Have We Given Up on Authenticity?

Hard to find two alike - At the Heart of Country Antiques Show in Nashville, TN

If you’re looking for authenticity at major retailers, yes you might become weary. A recent tale published in the New York Times and elsewhere begins in the apartment of Casey Barber, a writer who has decorated with one-of-a-kind items carefully selected over time to express her individuality and experiences.

But sigh, now that major retailers are hawking “authentic” vintage, maybe this experience is not so special. Maybe authenticity has become boring!

Phooey.

Let’s simply compare some of the items the author picks out of Casey’s apartment and compare them with some of the items the article mentions as being offered by major retailers.

In Casey’s apartment there’s a print of some bridges in Pittsburgh, a cardboard bust of a bison, some art prints from Etsy and some vintage postcards. What the article says you can find at retailers includes antique-looking items at Restoration Hardware, vintage pickling jars from Hungary and pillow covers made from grain sacks at Pottery Barn and items at CB2 (Crate and Barrel). These seem to be the best of the offerings and include wooden fragments from a railway in India and artist prints on reclaimed wood.

But even in the CB2 case, this “instant authenticity” has little to do with ourselves and our experiences, it is still but an “instant authentic look” we can pick up off the shelf.  Its not actual authenticity as it relates to our being and experiences.

Are consumers able to make this differentiation?

We as antiques professionals have to help them. If we can’t do that, all is lost.

Anything offered by a retailer with dozens if not hundreds of locations has to be available in some quantity. Pottery Barn could not offer vintage pickling jars if they did not find a slew of them somewhere. If you buy one, you could have the same pickling jar as your neighbor. If that’s what the author refers to as far as “authenticity” wearing on us, I can see it. But as far as personalizing your individual space, choosing between pickling jars at pottery barn and prints at CB2 does not contribute to authenticity.

Authenticity takes time. It comes out of our experiences. A day at an antique market or vintage show is an experience much more than it is a simple activity of shopping for decorative items. Buying an art print of bridges in Pittsburgh from an artist, or during a visit to the city is authenticity. Buying a mass-produced print online is not. The pickling jars offered by Pottery Barn may be old, but we did not find them in Hungary, we found them at Pottery Barn.

Sure, some vintage items were made in mass. In fact, many were. But they are the product of their vintage period, not of our time. They have that weight and wear of time on them. They were purchased, used and scattered.  That’s what makes them authentic in my view. There may be two alike in production, but not two alike in their history. As far as some art and antiques go, there are not two alike. They were made by individual craftspeople. Sure, birds printed on reclaimed lumber is a step in this direction, but its not there yet. It turns out instant gratification and authenticity rarely if ever are baked in the same pie.

If you find yourself tiring of authenticity, perhaps that’s because you’re confused about what it is.

About Eric Miller

Eric Miller is co-founder and contributor to Urban Art & Antiques. His website is ericmiller.me

1 comments

Thanks for this piece. I couldn’t agree more although many people are confused about the distinction. I am very serious about making this point to my customers, and make every effort to carry only period pieces.

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