You see it at antiques shows, in print ads and auction catalogs, and on dealers’ websites—“from the collection of ” or “ex-(insert name here).” Sometimes the item is cited as having appeared in a book that displays someone’s treasures, and collectors seem to find an object compellingly attractive and precious if it has resided in a renowned collection. Pieces purchased from legendary dealers, especially if deceased, seem to carry the same cachet. It set me wondering what the reasons for this are. What is the psychology of it all? Why value by association, and why is a dead antiques dealer better than a live one? But the last led me in the direction of all sorts of lawyer jokes. Journey with me.
A dealer with whom I spoke pointed out one sound reason for valuing pieces from treasured collections: famous collectors from yesteryear had nearly everything available to them and seemingly unlimited funds. Most of the great pieces had not yet fallen into the hands of collectors or been cloistered in museums. Wealthy collectors could choose from the best art, jewelry, furniture, folk art, and statuary—the pieces we now find breathtaking and covet. Anything from their collections should be wonderful, though some buyers—such as William Randolph Hearst—were indiscriminate, to say the least, buying up whole castles and villas and throwing their contents into storage.
Collectors such as Bertram K. and Nina Fletcher Little, Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller amassed magnificent collections. When they began buying American folk art and antiques, few collectors thought it worth much. Pioneer collectors established its legitimacy. If Colonial Williamsburg were to deaccession some of Rockefeller’s folk art collection, having a great piece from its holdings would be an extraordinary privilege.
From a rational perspective, pieces held in these well-known early collections are unlikely to be fakes or have their surfaces enhanced, though such corruptions are not unknown. Someone buying a piece from these and similar collections can be almost certain the piece is as described. A careful collector is likely to get “the real thing” and peace of mind—most of the time. Even famous collectors were fooled once in a while. The exhibition Treasures on Trial: The Art and Science of Detecting Fakes at Winterthur (through January 7, 2018) is great fun. We ask ourselves, “Would I have been taken?” Keep in mind that the scholarship and scientific tools for assessing antiques we now take for granted were in their infancy back then. But, yes, some pieces were, and are, too good to be true. Later collections may be a bit more problematic, for antiques became pricier compared to the days when the market was first developing, leaving more money to be made by trickery and deception.
Another valid and altruistic reason for being drawn to antiques from established collections is that many collectors see themselves as conservators of the past. We imagine and hope we can protect our antiques and give them a good home before they move on in their lives. We want to give our antiques’ next caretaker some sense of their history. In written documents for our antiques (e.g., appraisal list) or through small descriptions placed discreetly on them, we are helping to establish or update the pieces’ provenance, creating a record that helps prove their legitimacy and even desirability. Pieces from well-known collections seem tailor made for such devotion.
Provenance has its place. Sound documentation can prove that a set of chairs made for X by the Y shop in Philadelphia passed through his heirs to the present. This history makes the current owner a proud caretaker (as well he or she should be) and helps place the chairs in the context of American taste and craftsmanship.
Still, provenance is not the end-all some believe it to be. In Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art (2010), Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo ask, “What makes a great piece of art?” It clearly is not always the piece itself. Picasso and Leonardo da Vinci had bad days as well as good ones; some Cubist paintings are more hangover than talent; and, at times, the chisel slipped. The attribution of the work to a particular artist (though as many as 40% of these are in error) and its provenance (who bought, hid, or stole it from whom) play a huge role in how the artwork is perceived, discussed, and valued, both monetarily and artistically. And if the provenance proves to be fake, and the piece itself is a sham, it may no longer even look or feel the same to us. Thus we may overvalue provenance.
Collectors face a danger dating back to the Middle Ages. The credulity of collectors opens the vista of value-by-repute, the same phenomenon that led to objects being purchased by lords and emperors at high prices because they were brought from the Middle East at great peril, a condition that supposedly guaranteed their provenance. There is something ineffable, some aura of origin or ownership, that constitutes (as immeasurable as it may be) “value.”
No one ever seemed to ask if the thing had any intrinsic merit, apart from its alleged origin. Collectors pay premiums to own a piece from a famous collector. But should a painting fetch a high price simply because a noted collector or dealer owned it? I argue, only if it is good, and I believe I am in the majority, but the vote will not be unanimous.
I believe an antique’s worth is part, but not all, of what we turn over, look at, and touch. What we lend to the object, emotionally and rationally, is critical. Provenance helps establish the intrinsic value of the piece. But what if the history is incomplete or forged? In the case of the chairs mentioned above, no matter their appearance or condition, flaws in their purported history would lessen their desirability in the eyes of actual or potential owners. Why should this be so? The answer, in part, is that the qualities of a fine antique or piece of art do not make up its total quality and value. Our own reactions to the object count, sometimes a great deal.
Psychologically, the truth is that a thing is not what it looks like or who owned it. The patina, form, or brushstrokes are only one part of the truth. A painting “from the school of” may be equal to or better than the founder’s work, but it is not the “real thing.” A piece of furniture undergoes wood analysis, and it turns out to be British. The would-be buyer is disappointed. She wanted an American piece. It may look American, but it is not American. In the collector’s eye, it is diminished. The final arbiter of value is our perception of the piece. It is the meaning we give to an antique that ultimately determines its desirability to us, not the piece itself.
And then there is human nature. Let me offer myself as an illustration of the subjectivity of value. In the antiques world where there are C dealers, B dealers, and the crème de la crème, an object sold by and purchased from someone occupying the apex of the milk bottle is often considered more precious than the same piece purchased from Mr. Two Percent. Deep down, I believe (I have truly not made up my mind on this issue) that a couple of antiques I purchased from a now-deceased, known “high-level” dealer are somehow “better” than they may truly be. I still struggle to explain why: snobbery? Second, despite knowing that even good dealers sometimes do not inspect in great detail an antique they own, I find myself trusting the “rightness” of these pieces rather than depending on my own judgment as much as I should. Surely misplaced confidence, even cockiness, is doubly likely if the object of one’s passion came from a noted collection and was sold by a noted dealer.
We need to acknowledge that there is a difference between antiques collections and antiques collections. When auction house catalogs devote abundant space to biographies of the collector and a history of the collection or offer special viewings and talks regarding the pieces, they are trying to establish a Halo Effect. They are trying to brand the collection as desirable. If we accept that hagiography (Ahem! Literally, adulatory writing about another person), we may be biased. We may see most or all pieces in the collection as wonderful, not necessarily giving them the scrutiny they deserve. Yes, some collections are iconic—the collectors famous for establishing worth and substance when none existed before. Still, the meritorious guy or gal who accumulated these pieces may not necessarily have personally possessed impeccable taste in every piece purchased. Skeptically, we know that not all collected objects can be “the best of the best,” yet we often covet them anyway, at times ruing our irrationality. Is it that simple? If we lust after one of the average pieces but believe it to be a gem, it may be because the infamous halo effect is at play. Do we lovers of the old and well made find peace of mind, despite the diminution of our pocketbooks, buying from a well-known collection? Yes, such peace of mind may at times be justified. But…
We have a bit of the snob in each of us. Nose somewhat in the air, we say that this antique came from “so and so.” By asserting this, we are attaching ourselves to this alleged famous maker, collector, seller, or person in whose collection it was found. Second- or even third-hand, we share in the respect or interest others have or had for them, their eye, their pocketbook, or their fame.
This attachment and sharing is called the By-Association Effect. Association implies that you share the refined tastes, lifestyle, or notoriety of someone (craftsman, artist, collector, seller, VIP). Mutter “Winterthur” in the right context and suddenly that Windsor chair becomes extraordinary. Say “Paul Revere” to the right collector and that spoon is transformed into the Holy Grail. Some years ago I remember inquiring about a tavern table from a well-known dealer. I asked what would make the table a “ten.” He bristled: who was I to question the thing, for it came from a well-known collection. That statement seemed to finish the matter for him. I ended up purchasing what to my eye was a better table. In that case I trusted my own judgment. I had withstood the By-Association Effect. Of course, this was made somewhat easier by the fact that I had never heard of the collector cited.
Yet another reason why “from the collection of ...” has significance may be that it says that we are in the know; we are one of the cognoscenti. I think most collectors want to feel and be recognized as knowledgeable about their hobby. For some collectors, artworks or antiques from noted collections may be attractive because they encourage others to acknowledge their taste and expertise.
Perhaps all these motives are valid. Confidence in a piece’s authenticity, respect for its maker, admiration of its owner(s), and trust in the seller are all good reasons for purchasing an antique. Still, we have to realize that our own psychological needs may affect decisions on value or beauty, our confidence and trust may be misplaced, and our discerning eye may have a mote in it. Because of all these factors we may invest the object we want to possess with extra value. Antiques collectors—like the ordinary run of mankind—are not rational beings. At least not all of the time. In the last analysis, the worth of an antique lies less in what it brings to us than in what we bring to it. We collectors are complicated indeed.
Baron Perlman is a retired clinical psychologist and antiques collector. If you have comments or want to add your two cents, e-mail him <[email protected]>. Better yet, write a letter to Maine Antique Digest.
Originally published in the October 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest