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In praise of old favorites

Published on February 6, 2018 12:16PM

By Dana Grae Kane

For the TODAY

In my opinion, Antique Week has two major flaws. First, running from Saturday, Feb. 10, through Sunday, Feb. 18, clearly makes it nine days rather than week. And second, while it does return faithfully every year, it does not come often enough or last long enough to suit me. Once a month throughout the year would be much better, but I try to make do.

The age an object must reach before it is deemed “antique” and valuable as such is always debatable, but generally something is so considered when it has survived at least 75 years, but preferably 100. However, H. Jackson Brown, Jr., who has thus far survived 77 years and is the author of seemingly billions of best-sellers, beginning with the famous “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” reminds me that “the most valuable antiques are dear old friends.” Absolutely they are, and I gather as many of them as possible for this joyfully anticipated yearly ritual. We share the delights of discovery of the surprising, the bizarre, the fabulous, sometimes the unique and occasionally even the rare to be found among the participating shops.

Our imaginations run wild considering the conversations and actions may have taken place over a hand-painted Victorian eggshell-porcelain tea cup. Did dastardly ne’er-do-well third-cousin Egbert Throggleslugge stare steadily over its delicate rim into the eyes of gullible heiress Amelia Chalmondsley, inveigling her to hand over the family fortune? Might evil Aunt Euphorbia have sipped primly from the vessel while her tea guests succumbed to the nightshade in the scones, after which the complicitous gardener interred the innocents beneath the herbaceous border?

Those who have not yet experienced the fun of antique and collectible hunting and feel they don’t have the faintest idea how or where to begin will surely enjoy a preliminary voyage of discovery in the pages of “Kovel’s Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide,” now in its 49th edition, covering virtually every type of object in classical and pop culture. Having started writing in 1952, describing themselves as passionate amateur collectors, not professionals, and thus far having sold over four million copies of their guide, the Kovels can help novices enjoy Antique Week to the fullest. Also, shop owners will help direct newcomers to things with which they would really enjoy living, not merely owning, and explain how to properly maintain them. The antique dealers I know are interested in developing satisfied customers, who will want to return year after year, not in unconscionably unloading white elephants for a one-time profit.

With particular regard to solid wooden furniture, many people are under the mistaken impression that antique pieces are “too expensive” to even consider and thus settle for cheaper “modern” furnishings for their homes. The truth is the reverse: Almost all solid wooden furniture, even that in a sorry state of severe neglect, will outlast the unscrupulously marketed concoctions of plastic, pressboard and (sometimes toxic) chemicals and glue. This false furniture will invariably sag, crack and fall apart, resulting in perpetual replacement costs. A local antique dealer recently marveled to me ruefully that even his own now adult child, despite having been nurtured in the presence of beautiful antique woods, consistently invests in mass manufactured monstrosities that invariably fail. “Three complete bedroom sets in three years,” he sighed, shaking his head, resting his hand on a magnificently hand-carved 150-year-old bedstead.

The other specious argument against real wooden furniture, paneling and wainscotting is that such are “dull” in color and “old-fashioned” in form, ranging only from light oak to black walnut with just the occasional leavening of red or black lacquer, and that Baroque complexity is better replaced with “clean” linearity. These two spurious concepts once met to horrific effect in the fevered brains of the Powers That Were in a major international patent law firm where I used to work. In fairness, I should say that this was understandable, given that the firm was at the forefront of cutting-edge biotechnological and computer software invention. It was decided that the magnificent mahogany characterizing the quiet quality and dignity of the firm since its inception in 1851 was passé. A Decorating Committee was appointed, the members of which, although undeniably brilliant exemplars of science and law, could not have distinguished the Bayeux Tapestry from a recycled tire doormat and thought the Louvre was a type of vertical window blind. It did not end well.

After interviewing numerous decorators, the Committee finally succumbed to the mesmerizing mantra of one particularly sprightly husband-and-wife decorating team: “It’s Always Wise to Modernize.” Massive wads of money changed hands and from the several floors of the firm all former glories were savagely stripped away. In barged a mélange of faux woodgrain turquoise and slate blue linoleum-like flooring and blinding white plastic cabinets, conference tables and chairs, exuding formaldehyde and other dangerous substances, giving the office the look of a 1950s tract Formica kitchen and the smell of a chemical processing plant. Carpeting of competing patterns and colors covered vast expanses. Particularly disconcerting was the foot-wide black and white zig-zag lightning bolt pattern of the new library rug, so visually disturbing that librarians suffered vertigo and dared not look toward the bottom shelves for fear of vomiting on the books.

Not to be left behind, the reception area sported juxtaposed cube chairs in piercing turquoise and screaming Halloween orange. Meanwhile, back at the cubicle maze, the interior walls had broken out in a polyester geometric design print in a mixture of coral, turquoise, pink and black, appearing to have been infected with a strange disease. Staring at this at close range, as we cubicle-dwellers had no choice but to do, proved so migraine-making we resorted to taping sheets of plain printer paper over the fabric and regretted the ignorance that had caused us to scorn the original gray as boring and inartistic. Now we understood why lab rats go mad.

The tide began to turn only when major International clients recoiled in shock upon first entering the reconstituted reception area, politely suppressing guffaws disguised as coughs. Accompanying several of them as interpreter, I learned some unexpectedly candid expressions drawn from the undiplomatic vernacular. Alas, the Committee had neglected to recall that many CEOs, CFOs, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists, particularly those from Europe and Asia, usually had heaps of treasured wooden furniture at home in their chateaux and Manhattan penthouse pied-a-terre, passed down lovingly for minimally 400 years of dynastic family life.

Within six months, the thin fabric on the chairs began to wear and fray, the plastic cupboard doors would not close all the way, one of them falling on and breaking an employee’s foot, and the filing shelves sagged ominously. Rehab of the employee and the office was scheduled as early as possible and the hapless Decorating Committee members were confined to their fields of expertise. The firm was refurbished in a high-quality conventional manner, but the formerly unique elegance and ambience were lost forever.

Having at last escaped from the above world, I now seek peace and tranquility. When people visit my retirement apartment, they see a few solid wooden pieces of furniture dating from about 1850 to 1940, none of it perfect and none of it matched, but all of it compatible, most of it purchased during previous Antique Weeks, no single piece having cost more than $350, all selected judiciously to please my eye and suit the available space without cramming. Every one of my woods earns its keep by containing things, maximizing my storage space. For a one-time expense, and often an especially low one during Antique Week, anyone can acquire very high-quality furnishings to last a lifetime and beyond, an admirable legacy. Fortunately, Antique Week lasts long enough for us to shop mindfully and meaningfully. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was it built of plastic and pressboard. Such garbage makes landfill, not history.

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