Antique collecting: novices need more time than money

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.

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.

Eventually it is the marketplace, that vast network of antique shops, auctions, shows, and even flea markets, that becomes the most important aspect of a connoisseur's education. Start with the biggest, most reputable dealers first, and forget about bargain-hunting in out-of-the-way shops until you are more experienced. Besides being the safest places to do business, the larger, more established antique stores tend to have the greatest turnover and offer the most choice, which is the basis for those comparisons.

Any reputable dealer will allow you to study the merchandise thoroughly before a single dollar is exchanged. Don't just observe the exterior of an item, but ask to have the drawers taken out, the piece turned upside down to have a look at all surfaces. By doing so you will get one of the most valuable lessons in becoming a connoisseur: learning to determine if a piece is well made.

Studying how an item is constructed is perhaps the most important way to judge whether or not it belongs in your collection. Age comes into play insofar as most of the hand-crafted, really beautifully made furniture in America was produced before 1830. There are some notable exceptions, however, such as the outstanding furniture made during the Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 20th century, individually crafted items that are considered far more desirable than much of the mass-produced furniture of the Victorian era. And, in fact, the best antique reproductions, those that are produced by skilled cabinetmakers using the same fine woods and techniques employed in the past, are often worth nearly as much as the originals.

Another thing to watch out for when studying furniture is the condition and amount of restoration that has been done. A piece of furniture with its original finish, whether natural wood or painted, is likely to be worth far more than an identical piece that has been stripped or otherwise altered. And pieces that have all their original parts will hold the most value.

One characteristic that separates the connoisseur from the careless collector is this: The connoisseur is rarely swayed by fads or by what the decorating magazines are touting as the latest ''look.''

Once you have carefully studied furniture examples and are wary of the pitfalls of fads and fakery, you are ready to make your first purchase. At this stage, or at any other during your collecting career, it is prudent to get a written statement from the dealer guaranteeing that an item is all that he claims it to be. If, despite your careful study, an object turns out to be otherwise, you will have some legal muster to set the matter straight.

When shopping for antiques it is often tempting to look for the incredible bargain, that fabulously valuable item tucked in the dusty corner of a shop that the ignorant owner is selling for only a fraction of its worth. But usually what happens in such a situation is that the collector is the one defeated by his own greed. More often than not, the dealer knows exactly what he's got, and may even be waiting for a bargain-hunting customer to come along and outsmart himself.

Finally, it is important to realize that being a connoisseur doesn't mean adhering to the rigid tenets of quality and sound advice alone. Taste is a deeply individual matter, and the real joy of collecting is buying something that appeals to your heart as well as your head. The reason for careful study is to ensure that the gap between the two won't be far apart.

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