Selling the Experience

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If you pay attention to adverts then you will know that the DIY chain Homebase no longer just sells you locks for your bathroom door but 5 minutes of sanctuary from your children, high street banks don’t just store your money but enable you to go on sun-drenched holidays, supermarkets don’t provide food but help us host unforgettable dinner parties, and we all know cars are for creating epic cliff-top memories with.

From foods to fashion, consuming today is about enhancing our own hedonistic lifestyles and creating memorable experiences along the way. It’s the sales lie we have all come to expect from our buying habits, that objects and services must now humbly earn their place in our cluttered and hectic lives by offering more than just basic service.

Although the rest of the advertising world is already ‘experience’ crazy, it feels like the antiques industry as a whole has been much slower to evolve in this direction. In many ways this is an anachronism as antiques tend to be natural yarn-spinners and lifestyle definers. Yet wander through an antique centre or online portal and more often than not you will still be faced with very understated service-led descriptions such as ‘18th Century Silver brush’ or ‘Victorian pine table’ against a safe white background.  Granted trading standards will never come calling for misrepresentation, but neither does it set your pulse racing in the way that it should.

A change of focus

Beyond just a bolder use of adjectives, the wider issue is that many of our antiques today are still being sold and marketed based solely on their own merit and not those of the potential buyer.  It seems a strange and subtle shift of perspective, particularly to the object worshipers out there, but sadly a pertinent one.  In our own marketplace, many of the items that sell the best today are perhaps those that have made this transition and indeed offer the buyer a sense of more than just service.   Iconic and very rare objects in all fields have seen a steady rise because they gregariously provide social kudos to the new owner, decorative-interior led items successfully pander to the persona of the buyer’s home, designer vintage watches give you a momentary hit of the James Bond lifestyle and classic vehicles allow for afternoons of nostalgic escapism away from our stressful modern lives.

The shifting tide

Within the antiques industry there are those who are at last pointing in the right direction. During the last year I’ve noticed both the luxury online portal 1stdibs and the auction house Christies each offer their own online lifestyle-oriented magazine. The near daily offerings of each feels a bit much for my timid inbox, but the fusion of themed items and interesting associated stories is thoroughly modern and refreshing. Many auction houses across the country (including Bonhams most publically) are currently in the process of realigning a portion of their sales towards more interior themed offerings, and most have now realised the merit of promoting a whole buying experience (with decent cafes, educational talks and enticing social media) rather than just selling an few objects.

For their part the best dealers around are taking on the consumer-led world by fostering a sense of theatre and drama in what they do. Captivating us with a mix of carefully curated objects and edgy photographs or displays, each creates their own enticing microcosm to explore and be entertained in. This same sense of drama and escapism runs true for quality Fairs as well. While some like Olympia still aim to awe us with their grandeur, others like Battersea choose instead to engulf us for a few short hours in their own fantasy wonderland where we get to leave our own turmoils at the door. And lets not forgot the IACF fairs at Ardingly and Newark . Although the experience is less curated and more melting pot, the sheer scale, energy and chaos can still linger in you for days to come making you crave the next one.  And that’s really the trick the antiques industry is finally learning and adapting to- that today’s consumer perhaps craves memories and sensations more than stuff and now expects to be sufficiently entertained before parting with their hard earned money.

If you too are intending to heading out to auctions, fairs or antique centres this summer, then take a moment to reflect on and soak up the experience at hand that has most likely been carefully created for you. But just as importantly, when you do find that object that takes your fancy, even if the ticket only tells you its a 19th Century soup spoon, think about all the laughter-filled family dinners you will be able to serve up with it!

Shop interior photo attribution: Ben Salter

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Collecting the Future……

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We hope collecting floats forever downstream, navigating safely between the markers of quality and craftsmanship. But people love to pioneer and so often new collecting interests emerge that for a time slap the face of convention, before they too join the main flow. This being an edition about time, I thought it interesting not to glance back to the past as usual, but to peer light-heartedly and speculatively into the distant future at a few unconventional things that may just be tickling (and stirring up) our collecting habits in decades to come. If today you feel antique collecting is straining under the mantle of change…….at least feel comforted in the knowledge that in the future things are probably going to get even more confusing!

If condition still equals value

Auctions teach us that rarity and condition, especially when its against the odds, is a magical match. We all know a book with its dust jacket far excels those without and vintage toys stored wrapped as new in a box make headline figures. So its worth considering how this tried and tested equation may manifest in the future amongst our current consumables? After too many hours pondering the many things of our throw away culture, I would hedge my money on our pesky household appliances that seem to barely make it out of the box before breaking, or perhaps more pertinently, everyday flat-pack furniture. Epitomised by the likes of Argos and Ikea and now found in all our homes (admit it, you have some somewhere) these currently cringe-worthy items must surely suit the future collectors criteria. Formed of both thin plastics and chipboard that can never be properly repaired once damaged, they are usually and inaccurately screwed together by amateurs and become the first thing on the bonfire during the annual spring makeover. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if in the future choice flat-pack melamine items by key designers or retailers (obviously still boxed and in their shrink wrap) do indeed find their way proudly into prized collections and museum vaults to attain financial values we can only laugh at.

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Collecting the Virtual

Of course its not just our perceptions of quality that may have to change in the future, but indeed our whole idea of antique and vintage collectables as 3D objects. Take for instance the laudable fields of photograph and ephemera collecting. Did you know that Facebook alone holds on its servers over 250 billion of our photos with an eye watering 350 million more uploaded per day. Add to this all the other popular programmes we now use, and according to one person’s calculation that means that we are currently uploading more digital images per year than was produced in the whole previous history of photography. Image sharing as we can see is one of the fastest growing activities on the web and while sharing your selfies with your friends may not be everyone’s cup of tea, with the rise of cheap or free online file depositories, more and more of us are choosing to upload and store online not just our precious images but billions of documents and sound files as well.

Its an interesting thought to conjure with: A large percentage of the things we are creating and enjoying today, will have no physical presence decades in the future. Ok the cynic within us may laugh and see that as a good thing, but its fair to say that much of the social and cultural history of today is being recorded and preserved not on paper, but on the virtual memory space of someone else’s server.

It stands to reason that in the future there will be wide spread interest in collecting this digital past by ‘mining’ the internet. Though current confidentiality rules make such a trade in files impossible, within a few decades there will exist a giant seam of data (still probably owned by the former superpowers of the web) that will be viewed globally as the unclaimed baggage of the internet: abandoned, effectively untraceable and thus able to be sold off regularly by public auction. For any future collector or investor, who wouldn’t want to buy an unopened data bundle in the hope of unearthing a rare forgotten photo of some celebrity in their youth,  or to rediscover the original raw copy of some infamous song or perhaps just read the thoughts of an everyday person from decades ago, one staccato twitter message at a time. It will be like a virtual version of that TV show ‘Storage Wars’ but probably less dramatic. As amateur archaeologists, people will painstakingly peel back the layers of photoshop to reveal the ‘authentic’ image below and to those who cherish individuality and the adventure, every file explored will be unique in its own way.

In the future our most cherished finds may no longer sit in glass cabinets away from the clumsy hands of grandchildren, but will be projected instead safely and securely onto the walls of the home like a trophy. Such a future collector may thankfully be a long way off still, but one thing is for sure…..we are certainly floating downstream towards it!

Photo credit: flatpack in box by 51% Studios Architecture

The future of Collecting…..

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In front of me, my three year old son sits playing on the floor.  A plastic train in one hand and die cast helicopter in the other. A constant yapping and moving of his arms shows these two toys are talking to each other, and through them I know he is role-playing important relationships that will serve him for life. Child psychologists from Piaget to Gardner have proved for years that play remains one of the most important developmental tools we have.

Unless you are an international museum or serious financial investor, then I believe playing and collecting are merely a continuation of each other. Though funds dictate what we collect, through the acts of exploration, learning, empathy, ordering and cultural connectivity we too as adults are safely exploring and evaluating the world beyond our own experiences, just like my three year old. Who amongst us hasn’t got lost in the fantasy of an antique or felt their heart race during the chase? And that’s a good thing, we are playing with and exploring the past on our own terms.

As times change, the debate over whether the culture of ‘collecting’ is dying seems to be bubbling hotter and hotter. Perhaps due to financial, space and time constraints traditional collecting fields are failing to attract the level of young blood desired. Perhaps our modern throwaway culture has made us all a little bit more selfish and the next generations are refusing to become guardians of our material past. Perhaps newer areas of life such as technology and the entertainment industry have grabbed our ever shortening attention spans at the expense of good old-fashioned wholesome collecting. Like everyone else I don’t pretend to have a crystal ball. But perhaps instead we are just experiencing in real-time the pain and rejection of changing fashions. Perhaps the ancient art of meaningful accumulation is still alive and well but in a slightly different form. A US study on the psychology of collecting undertaken during the 1980s made a relevant point. One result of collecting is the sense of immortality. A sense of saving an idea, skill, way of life or craft for posterity.  When that collection or enthusiasm is rejected (ie by a younger generation) it can cause emotional pain.

As someone who stands at a few antique fairs and attends plenty more, I am always surprised at how many young people I actually do come across. Granted few leave with pockets full of Meissen and Crown Derby but their presence and enthusiasm is obvious and usually most will leave with something no matter how small. If questioned I suspect many would say they were not collectors per say, but that doesn’t mean they don’t collect. Only the other day I drove to a young couple’s home in London and was immediately struck by the decor. The rooms were full of the eclectic mix of antiques and quirky curios that is so on trend right now. Far from having no order, you could say it was a carefully curated collection that praised and contrasted form, colour and texture. This couple, typical I suspect, weren’t ‘collecting’ based on academic labels or names, but on a more visual set of criteria. And I think that’s ok. If our shelves of blue and white teapots have been replaced with coral, kitsch and industrial cabinets, then at least the passion and process of collecting is still alive.

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To those saddened by the decline in interest within traditional collecting fields then I would say not to despair. It is widely known that the children of addicts are more likely to become addicts themselves. Who in their rebellious youthful days would expect to be enchanted by caddy spoons and Doulton slipware like their parents when they were older? But we change. When I was young I would thumb through my parents record collection, and while at the time I would never admit to liking their choices, my ipod now is full of the same artists my parents had on vinyl.

To be a true collector is an active not passive role. Though we can admire the fabulous collections of others, a collection given is never as sweet as a collection found.  It may take several years before a younger generation return from exploring their more eclectic sides to rediscover on their own the beauty of our more traditional antiques, but they will. They will because you have taught them through your passion the cultural value of those objects and the feelings of connection they bring.

 

Addendum:

For cold hard facts around the nature of collecting, there appear to have been no professional studies conducted recently. The research I found was all collected nearly 30 years ago and while I did contact three leading sociologists for help (Christian Jarrett and Daniel Miller in the UK and Shannon Dawdy in the US) none could point me towards anyone or anything that was relevant. In part this lack of any recent professional study into the topic only perpetuates the perceived concern.

Photo Credit: blue porcelain by Thomas Quine; industrial interior photo by Wicker Paradise

What’s in a name?

Your name is often the first thing you learn as a child, the only thing you truly own throughout life, and the sole reminder of you centuries later. In this season of reflection I thought it fitting to explore just a few of the interesting names currently in use by antique businesses around the UK.

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Though the use of a family name or location is still the most common choice for antique businesses, there are a growing band of people willing to buck the trend with innovative alternatives. Each tell a story and together reflect the quirkiness and individuality that makes the antiques industry so appealing. These unusual names mirror the wider trend in business for brandables. Brandables are words or names that are highly memorable (so great for marketing), but sometimes have little connection with the purpose of the business. Think of companies like ‘Orange’, ‘o2’, ‘Virgin’,‘Dave’ and ‘Purple Bricks’ as well known examples. A great business name not only keeps you memorable long after the public walk away, but as the dealers below attested to,  can be a great ice breaker too.

Some names used are clearly variations on a theme. ‘Inkredible Inkwells’ and ‘Simply Decorous’ do what they say on the tin. In other instances the name is more personal. ‘Antiques Twenty Four’ doesn’t have anything to do with 24 hours as I first assumed. “24 is a lucky number in our family” explains Andrew. “From birthday’s, weddings and important events the number 24 keeps running through our family as an auspicious number so it was an obvious choice for the business name as well”.   Russ Harrison who runs ‘Seventeen Twenty One Antiques’ in York explained that his numeric name referred to selling items from the 17th Century to 21st Centuries. Sometimes these easy names really are best. At ‘Diem’ a company specialising in high quality jewellery and retailing from Greys in London, the family surname of ‘Day’ was given its Latin form. That ‘Diem’ sounded similar to ‘diamond’ and ‘gem’ was also quickly recognised.

Some business names have more personal memories attached to them. ‘Mangled Tout’ Antiques of Stratford was a name that certainly needed explaining by owners John and Jenny. “Many years ago we were lost on the road somewhere north of Leeds when our young daughter spotted a posh restaurant called ‘Mange Tous’. When she asked us what ‘Mangled Tout’ meant the story stuck within the family and we now joke that its our own Yorkshire version of the word. We decided if we ever started a business that would have to be the name”. True to their word the couple held onto the name until they decided eight years later to open an antiques business.

At ‘Wigs on the Green’ Fine Art who specialise in historical portraits, it was a family connection also that appealed. “Its from a common Irish phrase dating back to the 18th Century and relates to a reputed brawl that took place on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin”, explained owner Cynthia McKinley.  “There will be Wigs on the Green means you think things are going to turn into trouble and strife, and I just fondly remember my grandmother always saying it”.

For James Gooch of ‘Doe and Hope’ in Bedford the name was inspired from things he loved. “I always liked seeing Deer in the woods when out walking and also liked the theme of hope in J.R.R.Tolkien’s stories. It was just a marriage that came to me. Originally I thought it was a good name for a bar or pub, but it was also the seeds of my own business”.

The company ‘Studiotic’ who trade in works on paper from the Arts and Crafts to Art Deco period owe their name to an article they read. The term ‘studiotic’ was originally used in a derogatory poem by the famous Arts and Crafts designer Robert Ashbee attacking the aesthetics of the Art Nouveau. The word stuck in their head and seemed to encapsulate the era they dealt in.

For Sue and Alan of ‘Scarab’ Antiques the South African roots meant they originally wanted to go with the name ‘Dung Beetle Antiques’. “The dung beetle is the hardest working animal of all,” explained Sue. “it is always foraging around the dung to improve their home which seemed to fit what we were going. We would happily have called ourselves Dung Beetle but our friends said we couldn’t possibly, so we opted for the scarab beetle instead!”.

An unusual and humorous name was chosen for Edd and Cassie’s antique shop in Bristol called ‘Dig Hauschizzle’. Its literal translation of slang and German alludes to loving a house full of crap. “We were sitting around with friends trying to come up with a name that reflected what we do and when someone said it, the name just made us break out laughing”. It was a similar story for Carol and Chris Bates from Kirklees in Yorkshire. When Carol asked what their new antiques business should be called Chris’ facetious response was “Past Caring”, and the witty name just stuck!

Finally some names are chosen with a far grander plan in mind. When Simon had the idea to set up an online antiques and crafts mall a few years ago he still wasn’t sure what exactly he wanted to sell. The name ‘Village-on-the-Green’ was chosen because it gave scope to create a virtual online shopping village (complete with a virtual church and playground!) where new dealers could inhabit shops on their village high street.

As for my own name ‘eddintheclouds’? Its written as one word to keep the pun and I started using it long before cloud-based internet services were around. I tell people that it reflects my state of mind, but the online internet reference has just been a happy co-incidence!

Antique Shop front Photo Credit: by Charlie Day

Allum’s Antiques Almanac 2016

Allum’s Antiques Almanac 2016 is the third book to be published by Antiques Roadshow expert Marc Allum, and the second in his Almanac series. The book, which does what it says on the title, offers the reader an unpredictable and light hearted overview of some of the more interesting and bizarre news, views and objects to pass Marc’s eyes and come to auction from within the Antiques world during the last year.  Imagine an enjoyable evening with friends rummaging through and musing over a collector’s cabinet of curiosities and you’ll get a sense of this book.

Marc’s love for social history and interpreting our material past is obvious and infectious throughout. He ponders topics as varied as unique movie posters, amputated legs of Generals, souvenirs of old London landmarks, psychedelic LPs or Napoleon’s many hats. Allum’s encyclopaedic knowledge and observations within the Antiques world seems limitless, but what is clear is that the objects included in the book are often the by-product of a story and not the story itself. Despite their clear financial values these interesting and important objects have not been shortlisted and included to be fetishized and put on some pedestal, but have been added to serve as the springboard for another great tale about our past. Those tales, far from being academically dry and commonly told, are instead filled with the light-hearted warmth and playfulness that has made Marc’s books successful around the world.

With 140 objects and stories given a few pages each at most, this simple format makes the book very easy to dip in and out of. Almanacs by design have a very British sense of fair play about them and this is no exception. It is something I admire about the book actually. Tales and anecdotes of everyday almost valueless antique objects are given equal coverage to multi-million pound items, and dream objects are dismissed as readily as everything else.

I suspect Marc wouldn’t mind me saying that this is a book perfect for pub quizzes, bedside tables and toilet book-shelves. Its light-hearted approach suits anyone who wants to tickle their historical curiosity irrespective of if they appreciate antiques or not.  If the book’s simple yet appealing approach gets new people excited and engaged in the field of antiques and looking beyond just the financial worth of their own objects, then I hope there will be many more Allum’s Almanacs to come.

Repatriating our photographic past……

The other day I was reading about a new website that I wanted to share. The site  ‘View From This Side‘ aims to repatriate families (and society) with the endless mass of discarded photos that are out there.

We have all seen it: family members pass on or move and their photos (objects intended to immortalise their life and best experiences) just dissipate into the wider world via auction, boot sale or skip. Once released these images go from being a testament to someone’s life, to just become another nameless visual comment on society at the time (via fashion, geography, technology).

The website is still in its infant days so don’t expect thousands of photos yet. The majority have been taken from discarded/ found 35mm slides from the 1950s to 1980s. The justification is that unlike today where we whip out our mobile phones for a quick snap without really thinking twice, photos of the past by their nature required much more care and thought to take and process. Even if you are unable to shed light on any of the images in the website itself, it’s still a fascinating few minutes spent peering into the world of everyday individuals just like us.

Usually when we view the past it is through books, exhibitions and museums where the content has been carefully curated for us. Here, in contrast, the randomness is the appeal as everyday shots, fuzzy, disjointed and largely nameless scroll through the slide show. These photos are not intended to be testaments to political or social upheaval, but the softer more personal moments of life captured and stored, that actually make life beautiful.

I wish the owner of the project well. Go on view the site, add more images, tell your friends. Its a brave stand against an endless topic, yet if successful how may more pieces of our everyday past could we repatriate? Gold wedding bands, dedicated books, bespoke clothes, naive paintings, toys with names scratched on…….the list is endless and exciting.  So do check it out……..

www.viewfromthisside.com

Boy with Camera Photo attribution: by Homini

Turning Our Antiques Inside-Out

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A while back I was at a country auction and spotted several boxes full of large A4 sized glass negatives. Curious I took a look and was  intrigued to find them all depicting furniture, some Georgian, but most dating to around 1910-20. The collection, which nearly knocked out the suspension of my car when I brought them home, were all carefully labelled in their paper sleeves with stock numbers and some object titles, but were otherwise unnamed. Without any other clues I can only assume they were the stock photos for an antique dealer or small-time furnishing company at the time. They give an interesting insight into the furniture trade and fashions at the time with most slides being of Louis-style French, painted Chinoiserie and mock Tudor in style.

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Once purchased, I recently bought a light box for them and have slowly begun the task of photographing each of the negatives in turn, many in great condition, some sadly too damaged to barely make out the image at all. All I wanted to do was preserve this curious record in digital form before they faded away entirely, but was struck immediately with the haunting beauty that such everyday objects had in negative. Shades of white and grey floating amid the black background turning chairs, sideboards and wardrobes into enchanting and emotive works of art. The closer I looked the more these every day objects drew me in until I was reveling in their details and almost giving them grand back-stories! If anyone designs wallpaper or fabric out there, then do get in touch as I think these glass negatives would make the basis of a fabulous range.

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Finally, with a batch down-loaded onto my computer, I converted some of the photos back into positive….. and looked…..

With just the click of a button I had somehow turned these beautiful gothic ghosts back into uninspiring and bland brown furniture! All the current stereo-types regarding this style of furniture filled my head once again and the romantic spell was sadly broken.

Everything it seems gives an insight. By turning themselves inside-out, these antique pieces of furniture were able to show me how easily I can be swayed and that it just takes a new angle to recapture the imagination. Photos of modern furniture probably wouldn’t have worked the same as it was the vintage exposure and carved and multi-faceted details that gave them their eerie gothic-like beauty. Perhaps with our current aversion for more traditional ornamented antiques such as these,  how many of the stereo-types we hold could be broken and new fans found by simply re-looking at the same old objects but from a different angle?

See what you think, here are the same images again in positive……………

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