Becoming a connoisseur

A connoisseur is, by dictionary definition, ''one who knows.'' The term implies discriminating judgment. It suggests that one understands the details, techniques, or principles behind an object or an art.

But how does one go about developing connoisseurship?

Is it an innate instinct? Can it be cultivated and developed? The answer is yes to both questions. Most of us feel yearnings toward good things and would like to think we are capable of choosing the best that is available in our own price range. Anyone can constantly add to and refine background information and knowledge.

Connoisseurship involves a lifetime learning process, a willingness to grow and push out mental boundaries. Many ways exist today to help with this expansion. There are schools, classes, lectures, and symposiums. There are antiques forums, such as that sponsored each winter by Colonial Williamsburg and there are museums, auction galleries, fine stores, and special publications galore.

For some concrete guidance, several connoisseurs of distinction offer advice. Each one emphasizes that connoisseurship has little to do with money, but everything to do with excellence of design and intrinsic quality.

Design consultant George O'Brien says, ''A terra cotta tile might cost very little, but in its simplicity and honesty of material, it could be very beautiful and very useful. There is as much quality in an earthenware object as in one made of porcelain.'

Walter Hoving, former chairman of Tiffany & Co. in New York, recalls how he began to develop connoisseurship: ''Early in my career, when I was at Macy's, I enrolled at New York University and took every applied-art course that was offered. It took me three years, going twice a week at night, but that was the beginning of my understanding. I was eventually able to develop those high standards of design which underpinned everything we did at Tiffany's. We were just as painstaking about a $2 dessert plate as we were about a $2,000 silver bowl.'

Stanley Marcus of Dallas, former chairman of Neiman-Marcus, in his book ''Minding the Store,'' writes: ''The development of my own personal taste has been a laborious process. It is the result of years of looking and seeing, comparing and analyzing, wearing out shoeleather in museums and on the shopping streets of every city I visit.'' Yes, he says, the eye can be educated. It can be taught to be selective.

When people ask Mr. Marcus how to start collecting, he says, ''Start buying things that you think you like, cautiously, until you develop some critical standards of quality and value. Don't be afraid to make mistakes; all collectors make them. But do have the courage to put your money down and make a commitment, for until you take this first step, you are not likely to start learning. Above all, buy what you like after getting the best advice available.''

Clement Conger, curator of the White House and of the State Department reception rooms in Washington, is a connoisseur who has raised and spent millions of dollars for fine American antiques. How did he acquire his expertise?

''I am self-taught and self-trained,'' he says. ''I grew up in Virginia with English antiques, but when I realized how little I knew about American antiques I set out to learn. I went to visit every great collection of Americana, including the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum, the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and many others. I began to build a library of basic textbooks on American antiques and to visit antique dealers. I would see what each dealer had to offer and would compare it with things I had seen in other shops. I asked dealers for advice and openly invited them to teach me. To this day, when I am in doubt, I go to a reputable dealer like Israel Sack Inc. in New York and say, 'Tell me, what do you think of this piece? Is it good? Is it average? What's wrong with it? Would you buy it yourself?' If the dealer would buy it, that's usually good enough for me.''

Mr. Conger's advice to anyone seeking to develop connoisseurship is, ''Buy all the basic books in your field of interest. Read them. Then visit museums, collections, and shops. Look, compare, and handle objects until you not only have a complete familiarity with them, but a genuine 'feeling' for them. When the 'feeling' comes, you are on your way.''

Auction houses are also great learning places, because of their catalogs and experts. John L. Marion, president of Sotheby Parke Bernet in America, agrees that the whole process of developing connoisseurship is self-educative. He thinks auction catalogs offer ongoing instruction. ''Catalogs provide a permanent record of the art market,'' he says. ''If a person took the time to study them on a regular basis, to visit the exhibitions and later compare sale prices, they would soon develop their eye and their taste. Then, if they would look at similar things in other auction galleries, museums, shops, flea markets, and even garage sales, they would gradually develop those standards of comparison that are essential to real connoisseurship. They would learn how to check out rarity, quality, and condition, and whether a piece had been restored or not.''

There is no substitute for footwork, Mr. Marion says. ''You can read all the books, and sit in classrooms by the hour, and look at educational television shows by the dozen, but until you have made these necessary rounds and learned how to compare, you are not on the path of true connoisseurship.''

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