, to at least some extent, by mass media and the various images therein.  It’s a valid point, as certainly the majority of artists would have been exposed, to a greater or lesser extent, to various media outlets in the last quarter of the 20th century. 
Portion of envelope, written in the hand of Maud Lewis

However, I recall asking Mr. Rowan about it shortly after the book was published and he added the comment that given the sheer volume of material that confronted them, they had to pick some cut off date and 1950 seemed an appropriate one, for the reason noted above.
However, if one accepts this date and the position that post 1950 folk art is not pure folk art, or at least folk art uninfluenced by the media, then that eliminates artists, for example, like Maud Lewis and Joe Norris and many more.  The media would have influenced both these artists and countless others. But does that diminish what they created? Should that make them less desirable for collectors and dealers? 
"Fluffy" by Maud Lewis 1962
Selecting a cut off date is tricky business but Fleming and Rowan have a case for doing so. There’s no question that contemporary folk artists working in the last 50 years were subjected to the influences of modern media. 

One could also make the case that folk art has, to some degree, become an “industry” unto itself with all kinds of artists, both untrained folk artists and some academic artists, intentionally working in a folk art style.  It is often difficult to tell the difference. Both types of artists have enjoyed considerable commercial success.  In these circles, folk art, has become big business and collectors / customers are drawn to the works because they are colourful, naïve and often humourous.
Traditional folk art, that is folk art made before 1950 and often much earlier, is arguably in a league of its own. Age enhances the quality of a piece of folk art. With age, an object can be both an antique and art. That is a powerful combination for collectors and dealers. 
A good example would be utilitarian objects created for use around the home 150 years ago. This would include wall boxes, small containers and hand tools – objects similar to those depicted in the Fleming / Rowan book.  The age of these pieces make them interesting but their form and decoration transform them. They become folk art. Their function is secondary.
Grenfell Industries Hooked Mat c. 1940
So, for the collector, the point to take from all of this is to be mindful of the age of the objects that attract your attention. Chose a dividing line. The Fleming / Rowan date of 1950 is as a good as any. Or, you might choose one of your own. Be aware that objects created after that date are different in that the artists who created them came under the influence of modern society and mass media. You may let that fact influence what you collect or not. You may hold post 1950 artists to a higher standard. Dividing lines like these dates are helpful in that they define and categorize your collection. You’ll also see that “age” is a factor that dealers use in setting prices.
However, at the end of the day, it is the “folk art” image in the piece that transcends all other factors. When I examine a piece of folk art the image has to strike an emotional chord with me. I must be able to immediately respond, positively, to what the artist was trying to accomplish. If it does that I am not overly concerned about age, although to find a piece that combines age and excellent folk art is an added bonus.
The Author with wood carving by Charles Vollrath from Chalk River, ON c. 1930