It is often assumed that because something is old it is therefore an antique and indeed the dictionary definition of the word – “having existed since old times, old, aged, venerable” would suggest the same but such literal translations belie the true meaning of the word within the world of antiquity.
As an antique dealer my understanding, and it is an understanding borne out of a life time’s experience, is very much in accord with the British Antique Dealers Association old definition, which determines that antiques are those works of art made prior to the British Industrial Revolution which began in the 1830’s. This does not preclude the fact that many fine pieces have been made since the early part of the 19th Century and indeed it is fair to say that vernacular or domestic furniture retained a handmade approach right up to the 1900’s and was much celebrated in the Arts and Crafts movement.
The reason that lies behind the benchmark definition of “prior to the 1830’s” is quite simple and that is that hand crafted workmanship could only be guaranteed to this point in history. With the advent of industrialization came prosperity and with that a rise in affluence which created a demand from those that aspired to life as the gentry. Machine made furniture satisfied demand but in terms of quality and more importantly, uniqueness, did not shape antiquity.
It is the furniture that was made from the 16th to the late 18th Century that best exemplifies hand crafted furniture and therefore antiquarian tradition. Early craftsmen were known as joiners because they used a system of joining pieces of furniture together called mortise and tenon and pegging. Their finish was ‘straight from the blade’ which meant that they never sanded their furniture (sandpaper had not been invented). Hand waxing completed the finish to reveal the depth and beauty of the timbers used and laid the foundation for the much abused word ‘patina’.
The late 17th and 18th Century is a period considered by many to have produced the finest works in furniture design. It was an age where a generosity of spirit and discovery was reflected in exquisitely made furniture with refinement and elegance of design being enhanced by finely made hand finished veneers and delicate finishes. The ‘Chippendale Look’.
By the 1840’s the demise of the craftsman/designer was apparent and the rise of the manufacturer/retailer came to the fore. A greater demand from the expanding middle classes was reflected in rapidly changing styles set by the market rather than by designers and makers. Queen Victoria’s growing empire demanded a revolution in style and the middle classes wanted their new homes furnished. The machine age could meet demand but the age of the true antique had gone.
After the Great War a trade opened up in second hand goods around the world. Various countries at the time were signatory to what is known as the Brussels Agreement. This meant that an item of 100 years of age (or more) could be traded within those countries without duty applying.
The Agreement failed to define antiquity in its true sense with the consequence that, today, machine produced furniture is being classified as antique.
If we are not careful the devolution of antiquity will reach a point where plastics and items of decoration that have hardly been touch by hand will qualify as antique; hardly appropriate for such a well-meaning word and one that is often used to exaggerate the value of a very ordinary item.