Who Buys Antiques?



I have recently read several articles about the downturn in the antiques market: young people just don't want them; the market is aging out. That is not to say that they were recent articles, only that I recently read them; the fact that digital media gives us access to so much information means for me only that I am just now hearing about what happened over a decade ago. How could someone, let alone generations of people, not want antiques? Maybe I can come to understand this by looking at why I do want antiques.


I recently saw, and was very moved by, the film Twentieth Century Women; moved in part I am sure because I grew up with Jimmy Carter, the Women's Movement, and the divide between kids who listen to Talking Heads and those who prefer Black Flag (you gotta see the movie).


At any rate, I have vivid memories of 1979 and more were brought back by this movie. I feel too young, too cool, to be complaining about kids these days, forty years later. Can I come to any other conclusion than that they do not want antiques because they did not have the benefit of a grandmother who turned them on to the magic of things? In this state of deprivation they sit in front of a big screen TV, texting each other through little screens across the expanse of a big new fluffy sectional sofa. What, while I re-read Proust with a crick in my neck on a Victorian sofa it took me twenty minutes to settle into? Am I judgmental?


Proust wrote in bed. The first furniture I owned was a bedroom set - a bed and two dressers - my grandparents bought in the 1930s. Many of my prized possessions came from their house (I think of it as her house, since I never met him). I remember going into her attic and seeing for the first time old photographs that now hang in my home.


My grandmother might also have given me reason to hate antiques. Seems at least once a month - more in the October leaf-peeping season - she loaded my mother, sister, and me in to her two-door Malibu to go antiquing just across the state line in Vermont. We drove through landscapes that look like this...



She placated us kids with ice cream cones from Stewart's which, combined with the winding roads and the cigarette smoke accumulating in the closed car, created a nausea beyond anything I have experienced since - not even a ride on the teacups at the State Fair after two corn dogs and a candy apple can compare.


We ate lunch at The Dog Sled, a place with old snow shoes and landscape paintings hanging on the pine paneling.


I assume that much of the furniture in my grandmother's house - most of which has been divided between my sister and me - came from those excursions. She had on old chest much like this one...



In the drawers and compartments inside were all kinds of treasures, which my grandmother had told me would one day be mine. I heard the family lore, that my great-grandfather came back from the war "shell-shocked;" I learned from the medals in this chest that he had been at the Somme. I also found there a Purple Heart, old coins and currency from around the world, and a ration book from during the Second World War.


In the lower drawers were dozens of issues of National Geographic from the 1960s. I pulled out all the maps from them and pinned them to the walls. The walls of my room at home; my grandmother would never have allowed me to poke holes in her wallpaper. A nurse and a postal worker, their house embodied a precious hard-won lower-middle-class respectability. There were no prints, posters, or reproductions on the walls, only small, admirable but amateurish oil paintings, presumably from Vermont bric-a-brac shops.


I have some old family photos on the walls: my great-grandfather's regiment just before they shipped out to France, my grandfather's graduation from Catholic School in 1928. And I have old photos of other people, people I don't know. I call them acquired relatives. My girlfriend finds them creepy, these strangers who watch us from the dining room walls, but I like them; they seem happy and at home among my relatives.


I have bought some old furniture to fill out what came from my grandmother's house. And I have taken down some of the acquired relatives (I like having dinner with my girlfriend). My grandmother passed nearly thirty years ago, but at the thought of getting rid of my old stuff, whether inherited or acquired, I feel not just sadness but a whole new round of grieving for my grandmother. These things, not just things that were her's but also things that come from her time, connect me to her; they connect me to the past; they give me a sense of continuity, of coming from somewhere and having something to pass to my son - not just stuff but the story that comes with each piece.


So, why don't young people want antiques? I don't presume to know. Maybe they do want antiques. Maybe, like all people, some do and some don't. Maybe I should take my son antiquing weekends. In the digital age it is good to experience the materiality of things. I don't know that it builds character but it is enjoyable.


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