The Young Collector
We have a large window in the eat-in area of our kitchen that overlooks the driveway, which is surrounded by a head-high concrete retaining wall. A seat here offers a vantage point for watching the kids play and interact, and Hollie was doing just that this spring when she saw one child (henceforth known as the Rock Thrower) drop a rock the size of a grapefruit from the top of the wall to the driveway floor, ignoring all previous discussions about safety and criticisms from both parents and siblings about the issue of rock throwing. As Hollie was moving toward the window to offer a lecture on the expensive nature of concrete (and American hospital emergency rooms), the rock bounced up and smacked the other child (henceforthknown as the Wailer) squarely in the unsuspecting and completely unprovoking upper thigh.
The Wailer fell to the ground like, well, a rock and began to wail as a result of what was obviously both tremendous pain and an accident. At this point, the Rock Thrower, filled with the panic of trying to make a sibling stop crying and get their story together before Mom arrives, raced down the side of the driveway and around the corner to the Wailer’s side. Hollie had a perfect perspective on the apology, which consisted of “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’M SORRY! I said I was sorry! Stop crying!” At that point the Rock Thrower fled in frustration and left the Wailer to be collected by Mom (thereby committing a grave tactical error and yielding the field to whatever story the Wailer would like to create).
In that particular moment, the window vantage point was very useful! We are pretty sure all of you parents out there have been in that moment where you are playing judge in an attempt to resolve a conflict you did not witness, while listening to two people, both wedded to their particular perspective on the incident, try to defend their actions.
Part of growing up is shifting our understanding from the idea that our worldview is the worldview to the broader, more generous, less conflict-creating position that our worldview is just that—our view, one view among many. We evolve to varying degrees to give space in our relationships to the perspective of other people. This willingness to engage with other perspectives is a foundational skill to being able to share life with other people. No one wants to be married, for instance, to the 48-year-old version of the Rock Thrower, whose idea of an apology after some carelessness is saying whatever words are necessary to assuage their own guilt and then getting angry when you do not immediately focus your efforts on making them feel better.
This kind of perspective, in a sense, is what we mean when we want someone who is “well rounded” to fill a job opening. We do not actually expect them to be experts on everything; rather, we value that they will have broader perspective on the variety of tasks we might give them. Experiencing other perspectives is something we as a society ostensibly value. We have always felt that this helps us personally, at least in a very superficial way, in the antiques business. Over the last nearly 20 years, we have worked in auction houses, developed exhibitions with museums, set up at shows as antiques dealers, and offered consulting and appraisal services to people outside the trade. This by no means makes us experts in any one of these fields, but it has, by dint of adding to our sense of perspective, greatly enlarged the number of people with whom we can “talk shop.”
We all have perspective, and we all have perspectives on a variety of topics. The words “perspective” and “view” are often used interchangeably because one’s perspective is one’s view of something, and there are topics on which we do not necessarily have views. If you never heard of painting en grisaille, you reasonably cannot be said to have a view of it. No shame in that. Of course you would not then stand up in a room full of art historians and offer thoughts on the effects of grisaille on the mood of a subject and the media in which it would be most effectively used.
Or in a more concrete example, if someone asked you what was happening in your own backyard, you would know that you might not confidently answer without standing up and moving somewhere to improve your view of the area in question. The view changes sometimes, even if we do not. What was happening in your backyard the last time you looked can be very different from what is happening in your backyard 15 minutes later, as any person with children, a dog, and a garden hose can attest. So it stands to reason that we can improve the quality of our view and/or our perspective.
That same big window we mentioned earlier offers endless views of wildlife, and our dining table is pushed up against it. Regularly, one of us will say something like, “Oh, look! A fawn!” and at least one other person at the table will not be able to see it. They have to stand up, walk over to where the viewer is, and sometimes, with the children, we even have to put their heads under ours, get as close as possible, and sight them along an arm. We all have perspectives, but not all of our perspectives are the same. We do not all see the same thing, and more than once we have had to explain to the children the ridiculousness of arguing about your view with someone who is not sitting in your chair. We cannot forget that our perspective is our view from “our spot,” our comfortable place.
If you think we are leading you into a political disagreement here, we are not. Discussions, debates, and disagreements—politics, like water, seeks the lowest level and then works to create more of a divide. Politics has no place in discussions of perspective. Our industry has a variety of perspectives. We have dealers and auctioneers and appraisers and collectors and museum professionals. We have people at all levels of a complex marketplace, from avocational dealers to high-earning professionals. We range all over the country and the world. We are the self-taught and the Ph.D. We are also, from a cultural perspective, a fairly homogenous industry. We have few representatives who are black, Native, or able to offer perspectives outside that of the majority of our marketplace.
While there are people for whom antiques are more about an aesthetic, many of us find the wisps of history that cling to objects to be the draw. We like the remnants of the perspectives of others. Who among us has not at some point constructed a view of an object’s history, imagined the many loaves of bread produced in a dough bowl, or built a life for the little girl who stitched a sampler and died in childbirth at 24? We tell ourselves that we enjoy the perspective of others, but just as often, do we not like the freedom to create our own perspectives, using objects as a sort of creative mental exercise prompt? Where would most of us go if a time portal opened up or if we could climb into a TARDIS? You’d not find many of us in space-age cities of the future, we wager. And don’t we seek out places with histories that make us shudder, sites of tragedy and heartbreak, where we squeeze our children’s shoulders and try to explain why there are tears on our faces? “Can you even imagine how terrible? How frightening? How much courage it must have taken...?” As history buffs, don’t we go to places like Williamsburg and Antietam and Mount Vernon in part to try to slide into their seat at the table, to sight down the arm of the past for some glimpse of their perspective? We are people, you could argue, who want the perspective of others. Surely we are not interested in those perspectives only when they are safely in the past?
And here we are in a moment when the perspective of others is being offered to us, freely, on the objects we study, sell, and cherish. Some of those perspectives should elicit the same response—how terrible, how frightening, how much courage. Some of those perspectives will make us uncomfortable. Andrew was recently hired by an indigenous tribe to pursue the possibility of purchasing an object, and sitting with that perspective was difficult. What do you charge someone for work when your house is on their native land? What would it feel like to have to spend money to buy back your cultural heritage? Members of majority cultures do not have to sit with those ironies and losses. That seat at the table offers a very different view.
Social media has made it easy for us to feel as though we are getting a broad perspective with our thousands of “friends” while ignoring anything that causes us discomfort. Talk about perspectives—that’s one! What would life be like if we were able to snooze, hide, and block all the views or perspectives that made us sad, angry, or uncomfortable? You are able to sit at the table with only people who see exactly what you see, and after a long time doing that, it would be easy to gradually forget that there might be chairs where the view is very different.
Most of us in the antiques business make our living in some fashion dealing with objects that have been around so long that they have acquired a variety of perspectives. The Winter Show’s announcement that “racist” materials will not be permitted inspired significant discussion in the Facebook Americana Hub group, and there were plenty of reminders that we make money from what are, from at least some perspectives, grim or insensitive cultural artifacts. Of course, as our friend and former boss Wes Cowan wisely advised us years ago, you don’t have to like it to sell it. Likewise, you do not have to like an object to acknowledge it. You do not have to like a perspective to acknowledge it either—and it does not have less value just because you as an individual do not care for it. We make a collective decision as a market about what we want to embrace, just as we make a collective decision as a society about what perspectives we want to embrace. Objects and perspectives are not erased, do not cease to exist, just because we cease to actively promote them.
Our perspectives cannot be the only perspectives on these objects. Throughout centuries, there have been others. And it is only natural that we gravitate to perspectives that are closest to ours. But not acknowledging, not liking, or not being comfortable with another perspective does not make that perspective invalid. We are a business of relationships, and solid relationships of any kind are not possible without being willing to sit at the same table and being willing to acknowledge, if not understand or prefer, the other person’s perspective. And if we admit that we do not care for someone else’s perspective, someone else’s seat, so to speak, then we owe it to ourselves to consider what it is about their “seat” that we do not like. Sure, the easy answer is to find fault with their chair or to say that we simply prefer our own, but it’s worth asking: Is it not as comfortable as our chair, and why is that? Do we not feel the same connection to it just because it is not what we are used to? Do we realize that our chair that we have occupied for a long time has allowed us to avoid an unattractive aspect of the view?
Again, none of this is a political issue. We can call it that if we like, because it allows us to slot these conversations into a fixed structure and leave them there, but it is a human issue, about being heard, about examining different views, and about discussing and engaging with history and historical objects in ways that are not always warm and nostalgic. We are antiques people. We know about chairs. We should not mind the opportunity to try out a new one.
We welcome ideas, tips, criticisms, and questions regarding “The Young Collector.” We may be reached by e-mail at <[email protected]> or on Facebook (www.facebook.com/TheYoungAntiquesCollectors), or by writing The Young Collector, c/o Maine Antique Digest, PO Box 1429, Waldoboro, ME 04572.
Originally published in the August 2020 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2020 Maine Antique Digest