When Geo asked me what I thought about the Philadelphia Antiques Show on the free shuttle bus back to the 30th Street Station, I couldn’t give a definite answer. It was a nice show with stunning artworks and furniture. As Geo put it, only the best of the best dealers are there. But it is not a show of antiquing for budget collectors. During my three hours visiting at different booths, I only spotted a few collectors of my age, the majority have grayer hair than those in Met Opera. In some sense, the eminent difficulty of the antiques business is the economy, yet a deeper and more complex problem with regard to the antiques is where are the antique customers of the future?
I did have some good conversations with some dealers who possess great knowledge in their fields. Because hardly anything would fall into my price range, to develop an interest in certain field is more important to me than to develop a relationship with these high-end dealers. No matter what the savvy collectors warn against the bargain hunting and emphasize on buying the best that you can afford, collectors do not become devoted and focused from the very beginning. The pleasure of finding what the hearts fall comes from the trials of trading in and out: In particular beginner collectors have a much tighter budget yet a less refined area of what to collect.
It is true that shows like the one at Philadelphia is not meant for young or beginner collectors, they charge 18 dollars for admission fee and no free re-admission for the four days event so that only determined collectors would likely to go. But there is some kind of boredom with antiquing numerous stores in the rural areas of central Pennsylvania, especially there has been a continuous declining in the quality of the antique malls. After seeing things after things, one needs to be inspired, not just by visiting museums where objects cannot be handled and felt (although deaccessioning makes obtaining museum collection possible), but by visiting high-end shows to learn what makes a great object and how it differs from the mundane and mediocre.
But the dealers at Pthe hiladelphia Antiques Show, although extremely courteous, did not try to engage visitors. This conventional sales model in high-end antiques business (courteous but not loquacious, suggestive but not assertive) would assure the dignity and nicety during the negotiation and transactions with deep-pocket savvy collectors, yet it does not work well for the young generations who are used to facebooking, blogging and twittering, all sort of self-promoting techniques. For them, the reserved manner of the dealers can be just as aloof as their price tags. In my experience, the four dealers that I have talked with all have a business card with their websites. But none has brought a laptop to show their website that would encourage visitors to explore their inventory which may include items with entry-level price range. Neither did they have a signing sheet to allow visitors to receive their twitters, blogs or at least some newsletters.
Americana is the main theme of the Philadelphia Antiques Show. There are a few painted chests, who selow profiles didn’t attract too much attention even though they were put in prominent positions. In my opinions, great treasure and high price are more likely to come from auction houses where dower chests are directly from the descendant of the original owners or the pioneering collectors. But I doubt that the fervor would keep heating up as the number of fresh-on-market chests dwindle and younger generation tend to own things that are more practical.
On the other hand, the number of Queen-Ann chair or Chippendale chairs in the show would make a great class for learning the regional characters and regional preferences with respect to chair making. The price were high, but at least five pairs of chairs and two corner chairs were sold during the first day. The prestige associated with Queen-Ann or Chippendale chairs appeals to the typical show visitors: white, middle or senior aged, affluent (or at least well-dressed). Similarly, a 18th century New Hampshire tiger-maple slant front desk was tagged for more than $20,000 even though the brass hardware was replaced. Geo and I have seen a Connecticut desk (with some minor damage) for merely $1000 at Doyle Auction.
Geo’s favorite object came from the booth of Martyn Gregory of London. A pair of Chinese gouache drawings were rendered by an unknown (probably Chinese) artists with confident hands. The departure from shifting perspective indicated a rigid western art training. The bamboo chairs and stools, painted in black, convey simplicity and serenity of Chinese antiquity. The lucidity is enhanced by the choice of minimalistic colorism and formless shadow to suggest the light source. But most of all, the subjects were painted with a mind possessing essence of Chinese art. The interplay between the modest and diminutive sitting furniture and immense white space around makes the most intriguing statement for this hybrid type of art: Even at its most clarity and precision, objects in Chinese paintings are abstracted into imaginative space that defies any attempt of linking them with reality of daily usage.
My favorite object was a pair of Queen-Ann chairs, which were already sold when I spotted them (see above). The through-tenon technique indicated its Philadelphia origin. The walnut chairs were probably made in the first half of the 18th century. Although the stretchers look conservative, the elegantly curved splat and the crest make sure a comfortable sitting. Both chairs have period seat cover, although not original. The dried marsh grass is still in the seat cushion. With a humble pair of slip cover (yeah, no more cat scratch!), they would easily fit into a modern dining room and endure modest daily use.
Lastly, Geo commented that “Antiques may be green. But shutting the water fountain off and asking visitors to buy water from a plastic bottle poured into plastic cup is not green.”
Philadelphia Antiques Show opens until April 21.