The Way to Collect

As those who have been to my home or office know, I have a decent collection of mid-20th century paintings and signed prints from Spain, and unfortunately not enough wall space on which to hang them.  They are works I have collected over the past couple of decades, and I continue to augment that collection when I come across new finds, even though I will definitely need a bigger house in which to display them all.  So while reading through my normal blog roll this morning I spotted a bit of news involving a local art and antiques dealer, and thought that this might be a good opportunity for me to share some thoughts  about what I believe is the best way to approach collecting, whether art, books, sports memorabilia, or what have you.

I was sad to learn, via Topher Matthews over at The Georgetown Metropolitan, that Antiques of Georgetown is closing for good, after more than forty years in the trade.  While my favorite place in the village to browse over the discarded artifacts of times past remains L’Enfant Gallery – where there is a 17th century Spanish cabinet I have been drooling over for years – I have enjoyed dropping into this old curiosity shop, first as an undergraduate and later as a “townie”.  There will still be many places in the neighborhood to browse for such items, but of course each time one of these long-established businesses closes, they seem to be replaced by something of the chain store variety, making shopping for that unique item somewhat less, well, unique.

In my experience, the best professionals in the field of collecting are not going to dismiss or ignore you for having questions and being interested, as they are, in such matters.  Merely because you are not in the market for a million-dollar work does not mean that you cannot learn about and enjoy art, antiques, and collecting from those who engage in this activity professionally.  For example, I periodically have exchanges about collecting art (and neckties) with one of the experts on the American version of “Antiques Roadshow”, which began with my emailing him and asking where he found the exceptional necktie he wore on a particular episode.

As is the case with many things in life, the important thing is to get over one’s fears of the unknown, and start exploring.  There are vast amounts of printed and online material to help you, of course, but one of the best ways to learn about such things is through the first-hand observation and tactile experience of them.  Taking the time to examine things up close, and touch them where possible, will provide a far greater understanding of the object than can be gleaned from books or online publications, as invaluable as those resources are.

Many people are put off by having an unpleasant experience with a dealer when they first attempt to put their toe in the water, and certainly when I was a teenager I can remember being shooed away by shopkeepers who thought I might break or steal something.  Today, when this sort of thing occasionally happens, I simply cross that shop off my list and do not darken their doorstep again.  There is an antique bookshop in Barcelona, for example, where a few years ago I purchased a very rare, autographed edition of a book by one of my great-great-grandfathers.  I returned a year or so later to find out whether they had any other books by him, but was treated with something approaching derision by the shopkeeper.  Therefore, I no longer patronize them, and warn people off shopping there.

However to give these people their due, remember that they do not know you from Adam, and have no idea of what a good fellow you are.  They are usually independent business owners, and oftentimes the objects which you are examining are both their livelihood and unique.  If you fumble through a pile of jeans in a chain retail shop, there will likely be no damage at all to anyone; the items on display were mass-produced and easily replaced.  If however you are fondling a rare, late 19th century crystal claret jug and you damage it, the shopkeeper may never see a return on his investment or be able to find one like it.

When it comes to the question of what one collects, I always think that the best advice is to take a two-pronged approach.  First and most important of all, you should collect what you love, rather than what someone else tells you that you ought to love, simply because it is popular or because it is presently viewed as being valuable.  I realize that for my friends and former classmates who are now art advisers, this would be viewed as something of a dig at their profession, but as I am not writing this post for the nouveau-riches who want to acquire by purchase with their millions what nature denied them in personal taste, I will leave it to them to keep their clients informed as to what is worth having.

The second, equally important bit of advice is to find the best example of what you like, rather than obtain something simply because it comes into the general category you are hunting for.  A small collection of well-chosen objects is better than a large collection of a few hits and many misses, at least from my point of view.  You do not need to create a hoard of paintings, books, etc., in order to have a good collection.  Rather like life, having many acquaintances but only a few close friends not only makes things easier from a logistical point of view, but also indicates that you possess at least some level of discernment.

Self-education is unquestionably the best way to get to know your subject, and I would suggest that attending auctions and estate sales, going to flea markets, and consignment shops, will prepare you in ways which simply reading about these things will not.  Do not worry about going along to these things, for no one is expecting you to accidentally put up your hand and bid for the Rubens.  You can ask questions and look at things, research what you have seen, and build up your understanding through seeing not only how you react to something, but also to how others react to it.

At the same time, do not shy away from having a quiet one-on-one visit to your local antiques dealer or gallery, in order to avail yourself of their knowledge and experience – that is, if they prove to be receptive to sharing it with you.  If they really want to cultivate you as a customer over time, they will share their thoughts with you, in the hope that you will return as you are able.  This makes the experience unlike the hard-sell, and more like the relationship you develop over time with your tailor or barber – and that is a relationship which is certainly worth cultivating.


“Interior of the Salon of the Archduchess Isabella of Austria”
by Willem Van Haecht II (c. 1625)
Norton Art Museum, West Palm Beach, Florida

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