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The Devil's Dictionary of Antiques Collecting: Part 4

Baron Perlman | March 9th, 2017

This is the last installment of “The Devil’s Dictionary of Antiques Collecting.” What a wondrous language we use. And perhaps more technical and mysterious than we realize.

Polychrome—This is one term that is relatively easy to parse. Poly means “many” and chrome (chroma) indicates “color.” So why not call a carved piece of wood “colored?” I guess that would indicate one color and perhaps not many colors. You could, of course, call something “many colored,” but that is prosaic and not the stuff of jargon or exotic language. Of course there is Joseph and his coat of many colors, or should we say his “polychrome coat.” You get the point.

Rare—Everyone knows what rare means—scarce, hard to find, infrequent, few and far between. But many on the outside of the antiques world, and even some within, have a built-in notion that rare means valuable, and thus expensive. Dealers and knowledgeable collectors know that is far from the case.

Why might an antique be rare? Well, for example, it could be that a very expensive (and I mean expensive when it was constructed) set of eight dining chairs was ordered in Philadelphia in the last quarter of the 18th century. And the patron or merchant wanted the latest design. And it turns out that the shop from which he ordered had a master carver (few and far between). That set of chairs would be rare in and of itself. And if one or two of the set of eight are missing and you find one, go buy a new automobile or add on to your house—jackpot. It is rare and dearly priced because of its form, provenance, and beauty.

On the other hand, a piece can be unique or rare and not be worth a farthing (quarter of a penny, or one nine hundred and sixtieth of a pound sterling. Minted of bronze and first issued during the reign of Queen Victoria, it wasn’t worth much, to say the least. But I digress). Rare could mean so unusually awkward or, excuse the term, ugly, that few were made, and even fewer preserved. A case piece can be so wide or deep or tall as to be ungainly and clearly unpleasing to the eye but rare. I could go on. A piece that is rare and worthy of stewardship will probably be a “ten” in whatever genre it exists in, and therefore will be beyond most collectors’ pocketbooks.

Sandpaper Painting—Well, this one is easy, or it should be. It is a painting on sandpaper, right? Nope. Nor is there abrasion from sandpaper in the paint. Sandpaper paintings are often Hudson Valley or Civil War renditions. Young ladies did much but not all of this work, and the art form was taught in academies in the 1850s.

I have read that marble particles were mixed in the paint to achieve the effect. Others describe the process as covering a drawing board with white paint and when it was not quite dry sifting pulverized marble through finely woven muslin onto the surface. Charcoal and, rarer yet, pastel in stick or powdered form created the images’ shapes. To achieve lighting and definition, some of the board could be left untouched, or the material could be rubbed away with an eraser or leather or a sharp knife. The end result is that the painting glows or shines.

Sandpaper paintings are more vital and mellow than “normal” paintings. By the mid-19th century they were sometimes called Grecian or monochromatic paintings. But as you by now have concluded, sandpaper is nowhere to be found.

Scrub Top—Surely this is a top of something that has been scrubbed. Exactly. You’ve defined it. Think of a tavern table used in the 18th century. It may have begun with a painted, shellacked, or otherwise finished surface. But such objects’ surfaces are going to be cleaned repeatedly. What happens is that any surface disappears, and the piece is left with a raw wood top. That is a scrub top. Some collectors prize a scrubbed top. It can really offset a painted or dark wood base. I for one do not like the look but appreciate what it represents, if genuine. It is easy to fake, obviously. New furniture is sold with a “scrub top” that has a natural wood appearance, but it does have a finish on it to protect it.

Smalls—Smalls are antiques that will fit anywhere when one is filling a house or decorating. “But what they are cannot be as easy as that,” you say, and you are correct. For example, a small piece of silver would be called silver. And small framed silhouettes or paintings are called artwork, silhouettes, or paintings. In one of Jonathan Gash’s books about Lovejoy—one of the most beloved fictional antiques dealers to ever exist—he calls a small a “finger,” something small enough to be held in one’s hand. I think of smalls as something one can buy at a dealer’s shop or an antiques show and easily carry away in a shopping bag or stick under your arm. Note the term “easily.” I am not sure that a small cannonball that weighs a great deal would be considered a small, despite its size. Think something no bigger than a breadbox.

Smalls are not a smaller version of a “large.” When looking at a child’s Windsor chair one might say, “That’s a really small Windsor.” But that doesn’t make it a small. Just as a dwarf clock is surely smaller than a regular size tall-case one. The same is true for most salesmen samples. Again, one knows a small when one sees one. Fabergé eggs do not qualify, nor does jewelry. Smalls can be truly expensive if they are wonderfully painted boxes, firkins (round wooden containers with a cover and a handle), and the like. A very expensive small box with original paint and provenance known or if the location of where it was made can be identified becomes a large to some people.

Smalls are typically more modest in history and use, such as boxes of all shapes, kitchenware, and 1001 other objects that had a household use long ago. I think most smalls have a utilitarian use. Redware, spongeware, Rockingham, and other small-size pottery would be defined as smalls. On a drop-front desk one might find a quill holder, sander (used to blot the ink), a pipe tamper, and perhaps a painted tin box. Are the brass candlesticks on the desk smalls?Good question. Some folks would consider them brassware. Just as I think that a small piece of glass belongs to the “glass” category rather than as a small. There is, of course, reason to differ on what one defines as a small. I would think a small toy is a toy. I would think a pincushion would be a small, but perhaps to a diehard collector it falls in the sewing or textile realm. Of course this “Devil’s Dictionary” is meant to be more fun than definitive. Attend an antiques show and look in the cases that dealers have in their booths. Therein you will find many smalls. A dealer’s website often calls smalls “accessories.”

Smalls complete a room. A Colonial room with a wooden floor, molding, and furniture would look bare without some smalls to round the edges and complete the setting. Many wonderful collections are marked as much by their smalls as by anything else. Smalls are important.

Speaks, The Antique—Ask a non-antiques collector if antiques can talk and you will get looks as if you are out of your mind. Of course antiques cannot talk. They are inanimate objects after all. But collectors hear their voices; antiques certainly can speak. They tell you what was fashionable way back when and how they evolved. A Windsor chair in the 1830s or ’40s might have had dabs of gold paint (teardrops) put on its spindles, for example. Antiques tell you who was negligent of their needs (look for replaced hinges, replacement glass in cupboards, and so forth). They tell you how styles changed (a transitional Chippendale chair). If you listen they will remind you what marvels they are to have survived this long, and who doesn’t get a ding or two along the way?

But the truest sense of “an antique speaking to you” is one telling you, despite its size or how hidden it may be on a shelf of smalls, or in a dealer’s booth or shop, that I am really good! Once you know something about various forms and objects, you let the antique tap you on the shoulder. You simply stand in a dealer’s booth at an antiques show or in his or her shop, and feel. It is eerie. Put your conscious mind aside for the moment, and then simply observe which way you turn and what antique you walk toward. If an antique is a ten, and you have some knowledge of what a ten is, the antique will whisper or shout to you.

Sure, collectors at crowded shows often do a quick “walk through” or two, especially if they are looking for a piece they have been searching for forever. But I believe the bliss of being a collector is when the show thins out and you have the luxury of strolling, of simply standing and listening. But, of course, you have to be in to know to do that, and in to know what to call your behavior. As for the antique, it already knows it is speaking to you.

Treen—One would think that small wooden objects, usually for domestic purposes—think bowls and the like—would be called woodenware, wooden utensils, domestic woodenware, or wooden “stuff.” But no, technical language wins out. So it is called treen or treenware. Treen is made up of small domestic functional objects made entirely of wood, and some hold that the term applies only to antiques. So you would not call your new salad bowl treenware if you belonged to this school of thought. (On the other hand, I guess you could if you wanted since there is reproduction treenware for sale.) The term derives from the old English and modern English “tree,” think tree-en. As best as I can determine, its use began about 1800. It consists of bowls, cups with stems, mortar and pestles, shoehorns, needle cases, snuffboxes, dough bowls, measuring “cups,” trenchers, trays, and spoons. The term does not apply to chests of drawers, tables, and other wooden pieces. I have read that the term does apply to agricultural wooden objects, but I assume they must be small. A wooden plow would not be termed treenware. Close-grained native trees were chosen for their wood, sycamore and beech, for example. Treen is jargon personified.

Volute—A volute is a spiral scroll found in Ionic and later Corinthian columns. Now if a Windsor chair has an ear on each side of the top known as a comb piece or crest rail—a round piece of wood with a spiral carved into it—we call that a volute. The same is true for the arm of a Windsor chair ending in a carved scroll. The end of the arm is often called a knuckle, and if the knuckle has a carved spiral incised in it, that is the volute. Woodworkers have sets of tools for such carving, and one can find YouTube videos of carving volutes. One first has to draw where the carving will take place and then carefully carve the volute. It gives a fancy look to my eye; I like volutes.


We have come to the end of this edition of “The Devil’s Dictionary of Antiques Collecting.” By now you should be on your way to being an informed insider in the antiques world, or at the least, not embarrassing yourself. The former professor in me calls for a quiz at the end of our musings, but we will forsake one. The true measure of your learning lies in your knowing the paradoxes and twists and turns the language of antiques takes as all involved try to discuss, define, and demonstrate that they know what they are talking about. And we do, don’t we?

I am certain that I have omitted words in the antiques world that are the equivalent of verbal secret handshakes. If you have some great words that belong in “The Devil’s Dictionary of Antiques,” please let me know. I will be more than happy to write an addendum. I have done the best I can. It is time to rest.

I can be reached at <[email protected]> and welcome your comments.

Originally published in the March 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest

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