Friday, November 18, 2011

Virginia Country from A to Z: A is for Antiques

Antique shopping in Old Town, Alexandria

Parker Jennings has been collecting antiques since he was 11 years old, and besides his sense of humor and elegant style, is known for his discerning eye and ability to choose beautiful antiques for collectors to add the perfect dramatic statement to a home.  He has learned many lessons over years of collecting, so one evening we sat by the fire with Winston and talked about how beginning collectors might get started.

Q:  Poplar Grove has a collection of museum-quality 18th and 19th century antiques.  How long have you been collecting?

Parker Jennings:  When I was 11, I purchased a sterling silver compass at a flea market with proceeds from plants I sold from a red wagon in Southern California.

With so many beautiful reproductions available today, why would anyone bother buying antiques?

Parker Jennings:  Well first, I can almost always find a comparable antique for less.  And second, because as carefully crafted and distressed as a reproduction might be, it will never have the patina of a piece that is 200 years old.  That patina, the warmth of an antique, will raise the caliber of any room, traditional or modern, in one stroke.

Why is that?  What causes the patina?  Love?

Sure.  Love, and life.  Think about it- this secretary was made in 1790 for a Maryland estate.  George Washington was President.  To have made it this far, means it has been cherished and survived through generations of use before it came into my possession.  It has a warmth and resonance that no new piece can attain- or, at least not for a hundred years or so.   You really don't own an antique, you're just the caretaker of it during your lifetime.  Then, hopefully, it will be used, cared for and loved by a whole new generation.

Sort of the ultimate in living "green?"

Buying antiques is certainly green.  Antiques shows have been trying to promote this as a way to interest young buyers for a while now.

Do you think that some of the appeal of antiques is that they make a home look more expensive, or the owners seem wealthy or intellectual?  Are we talking snob appeal?

That is a good question.  When I was younger, I was struck by a wonderful early portrait hanging above the mantle in a home I was helping to remodel.  Yes, it was valuable, and it spoke of that, but I think the historical connection to the past resonated with me more.  Serious collectors are purely passionate about their acquisitions.  In fact, a few that come to mind are generally secretive, and share their collections with only a chosen few that share their same passion.  On the other hand, as interior designers, yes, we are often trying to convey a certain look.  That being said I don't think this is snob appeal.  I do wonder where all these Swedish antiques are coming from.

If a love of antiques implies a certain level of education or awareness, will collecting antiques make me smarter?

Parker Jennings:  (Laughs) However one can get it.  Seriously though, I've known people who purchased a piece for the look, but then got hooked researching the provenance, and became quite knowledgeable about a particular era.   Sometimes the tail wags the dog.  [At this, Winston wags his tail and rolls over.  He obviously thinks that is one of the funniest things he has ever heard.]

What advice do you have for someone just starting out in an apartment with no furniture, or a few hand-me down pieces?

Parker Jennings:  To develop and become conscious of their aesthetic or their look.  To gain focus.  Look at the magazines to acertain what appeals to you.  Try to become familiar with what key pieces will make the most impact in your room, and start hunting.

That sounds pretty straight-forward.

Parker Jennings:  The thing is though, it is never really this simple.  With antiques, the opportunities present themselves, usually at the least appropriate time, and you rarely get a second chance when you let that perfect piece slip by- and that can haunt you for years, trust me.

What do you think about fads in decorating?

Parker Jennings:  It's important to be true to yourself and not get caught up following magazine cover fashions.  You can end up with a very trendy look, and it might even photograph well, but it ultimately won't mean much to you later because it won't reflect who you are.

What would you tell a beginning collector who doesn't have much money to spend? 

Parker Jennings:  Buy the best that you can afford, and follow your heart.  Spending as much as possible on his home was Thomas Jefferson's mantra, and I follow it daily to a fault, drowning my guilt in Cabernet every evening.

You've said this to me before, to buy the best you can afford.  Why is that?  Why not just upgrade later?

Parker Jennings:  Upgrading is not as easy at it sounds, as selling a piece and recouping your investment is challenging.  Remember you are often paying retail, or some level below, but rarely at what would be considered wholesale. Additionally, the market is not appreciating as it once was.  This is unfortunate, as many people considered their antiques part of their retirement portfolio.

What would you say to a collector that has $500 to spend?

Parker Jennings:  Research, go to auctions, don't be impulsive.  One almost always regrets impulse buys.  Keep in mind that the better the condition of the item, the higher the price.

What if they have $1000 to spend?

Parker Jennings:  Hopefully they didn't spend that first $500 and we can have a lot more fun with $1500.

You say "research," what is the best way to do that?

Talk to dealers, ask them to refer you to someone who specializes in what interests you.  Read books.  I highly recommend Albert Sacks' book, because it illustrates Good, Better, Best, Superior and Masterpiece.

What is the best way to integrate antiques into a contemporary interior?

Parker Jennings:  Restrained use of larger scale pieces, especially utililized as the focal point of a room.  Darryl Carter, for one, is brilliant at this.

How do I find a good antiques  dealer?

Parker Jennings:  Antiques dealers are generally part of a fairly close-knit community.  It is a pretty small world.  Go to a shop that interests you, and look around, ask a lot of questions.  Are they patient about talking with you?  The best really enjoy what they do, and will usually talk your ear off.  Do they pressure you to buy?  Good dealers want you to love what you're buying.  They will encourage you to come back and visit the piece, maybe even offer to bring it over on approval.  Ask for recommendations from other antiques dealers.  Like physicians, they often have a pretty good idea of the skills of their peers.

Is it okay to buy something that has been refurbished?

An antique generally is considered more desirable the better, and more orginal the condition.  There are always exceptions.  For example re-lining a painting that has a warped canvas, and is sustaining paint loss is acceptable.  The amount of restoration needs to be a consideration.  This is where a good relationship with dealers is helpful.  They are full of information, and generally love to talk about their passion.  Another secret I might add is that they love being invited over for dinner.  I have shopped from the trunk of a dealer's car more than once when they stop by for a casual country supper.

What is the biggest mistake a beginning collector can make?

Parker Jennings:  Probably to purchase on impulse without knowing the true value of an item, especially in todays deflated marketplace.  Having said that, we all make mistakes in the beginning.  Almost everyone at one time or another overpays for an item or buys something that wasn't what they thought it was.  Don't worry about it, just enjoy your piece and don't make the same mistake twice.

Okay, just one more question, can I have another piece of pumpkin bread?

Great Books on Collecting Antiques from our library:


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Whether your home is the city, by the sea, in the mountains or Farm town, USA, country life is about how you approach living your day, how you feel about your home, and how you care for yourself and your neighbors.

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  1. Nina, Parker and Winston,

    What a delghtful, informative and entertaining post!

    I couldn't agree more when it comes to trendiness. Today's "trends" seem to be seasonal - driven more by fashion and marketing than substance. Fad is a much more appropriate word, where as Trend implies a subsantive change in direction.

    I thought "What a coincidence!" as I read your discussion on integrating antiques into a modern space. Wednesday evening, as Sally and I were "drowning our guilt", we got to talking about a similar subject - comparing the spareness of the Modern Movement to the work of Axel Vervoordt, and to some extent, the Belgain style, for example. Opposite ends of the spectrum, yet oh so close.

    Have a great weekend! I'm looking forward to the next letter in the alphabet...


  2. Thanks John, your comments are right on target. We get into these discussions all of the time too. While I think as designers we need to be aware of what is going on around us, Parker is pretty stalwart about keeping it "real" as they say, and staying authentic. As a result, his house is very comforting to spend time in, because it never feels staged.

  3. As I read my email comments this morning I was delighted to find one from you about the pecan pie post. How wonderful it is to hop over for a sweet visit with my Virginia cousins! Our family has deep roots in Virginia & I appreciate every single thing you've said in this post. I see you know a lot of my best blogging friends, so I'm happy to know both of you now. Isn't blogging wonderful? I'm your newest follower.
    And your puppy...just the sweetest photos I've ever seen. Dogs RULE ! Big Texas hug...Marsha

  4. Thanks Marsha, I'm so glad you came by. And yes, it sure is a good thing there are no calories in that pie.

  5. Bravo! Great great post, so much information here, so informative and captivating. Beautiful interiors and appointements too! Thanks for writing so I could discover your wonderful blog. I am your newest subscriber...thanks!

  6. Nina & Parker.... an absolutely wonderful post! If I mentioned everything I loved about it I would be rewriting the entire post. Words of wisdom which ring so true, and so well said. Such beautiful photographs too! I look forward to this series.

    my best to you both and kisses to Winston!

  7. Joan you are such a dear. Parker and I have been talking about this subject now since I did the post, and the subject seems almost inexhaustible. I know you've got something cooking for beginning collectors, and with all of your experience and wisdom on the subject, I can't wait to read about your perspective on that. Antiques are truly a love and a passion for Parker and I know they are for you too. We're chomping at the bit over here to read your post!

  8. Dear Mr. Jennings, I think we may have been separated at birth. I loved this post.


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