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Antiques

In the classic film The Scarlet Pimpernel, the lead character, Percy, a member of the British noble class who is aiding French nobles to escape during the French Revolution, utters the short poem "They seek him here, they seek him there, those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he in Heaven, is he in ---- that damned elusive Pimpernel". Many of us in the antiques business feel finding a true young collector is an even more elusive pursuit.

The expression "Young Collectors" is often bandied about, whether it is referencing "Young Collectors' Night" at a prestigious antiques show or in conversation between dealers bemoaning the apparent demise of such an ontological class or species. The phrase, of course, actually encapsulates three distinct concepts: what it means to be "young"; what it means to be a "collector"; and what it means to be a "young collector".

I would like to say the first definition is easy, and that it means anyone a decade older than I am or younger, but it is probably not that simple. To be "young" is often as much a statement about one's vigour and enthusiasm for life as it is about how many years one has actually walked the Earth. We all know "old" young people; and also know "young" old people. Objective measurement of time aside, perhaps, in its deepest and most elementary form, to be "young" is to still be learning and stretching and and exploring.

REVIEWING THE STATISTICS

To be a "collector" is perhaps more difficult a concept to define than being "young" is. There are plenty of people with loads of money who have agents buy things for them because they feel they "should" collect. Although collecting art and antiques might not have the prestige it did in an earlier era, at least in some quarters there is still a perception that it is "sophisticated" in some way. But does having a collection, even what objectively might be described as an important collection, make one a "collector"? I would argue it does not. Collecting is different to simply owning or acquiring. A child who collects baseball cards because he loves the game, likes the players, enjoys reviewing the statistics and might like to trade three cards for one card of his favourite player is completely different to an individual, or corporate entity, that buys a valuable card as an "investment".

Buying "for investment", of course, does not imply one cannot be a collector. They are not mutually exclusive. But "investment" is neither a necessary, nor sufficient, condition of collecting; while sincere interest can be both. There are plenty of people who love the material but also view it as a tangible asset. What makes one person an "investor" and another person a "collector" is their interest in the material itself. That interest can take various forms, depending on one's personality type and, at least to a certain extent, academic orientation. There are collectors who are deeply focused on the sociological or anthropological background of a piece. In the Oriental rug world, weavings by the various Turkoman tribes are often approached this way by collectors and dealers.

A certain design motif or structure resonates with collectors who approach things from a cultural perspective rather than in a primarily "artistic" manner. Though I know little about the antique furniture world, the drive for collectors to focus on regional pieces; i.e., Philadelphia rather than New England furniture, seems to be at least partially dictated by cultural rather than aesthetic considerations. In the cultural approach, collectors might find a rare, but not particularly beautiful, piece to be fascinating. Other collectors take the opposite approach, primarily valuing and aspiring to own an item because of its beauty rather than its pure rarity or cultural significance.

WHAT IS A YOUNG COLLECTOR ?

So what is a "Young Collector"? Is it the same as a "beginning" collector? There are people in the antiques industry, certainly as dealers and perhaps as collectors with other vocations, who began collecting before they were teenagers. For a person who began collecting stamps or arrowheads or other items at twelve years of age, they might have a fifteen year history of collecting and still be in their mid-twenties. So a young person can be an experienced collector and not a "beginner" at all. A "Young Collector" is also often substantially different to someone who could be considered a dilettante.

So perhaps we can conclude that a "Young Collector" is someone who has, chronologically, not yet hit middle age but has a sincere "interest" in items, as opposed to a primary focus on the investment angle. So why are there, seemingly, so few true young collectors?

A lot of this might have to do with the pace of modern life and, as a concomitant, the delegation of tasks to people acting as proxies. I read not too long ago that the average teenager sends somewhat in excess of 3,000 text messages per month. A staggering figure when one thinks about it. Life lived in this manner is, almost by definition, fragmented. There is little time to focus on the deeper meaning of things when you are thinking and acting in sound bites and tweets. I, personally, hate e-mails; but I find myself, nonetheless, making fewer and fewer phone calls, if only because I assume that is the preferred means of modern communication for most people.

Collecting, and especially becoming a "connoisseur", requires time, individual interest and, with notable exceptions, direct engagement. Part of what used to make the antiques business so enjoyable, I believe for both dealers and collectors alike, was the relationships formed through conversations. When you study a piece of art with someone else, you learn what appeals to them. This interaction further facilitates their collecting, because you know what to offer them. This dynamic has diminished greatly in the nearly three decades Helen and I have been in this business. And it is especially rare to find younger people willing to invest the time and energy to form mentor / student sorts of relationships. Much of the selection of furnishings is now done by interior designers, many of whom are undeniably talented in certain aspects, but most of whom lack the requisite time or interest themselves to become experts in respective areas within the antiques world. When the direct relationship between dealers and clients is thus removed, as it so often is with this affluent younger generation, "collecting" turns into "acquiring", if even that. People end up with rooms filled with items they did not select themselves or, if they did, this might have been done with only a cursory review of what they were buying.

SPARKING THE INTEREST

Part of what makes a room both beautiful and interesting is the gestalt effect, where individually selected items combine to make an interesting whole. When items are personally selected by an individual with a passion for them, few things need to be "matched". They simply go together. This is largely because each item sparked the interest of the individual, or couple, at some personal level. When this process is delegated to someone else, a fundamental abridgment of the process occurs. Imagine if someone else picked the car your drive or the clothes you wear or what musical concert you attend.

I hope our culture will eventually slow back down to the point that people having coffee together actually speak with one another, rather than checking their text messages. I hope whatever rush we are in that means we have no time to take an interest in the objects we are surrounded with returns to a time where people will closely examine something other than their smart phone apps. I hope enough people in our society become frustrated and disillusioned enough with the absurd pace of modern life that long conversations become something to aspire to. And I hope that what now seems to be an oxymoron, the concept of "Young Collectors", can become a reality once again.

Douglas Stock