Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Collecting in the Great White North

So, it seems that much of Ontario, and North America for that matter, is recently part of the Great White North. Temperatures yesterday and today, in the third week in January, in Eastern Ontario have pitched downward to a point where they would easily freeze not only the proverbial privates of a brass monkey but just about every part of his metal anatomy to boot.
This is not a happy time for antique collectors. Other than the occasional indoor auction and winter antique show, the weather is keeping us tamped down and many of the outdoor antique oriented activities - the big field shows, yard sales, country auctions and picking - just aren't available to enthusiasts.  What is an addicted collector to do? I have some suggestions.
The Winter months are a excellent time for research.  It is ideal time to assess the state of your reference library and, if it's like mine, pull it back into good order so that the various printed materials are well organized and easy to find.
Did you receive additional reference books as gifts for Christmas? Take the time to read them carefully. Don't simply flip through the photos and push them onto the shelf.  For example, I was given three antique related books.  
Gather up the Scraps (The Andrews Shaker Collection) by Mario S. De Pillis and  Christian Goodwillie (Yale University Press 2008) is a wonderful book about the Shakers and the essay at the beginning of book was worth the price alone ($25). The author discusses the professional life of Edward Deming Andrews and his wife Faith Andrews, a couple who devoted their lives to preserving the material culture of the Shakers and did so not without controversy.  The Shakers were renowned for their simplicity of design in whatever they built, crafted or manufactured.  They looked on the very act of creating something as simple as a chair or a basket as almost a spiritual undertaking.  It was their duty to God, they felt, to construct an object to the absolute best of their ability.  "Build it like it has to last 1,000 years and as if you will be gone tomorrow", is one of phrases used in the book.

Preserving artifacts means, in this sense, to remove them from their owners place of origin and take them to your premises, an action that did not sit well with their critics. They also, for a time, bought and sold Shaker artifacts; again this is something that their detractors like to emphasize.
Still, no matter how you slice it, the fact remains that this conscientious couple assembled the largest most important collection of Shaker artifacts in existence and also helped to preserve some of their communities. One of the key items they saved for posterity were colourful drawings by the Shakers depicting spiritual themes like the tree of life.  These drawings have become some of the most iconic folk art images in North America.
Of course, the book has many pages of photographs of Shaker furniture, accessories, clothing, hand tools and the like. Simply, reflecting on these images has strengthened my own eye for superlative design.
Since the Shaker's manufactured items for sale to the "outside world", it is quite possible that I will come across one of their beautiful oval storage containers, a firkin or perhaps a basket. Because of this one book, I will hopefully recognize one of their objects if and when I see one.
Research is at the core of successful collecting, be it for folk art, antiques or fine art.  Research arms you with the knowledge that others may not have - including dealers.  When you walk into a antique shop, a flea market an outdoor show, you want to be as knowledgeable or more knowledgeable about a certain area of collecting than the people selling the items that day. To achieve that level, requires research and understanding. Sure, a professional dealer may have handled hundreds if not thousands of the same items that you collect but all of the printed an on line resources are equally available to you. You can browse antique shops, visit galleries and museums. You can also approach private collectors and ask if you can visit to discuss the items you both collect. All of that may not equal the experience and knowledge that comes from handling thousands of items but it will certainly take you a good a long way toward that goal.

One initiative a friend and I undertook this winter, was to ask the Curator of one of our national museums for a guided tour of their curatorial storage areas. The request was granted.  My friend and I got to spend two glorious hours wandering the aisles staring long and hard at some fabulous Canadian art and antiques. Now that was a good use of time! The curator enjoyed our visit too because he could see that we sincerely appreciated and understood the items in front of us. 
So, dust off those reference books. Obtain some new ones. Visit galleries, museums and libraries. Winter is a great time to visit the institutions that support and preserve Canada's past. Think creatively about how you can further your knowledge and understanding about your area of collecting. It will tune you up nicely for the warmer temperatures which, for this collector, can not come soon enough.
Hope you find something great this weekend!

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