antique collecting

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

antique collecting

antique collecting, the assembling of items of aesthetic, historical, and often monetary value from earlier eras. The term antique initially referred only to the preclassical and classical cultures of the ancient world. It is now applied to old artifacts of all cultures. Legally and traditionally, an antique is usually defined as an object that is over a hundred years old.


Antique collecting has a venerable history dating from the preservation of valued religious objects in antiquity. By the 16th cent. English and European private collections of rarities flourished. But it was the 18th cent., with its development of the art and science of archaeology, that produced the impetus for public and private collecting in earnest.

In the United States collectors, seriously active since the 18th cent., first concentrated on old books, manuscripts, the possessions and mementos of famous people, and classical antiquities. State historical societies encouraged the growing interest in colonial history and its artifacts. In the late 1850s an association was founded to restore and preserve Mount Vernon, the first of the country's many house museums. Finely crafted household articles such as pewterware and furniture claimed collectors' attention with the opening of the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia, in which reconstructed colonial rooms were exhibited.

During the 20th cent. many sorts of objects in addition to paintings, books, and furniture attracted the collector's attention. Specialty collections grew in such items as quilts, bedspreads, jewelry, glass, coins, postage stamps, china, porcelain, silver and other metalcraft, needlework (including needlepoint, embroidery samplers, lace, and hooked rugs), bottles, stoneware, pill boxes, scrimshaw (expertly carved teeth and bones of sperm whale and walrus tusks), snuffboxes, fans, watches, clocks, periodicals, badges, daguerreotypes, postcards, photographs, toys, posters, military and political souvenirs, objects reminiscent of many forms of public transport (including railroad and ship bells, whistles, lamps, and models), buttons, and many varieties of folk art and memorabilia symbolic of the recent past.

The Antiques Marketplace

Collectors have ranged widely in their search for items of interest. Frequently the only value a popular object can claim is that of scarcity. Certain objects (e.g., comic books and fruit-crate labels), more properly called curios, have become collector's items by virtue of nostalgic association or content rather than intrinsic value.

Antique dealers acquire not only antiques but also objects that are characteristic of a particular stylistic current (e.g., art nouveau and art deco) that is experiencing a revival of interest. Such objects may be sold or traded at auctions, antique fairs, rummage sales, flea markets, and garage sales. With the tremendous growth of interest in antiques, of necessity a critical expertise in historical styles and construction methods for the care and identification of precious objects has developed. Dealers publish extensive directories to provide a basis for consistent appraisal.

In 1952 the Florence agreement, sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, was drawn up to "facilitate the free flow of educational, scientific, and cultural materials." In 1966 the United States tariff regulations were altered to permit duty-free importation of antiques, defined as objects being more than 100 years old at the time of entry. More than 50 countries now have similar regulations.

Prominent Collections

Many museums and private institutions have built up outstanding antique collections. Among the finest of these in the United States are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of American Folk Art, New York City; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Yale Univ. Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn.; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Winterthur (Delaware) Museum; and the restoration of Williamsburg, Va.


See M. Durant, The American Heritage Guide to Antiques (1970); M. D. Schwartz and B. Wade, The New York Times Book of Antiques (1972); P. Attebury, ed., Antiques: An Encyclopedia of the Decorative Arts (1980); T. T. Blade, Antique Collecting (1989); L. Rosenstein, Antiques: The History of an Idea (2008).

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