Five years ago, when I first met Geo on the night before Father’s day, I could not tell the difference between a sideboard and a side table, nor could I spell Queen Ann correctly. Born in China where during the Cultural Revolution anything old was regarded reactionary. Later in the 80’s and early 90’s when homes were decorated with sheen’s of the brand new, my first experience of visiting the I-76 antiques mall in eastern Ohio was a miserable one. Facing rows of old glasses which seemed to still hold year’s grease and tarnished silverware that I would not dare to touch for sanitary concerns (yeah, both of my parents are physicians), I immediately remembered a comment made by one of my high-school teachers. “In China, antiques and artifacts are a given. We take pride of our 5,000 years’ history. In US, they treasure things merely one hundred year old because they have no real cultural heritage.” Geo later corrected me that a rough line to define antiques in US is 100 years old and anything newer in general can be called collectible.
Why would they save those old dishes that look no different from those at Goodwill? And what about the linen and clothing which in China would only be given away to the poor? Those questions didn’t get answered from Geo, yet the journey of antiquing kept going, rolling from West Virginia to Central Pennsylvania to unknown antiques malls along I-95, somewhere South Carolina. Today I am still not into linen and clothes but I can vividly recall some of the antiques stores in New Oxford, PA where some Federal Hepplewhite Mahogany side tables with minor veneer damages could be found.
Antiquing redefines the relationship between objects and myself. It requires both intellectual curiosity and keen eyes that identifies functionality and aesthetic changes through periods and decouples rarity and beauty from imperfection and aging. America is a young country, yet it rises up to the power in less than 200 years. The mundane antique objects reflected the rapid growth of wealth and defined what the country was chronologically. I have since learned that silver-plated flatware, once mass-produced along route 44 in Connecticut, embraced more exotic and foreign design (with more than 1000 patterns) to suit the eclectic taste of the burgeoning middle class of post Civil War era. And I should have paid more attention to those dirty glasses because the Ohio Valley was once flourishing with glass and porcelain factories. (Bakewell glass is on display on the new American Wing at Metropolitan Museum of Art.)
My attitude toward antiquing changed naturally. First I began to notice something: something odd that I would not imagine its original or something that people from different cultures would think about differently. Then I began to admire something. The architectural splendor of period furniture with warm mahogany venner or gilded feet were hard to miss from the very beginning. Books are always fun to read regardless of the age and if they are priced low, that’s even better. Wall art came in a variety of forms: paintings, drawings or prints. But they require research. Over years, such research began to shift from post-purchase homework to pre-purchase obligation. Quite often, it is the impulse that brought me to something attractive. Then Geo and I would discuss it and study the topic so that the desire became rationalized or justified. Nine out of 10 times the sensibility proved wrong either because objects are not worth the asked price or the interest would probably stale after the initial endorphin subsides. But if in just one out of ten cases that rationalization does agree with impetus, such experience would become unforgettable.
You don’t have to buy when antiquing, but if you do, the journey waddles on.