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Antique collecting: novices need more time than money

By Maria LenhartSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 22, 1982

If there is a single motto that any beginning collector of antique furniture should solemnly adhere to, it is this: Never put age before beauty.

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For while the popular definition of an antique is that it is an object at least 100 years old, that aspect may be the least important thing to consider when acquiring an item for your collection. If a piece of furniture made 100 years ago, or even 200 years ago, was not worth paying good money for when it was made, the chances are that it still isn't.

To build a collection of antique furniture that is both a wise investment as well as a joy to have in the home means learning to develop an eye for quality and age. In the words of Sam Penninggton, publisher of the Maine Antique Digest, ''This is where the connoisseur comes in. He separates that which is merely old from that which is desirable and old.''

Although the word ''connoisseur'' may conjure up the image of a rich, somewhat pompous gentleman peering at a Chippendale highboy through his monocle, it is something that even the most novice and financially strapped collector can and should aspire to. And while money is an undeniable asset to a connoisseur, it is far less important than study and hard work. ''A collector needs either time or money,'' writes John Kirk in his book ''The Impecunious Collector of American Antiques.'' ''Some of both is helpful, but lots of one will drastically reduce the need for the other.''

Assuming that the prospective collector has considerably more time than money , a good place to start is the local library or bookstore. Don't begin with the myriad of price guides you will find on the shelves, but look for the classics, most notably Wallace Nutting's three-volume ''Furniture Treasury'' (Macmillan) and Albert Sack's ''Fine Points of Furniture: Early American'' (Thomas Crown). The first is a compendium including more than 5,000 photos encompassing almost every significant development in early American furniture.

''Fine Points of Furniture'' goes beyond mere identification and explores those subtle qualities that distinguish a Hepplewhite bureau worth $500 from one worth $5,000. The book contains a liberal number of photos that compare items of similar age and style. At first glance the furnishings appear almost identical, but study soon reveals those important differences that collectors must learn to catch. Primarily, the photos cover questions of proportion and line: Is a bureau too wide for its height, are the legs of a stand graceful and well-tapered, is the carving very well done? It is by careful comparison and observation of such details that a collector can learn to separate the truly great from the merely good or mediocre.

But books are only the beginning. From there, it's important to study as many actual pieces as possible. A good way to do so is to visit museums, including restored-house museums. The furniture you will see is usually the best, offering good standards for comparison against the items you will be encountering in the marketplace.