Is ‘Antiques’ The Right Word?

“Antiques. I can’t afford them and I don’t understand them.”

Much has been made recently about the difficult state of the antiques market. In an increasingly fast-paced world led by interiors magazines and the pure, hard drive of commerce from high street and retail park retailers, some say antiques have fallen by the wayside. Even more so as these retailers build their offerings of new versions of the objects we love, buy and sell.

For many, the very word ‘antiques’ conjures up images of polishing heavy brown furniture, tweed covered gentlefolk from the shires, and the tick-tock of a grandfather clock in an otherwise silent antiques shop ruled by a rather grumpy looking dealer engrossed a newspaper. All once appealing, but now not so to much of the public. Then there’s granny’s china cabinet, bursting at the hinges with trinkets and bibelots. “Look, but don’t touch anything!” she cries as she serves a cup of tea in her precious tea service. “It’s very old you know, it used to belong to my granny, so be careful!” She says with a certain smile.

And then there’s the price. “Surely I can’t afford ‘real antiques’, the stuff of stately homes and grand antiques fairs or Bond street shops? And, if I do go in and try to buy, because I actually quite like them, what if I make a mistake or say something out of turn? Why do people turn a vase over to look at the bottom, or take a drawer out to look at the back, before nodding sagely? I don’t want to look or sound like a fool! Antiques, they’re not for me, surely?

But as it’s plain to see if you attend any well-run fair, centre or shop, there are plenty of visitors, and plenty of them are keen and willing to buy – especially if the dealer gives them the right encouragement, information and attention. Despite the doom mongers, many people are still buying our lovely old stuff.

Interiors magazines have gone cold turkey on their addiction to 100% pure mid-century modern and the clean lines of minimalism. Instead our addictions to keeping ‘on trend’ are fed with images that clearly show a mix of objects both old and new. The curves of a Rococo sideboard are echoed in the neoclassical urn that sits upon it and in the colour saturated shapes of the Terry Frost painting that hangs above them. They shouldn’t work together, but they do. And all are displayed against a simple, easy-on-the-eye painted wall that encourages you to tuck in to the visual feast presented in front of you.

Others readily mix Art Deco furniture with chintzy Edwardian tea sets, a mid-century modern lamp and wire magazine rack, granny’s favourite comfy armchair and that quirky vase found in a French flea market for a song on holiday last Summer. Whilst wearing something from the 1950s to serve the tea and cupcakes. That vignette comes under the banner of ‘vintage’, which some argue has saved our beloved industry. Mix and match is back stronger than ever, and it’s all about expressing individuality, yourself and your loves and life experiences through the objects in your home.

‘Vintage’ has meant that many of the antiques we love and buy and sell have found a practical second life – most of these buyers actually use the objects they have amassed, as well as displaying them. And these objects really bloom and blossom when there’s a story behind each piece, which their proud owners delight in revealing.

But some in the trade have a problem with the ‘vintage’ movement, even though it’s almost certainly here to stay. It’s true that many pieces are under a certain level of price and quality, and it can be true that there’s often a lack of what used to be grandly titled ‘connoisseurship’. Condition also counts, and here it’s often the shabbier the chic-er. But we should be grateful for and celebrate the facts that buyers choose our objects over new ones, and that new generations are even interested in what we love and have to sell. It’s typically eye-appeal combined with Jackanory over expertise, and the ‘decorative’ angle increasingly seems to be the way the market is going, particularly if you wish to attract new generations of buyers.

But the people who buy these pieces don’t call them ‘antiques’. That word appears to be almost too loaded with unappealing connotations for them. Certain fair organisers keen to attract this vibrant market have realized this and are toying with new titles for their fairs to do so. When I worked with Judith Miller and DK we struggled with the title ‘Decorative Arts’ for a book about the subject as it seemed somehow too elitist and off-putting. I think we’re all in agreement that the dreadful term ‘brown furniture’ needs a marketing makeover to develop the nascent return to popularity of the stuff, but do we need to extend that makeover to the word antiques too? Or is ‘vintage’ it?

First published on IACF.co.uk, the organisers of the largest antiques fairs in the UK at Newark, Swinderby, Ardingly and other locations across the nation.

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