Monday, November 25, 2013

Taming Your Collecting Passion

QUESTION: I love to collect things. But my passion for collecting seems to be getting out of hand. How can I control this? And how can I judge whether certain items are worth collecting?

ANSWER: You’ve obviously been bitten hard by the collecting bug. With the advent of eBay and the Antiques Roadshow, everyone has the idea that everything is worth something. And if something is old, it must certainly be worth a lot. If you believe this, then you’re wrong on both counts.

The first question you need to ask yourself is “Why do you collect things?” Is it for their intrinsic or monetary value, is it for the pleasure they give you, or is it for some vague idea of self-worth?

Asking avid collectors why they do what they do is like asking, "Why do you breathe?" They might reply that something about human behavior wants—or is fated—to gather and accumulate, to crave and classify, to seek out and hoard. Passion plays a part in many serious collectors' pursuits, as does, many admit, the thrill of the hunt.

This can be true even, or perhaps especially, when time is long between looking, finding and acquiring. The rarer an object of desire, the less frequent or instant the gratification of its discovery; for some determined collectors, though, pleasure resides in the long, unpredictable search for a coveted item. Inexplicably, it may also dissolve when it leads to a find.

For many people, collecting is a way of getting in touch with a past era, even if they didn't live through that particular period themselves. Some enjoy owning objects from what they may imagine was a simpler, less stressful age. Or they may have a strong nostalgic or family connection to a certain period and place.

Some people collect with investment value in mind, others to develop an informed knowledge of a our material  culture. Either way, passion plays a part in many serious collectors' pursuits, as does the thrill of the hunt. Identifying personally with the objects one admires can also feed the collecting impulse.

Some collectors embrace—and celebrate—their magnificent obsessions; like entertainers, they enjoy displaying what they have amassed and sharing their enthusiasm with friends. Conversely, to be sure, many a treasured collection is a private, secretive affair.

Collecting has broaden in scope over the decades. It used to be that antiques included only decorative objects and furnishings. Today, anything 100 years old or older is considered an antique. Anything newer a collectible. And while some antiques may be considered collectibles, not all collectibles are antiques. Take typewriters, for instance. The oldest ones are antiques but newer ones from the late 20th century are technically collectibles.

What's old is new in the evermore-diverse collectibles market, and as long as someone, somewhere values something enough to acquire it and stimulate trading in its field, it can become a common practice to do so. Thus, along with such old favorites as stamps and coins, items like Barbie dolls, tea tins, and buttons, in fact, just about everything can be deemed a collectible.

So where do you draw the line.  The first rule of collecting is collect what you like.  The second rule is to be knowledgeable about your collection. The third rule is buy low and sell high.

Understand why you’re collecting what you do. What got you started? Have you kept up with your collection or has it run its course? If your collection is languishing, then perhaps you’ve lost interest. Life changes. You change.

Do you know a lot about what you collect? Have you studied up on the history of the objects? Do you know the makers and the marks? Do you know the last word on the subject? Have you kept up with the market value?

Too many people get caught up in the entertainment value of auction sites like eBay. For some it’s like playing poker. They even get to “win.” Many pay far more than an object is worth just because they want to be the winner. If you’re a true collector, you’ll not even bid on an item unless you know you can get it for a good deal below market value. And that means you have to know what it’s worth before you bid.

Do you just collect things or do you keep an inventory of your collection? To understand the true value of your collection, you need to know when and where you purchased each piece, how much you paid and how much it’s worth now. You may even want to photograph each item as a record for insurance purposes.

Of course, as any collector knows, there’s a price to pay. Thus, beginners and seasoned veterans alike usually pursue their collecting passion at some cost. No matter what your field is, there's something all of us inevitably collect and unless you pick the pieces off the junk pile, you’ll have to pay for them.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A, B, C, D, E, F, G...

QUESTION: My grandfather gave my parents a wooden child’s chair, covered with letters, that he had when he was a kid for me to use. I remember singing the alphabet song while sitting in the chair, and that’s pretty much how I learned my ABC’s. My grandfather is gone now, but I still have the chair. Can you tell me anything about this chair?

ANSWER: What you have is a wooden alphabet chair with lithographed letters of the alphabet decorating it. If your chair is in really good condition—many of these are not—then you have something of some value.

Lithographed toys range from dollhouses to acrobat figures to nests of blocks to an array of boats, horse-drawn carriages, and trains. Collectors value for their often substantial size, handsome graphics, and careful attention to precise details.

Of the three types of lithographed toys—tin, wood, and cardboard—the latter two have vibrant, two-dimensional details printed on paper that’s combined with a three-dimensional shape. Collectors appreciate the intimacy and color of these hand-drawn but mechanically printed designs.

Before the development of chromolithography—the process of printing a color picture from a series of lithographic plates—by German printers in the 1840s, toys had to be handmade. So most toys were too expensive for all but wealthier people. Less affluent families had to make do with homemade toys.

By the 1870s, French, English, and American firms had patented chromolithography production methods, which offset designs from inked sheets or rollers onto toy surfaces. By the 1890s, they had standardized the process, and both the American and European toy industries were able to mass-produce colorful toys inexpensively. In time, American toymakers, such as Rufus Bliss, John McLoughlin, and Parker Brothers, refined the technique and became world-leading toy manufacturers.

Production of all three types of lithographed toys ran from the late 19th century into the early 20th. But just as horse and steam power gave way to the internal combustion engine, production of wood and cardboard lithographed toys waned as technology developed. By the 1920s, after ore became available for cast-iron toys, manufacturers found metal better suited for mass production and that lightweight tin could more easily house clockworks and springs than wood.

The mass production of toys came at a time when parents were beginning to view their children less as miniature adults to be instructed and more as children to be entertained as well as taught.

Numerous wood lithographed replicas of horse-drawn fire engines, prairie schooners, steamboats, and luxury side-wheeler river steamers paralleled a strong interest in the rapidly changing modes of transportation at the turn-fo-the-20th-century.

Today wooden lithographed toys are available at auctions; estate sales, and flea markets. Because of their fragility, however, it’s difficult to find examples in excellent condition. Those that have survived the years are worth from $50 to $4,000, depending on size, condition, and rarity. Since your alphabet chair is of the larger variety, it’s worth more, depending on its condition.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Sweet Smell of Sweet Grass

QUESTION: My grandmother just gave me a flat basket that smells as sweet as new-mown hay. She said it belonged to her mother but isn’t sure where she got it or when. Can you tell me something about it?

ANSWER: As the fragrance implies, what you have is what’s known as a sweet-grass basket.

The story of South Carolina's Low Country sweet-grass baskets begins centuries ago on the rice farms of  West Africa. During the 15th and 16th centuries, black men brought over to America as slaves made strong, sturdy baskets out of bulrush, a coarse marsh grass that grew along the tidal rivers of what’s today South Carolina. The baskets winnowed rice, stored grain, and held vegetables collected from the garden.

Eventually buckets and crates replaced the baskets, but families still used them to store bread, fruit, clothing, and other household staples.

After the Civil War, former slaves continued to make baskets on their own family farms, but now the women made them while the men gathered and harvested the sweet grass and taught their sons to do the same. The women chose sweet grass as their medium because it is softer and more pliable than bulrush and retains the scent of fresh-mown hay for years.

Although coiled sweet-grass basketmaking has died out in many South Carolina communities, the 300-year-old tradition continues to flourish in the coastal town of Mount Pleasant, north of Charleston. Today, it’s the only place where this type of basketmaking is done. For years, individual artists have made them at home using age-old techniques passed down from generation to generation. Ancestors of many of today's basketmakers got a boost back in 1916 when a local Charleston bookseller began buying Mt. Pleasant baskets in quantity. He sold them first in his store and later by mail for more than 30 years.

In the 1930's, basketmakers saw a new surge of interest from gift shop owners, museums, and handicraft collectors. The paving of Highway 17 North and the construction of the Cooper River Bridge made the route through Mt. Pleasant a major north-south artery. Basketmakers then started marketing their wares from roadside basket stands in their front yards, which were directly accessible to tourists.

Some basketmakers would also make the trip to Charleston to sell their homegrown farm produce and their baskets at the open market there. Old photographs capture these merchants with baskets on their heads, bearing their wares.

Though traditional basket shapes are still popular, many creative shapes have been added over the years. There are bread trays, sifting baskets, magazine baskets, place mats, clothes hampers, and baskets to hold firewood, hats, and cakes.

The time, care, and skill that goes into each basket can never be recouped by the price. Basketmakers spend long hours making these baskets. Even for the most experienced basketmaker, a simple design can take as long as 12 hours.

The grasses must be gathered, hauled, cleaned, dried, and stored. The artist starts each basket from the bottom up, beginning with a knot of sage-green sweet grass. The grasses are coiled round and round and are sometimes mixed with rush. Coils are then bound with white strips of palmetto, using a tool called a "bone." The bone is generally fashioned from an old teaspoon handle that's been hammered and filed, but some craftspeople use half a scissors or a pocketknife as their tool. Whatever the choice, each basketmaker usually has a favorite bone and works with it exclusively. The bone works like a shuttle between the rows of coiled grass to make space for the binding strips of palmetto.

Once the basketmaker forms the bottom, she builds up the sides, and may add a handle or cover. Some makers decorate their baskets with pine needles.

Today, South Carolina Low Country baskets have become part of the collections at the Smithsonian Institution and the American Museum of Natural History, as well as many individuals. While older ones can sell for three figures, newer ones from the latter 20th century can be had for $10-25.