Objects, even the smallest in size, hold worlds of meaning to their owners. Folks collect everything from early American quilts and Renaissance paintings that fetch thousands at auction houses to old records and seashells that reveal themselves at just the right moment. It just takes one object to capture our attention and start the journey to a lifetime of collecting (and all the research, early morning garage sales, and painstaking restoration that comes with it). While many think antiquing is a stuffy pastime for the old-money elite, it’s anything but. A new generation is collecting antiques, and they’re changing the rules as they go.
My Experience with Antiquing and Collecting
My mother had a love of collecting that has inspired my journey to becoming an interior designer and my appreciation for objects. She was self-taught and learned where to look and how to identify good furniture pieces, whether they be collectible or simply well-constructed. She passed down her knowledge to me during mornings spent scouring yard sales, junk stores, and antique malls for the best deals and most interesting pieces. Often, folks didn’t know what they had because they neglected to do the research. So, my mother would take them for a steal. What a rush it was for her!
I continued to refine my expertise in antiques while working at Christie’s New York, where I got firsthand experience in the shopping and buying process for dealers and collectors. I learned even more about what makes an interesting piece of furniture and how to identify design periods by the smallest of craftsmanship nuances. The cataloging process took my attention to detail to the next level. Each description is an essay in design education, providing a lens to train the eye just what to look for.
A Renewed Interest in Collecting: The New Antiquarians
Recently, an amazing new book came to my attention. The New Antiquarians: At Home With Young Collectors by Michael Diaz-Griffith showcases how the once-shut doors to the dying antiques world have opened up and are flourishing with a renewed interest from a new generation. A young collector himself, Michael grew up in rural Alabama in what he calls a “series of sheetrock-clad interiors without a stick of antique furniture,” thanks to his adoptive mother’s own complicated history and relationship with antiques. His interest in old things grew from their absence, and eventually, his family got on board with trips to historic houses and antique fairs. Michael went on to become the associate executive director of The Winter Show, America’s longest-running art and antiques fair.
Due to the Great Recession of 2008, Michael and many of his millennial peers got a late financial start, preventing them from getting in on the antique and collecting game. Even garage sales require some extra cash, after all. While auction houses were trying to navigate what seemed like an inevitable decline, a new generation was busy curating and diving into antique research online as they prepared for their entrance into the antique world. Micael believes it’s human nature to be curious about the past and that his generation, in particular, is fascinated with nostalgia.
A decade later marked the arrival of the New Antiquarians in 2018, a group Michael names “not because they uniformly collect antiques — some collect vintage material, or a mix of antique, vintage, and contemporary art and objects — but because they follow, with considerable spirit and rigor, in the long, eccentric tradition of treating the practice of connoisseurship as a serious vocation.” While the New Antiquarians are becoming attuned to the antique world, they take a different approach from their predecessors.
An Antiquing Mindset Shift
During the Golden Age of Antiques, from the 1970s through the early 2000s, folks collected for status. Michael explains that in the 1980s, “an ambitious couple on the Upper East Side could be expected to own a set of eighteenth-century dining chairs.” Those chairs would be an indicator of success. However, the rise of the digital age has brought a plurality to design, putting all styles and collectibles on equal footing. Michael goes on, “Thirty years later, however, few cared if you had a dining room or not, and the chairs gathered around your table (if you had one) were immaterial to your social existence (if you had one).” In other words, the pressure is off, and collectors are free to collect for the sake of collecting! Michael explains the main difference between old collectors and the New Antiquarians is that “they do not collect due to social pressure, they collect for the love of the thing itself.”
The Makings of a Pastime and Passion
Collecting requires studying, searching, discovering, purchasing, and restoring — the ingredients to a pretty rewarding pastime or even a life’s passion. It’s endlessly fascinating to learn about antiques. The more you learn, the more you realize what you don’t know and just how much further you can dive in.
When I was in New York City, there was a young French furniture restorer who worked out of a basement in a neighboring building next to my office at Bilhuber and Associates on 59th Street. He was always generous with his knowledge and taught me his process, from new veneer applications to a proper “French polish.” Tradespeople like this are few and far between these days. However, I hope this resurgence in antiques inspires a few New Antiquarians to apprentice with the old-timers. At my neighbor’s heels, I learned much of what I know about antique restoration. The most important lesson is to ask an expert before you dive in to make changes to a piece. If you’re not careful, you can damage the value of the antique.
The Search is On
As Michael says, “Finding is only the beginning of the story.” Once you win that first auction or barter your way to success at a flea market and take possession of your first collectible, you’ve opened the door to a new quest to collect. These objects speak to us for a reason, whether they connect us to a dreamy rendition of the past, unlock a childhood memory, or capture the essence of our personality. The joy of collecting is unsurpassed.
It’s time for the new generation to begin the search.
Amity Worrel is an award-winning interior designer based in Austin, Texas. She has worked on high-end interior design projects for celebrities and tastemakers in NYC, LA, and the Bahamas. In 2008, Amity decided to bring her passion for diverse design back to her hometown of Austin. Her spaces pull from timeless design concepts ranging from coastal contemporary to cozy cottage to Austin eclectic. Emotional connections, functional flow, and a touch of humor remain central to every interior design scheme. Her work has been published in national and local publications, including The Wall Street Journal, House Beautiful, HGTV Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and Austin Home. In her free time, she loves perusing estate sales and diving into design history. Learn more about Amity.