Saturday, August 21, 2010

We've got a "problem"

That chest of drawers has problems.

The chair is period, but is problematic.

Most of the stuff in that guy's collection has major problems.

Does this sound familiar? We hear comments like these all around the marketplace: at shows, at auctions, everywhere. What, exactly, are "problems" in the context of antiques? Generally speaking, condition issues and/or restoration. What we want to know is why something that is present in the vast majority of authentic antiques is a problem. If a 200-year-old blanket chest survives to today in totally original condition, without a bit of damage or repair, then it's a miracle and the price typically reflects this. But if it has a replaced back foot, all of a sudden it's "problematic." Why is this?

It seems to us that an authentic antique, even if it has significant restoration, is a good thing. So why do we condemn a restored object with a word like "problem?" Doesn't this make most antiques undesirable? After all, who wants to own a problem? (We do, of course, believe that fake or fraudulent objects, or those that have been "dressed up" or restored in a deceptive way can be problems, unless they are bought and sold as exactly what they are.)

It's only a word, yes, and in 21st-century America, we often get overly sensitive about words. But we're not talking about a misguided attempt to be politically correct, and we certainly aren't suggesting that we should start saying "the P-word." We are, however, saying that by using overly negative words to describe perfectly authentic antiques, we are demeaning them. We are not creating an environment in which these wonderful objects-objects that have lived lives and been used and even loved-are desirable. And aren't we, as auctioneers and dealers, suppose to be creating a desire to own these things?

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

The pervasive use of negative words such as problem can be, how shall we say it, some what problematic and I agree that overuse of such word leads to a negative impression of antiques with the general public. The antiques and collectables trade, just like most other economic sectors, has its own unique jargon, and whether or not we like it ‘problem’ is among those terms.
While most items encountered in the antiques trade have been used and will not be in pristine condition, there is still a general expectation of minimal acceptable condition. There is a usual range of conditions that is expected for classes or types of objects sold at different levels of the trade and any divergence from this normal range results in positive or negative attributions to the object. Lets take your ‘problematic’ blanket chest with the replaced rear leg as an example. First let’s see how it fairs at a low end flea market where most other blanket chests have or need some sort of repairs, or may be misrepresented in some way, the chest with a good and honest repair to only one back leg replaced may stand out as a real gem. Now, put it in another location, such as a mid range antiques shop where most chests have some level of restoration done and the chest with a replaced leg is simply a functional item. However, in a high end shop where all the other blanket chests have their original legs, and most other condition issues are similar, then the item indeed can be called problematic. The ‘problem’ arises as objects, as they tend to do, move up in the hierarchy of marketplaces, the higher the level the greater the expectations of perfection or something close to it. Additionally the ‘problem’ is not inherent to the object, but a combination of object and market level. These expected norms can vary widely with different types of items and can be trumped by other factors such as provenance, in fact a good provenance can ‘fix’ just about any ‘problem’ one can imagine
Potential buyers may use negative words to denigrate objects with the hope of obtaining a lower the actual sales price, while sellers use such words as part of the disclosure process. Appraisers and commentators will also use terms like ‘problem’ to explain a negative divergence from the expected price. The more interesting question, to me, is why are terms like ‘problem’ so pervasive? I suspect that the overuse of the word problem comes from the inflated sense of trade level I have observed in the antiques business. Most dealers in antiques particularly at the lower and mid levels of the business tend to see themselves as being somewhat higher in the stratification than they actually are. This in turn leads to higher expectations for the objects they offer and therefore more ‘problems’ turn up. This is an issue that goes far deeper than semantics and one that won’t be corrected easily.
Another question is: what better word is there? Can one quickly and easily say “this object has a negative divergence from what is expected at this venue and therefore should be discounted somehow” and put a positive spin on it?

james conrad said...

I prefer to call them "condition issues" when i inquire about a piece i am thinking of purchasing. If an antique piece of furniture has no condition issues, it can't be an antique, correct?

Anonymous said...

I think that some people in the trade tend to look for the perfection they cannot find in themselves or others through things they purchase (or not). We need to lighten up.

Anonymous said...

I think it's fair to say that for most, an antiques perfection in condition is not why people buy them. In fact, I welcome non-perfection - it adds character and reflects lives lived. We assigned the need for perfection in order to establish range of 'values' only, and yes, once one does that it leaves one open to various interpretations of 'just how problematic is a problem?'

I do not enjoy the company of older persons because they are perfect - I enjoy them because they are rich in history and life.

Hollie and Andrew said...

True, James, if something is pristine, you should look closely to verify age.

That's a hugely interesting theory...folks seeking perfection in their collection to fill something they don't see in themselves. I love psycho-analyzing stuff! But you are most definitely right...we all need to lighten up. Replaced feet or not, this stuff is wickedly cool. Besides, seeking "all original" is practically a wild goose chase...I'd bet that less than 1/10 of 1% of the American antiques out there are truly "all original" and "untouched".

EM said...

for some people, things have "problems" when they want to buy them.

Anonymous said...

Just now catching up on the column, and EM is SO correct. Being in the trade, and also collecting an eclectic variety of things I love, I find this very true. If I turn down an insultingly low offer on a nice inlaid game table the counter comment is generally that it has "flaws". They should just go to Macy's if they want new!!

Anonymous said...

I agree with EM. In my shop the desire for a lower price is often associated with the claim that an antique has "flaws." It especially seems to happen after an insultingly low offer has been turned down. I suspect these are the folks who mostly shop at Furniture Fair or the like.