A bang of the tooth on a pearl, a sharp sniff at the Bakelite with loupe pinched to the eyeball — you can tell a seasoned collector at a fair or antique viewing by the intimate way in which they inspect a potential purchase.
Senses flared, it’s like watching an old wolf snuffle chemical messages from the forest floor. Condition is everything when assessing antique and vintage pieces. Damage, wear, missing parts, restoration — the further the piece is from the moment it slid newly moulded from the hands or machinery that made it, the greater its cold, hard market value is compromised.
We are talking here of a dramatic fall in value, to the point that the item becomes at best a second rate object for the starter collector, or at worst a tragic, old curiosity.
Focusing on glass and ceramics, your hands and eyes can tell you most of what you need to know. In the excitement of finding something special, problems can be submerged in pattern or raised decoration.
Damage and restoration will be revealed by a reputable dealer, but even then, it’s up to you to do a full physical and visual review. It’s time to get your hands and eyes fully involved, dropping your reading glasses to the end of your nose to take in every millimetre of detail.
A recent study by KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm has confirmed that human fingers can pick up tactile perception at the nano-scale.
Glass breaks into sharp edges and ceramics chip into the glaze or body beneath. Handle the object carefully, turning it over, running your finger-tips lightly over the areas likely to receive most wear — the handles, rim and base.
A small to moderate chip to a rare, desirable ceramic can be restored, but in the case of glass it’s extremely bad news. Tiny chips are often described as ‘nicks’. Glass and fine porcelain can be seen through in all but the most opaque colour, so hold the item to the light to find fine cracks.
The base of handles and any relief decoration can hide cracks and old repairs. Plastics can hold cracks tightly shut, so use deft sweeps of your fingers and notice any ridges arresting their travel or flipping off a nail. Ceramics can also carry what are termed ‘glaze chips’, ‘glaze scales’ and other production flaws which occurred at the time of their making in the kiln, and which are often not as serious as post production damage.
Glass can also bubble on the outside during blowing, the bubble popping and leaving a rough pit; other bubbles can often be seen inside very old glass. These seed bubbles, if not ruining the design and beauty of the glass, are termed inclusions and not a problem.
Repeat after me — cracks are not crazing. Cracks and crazing can be present in glass and ceramics and here’s the difference between them. Fine or large, cracks will generally go right through the body of the piece and they can affect structural integrity. Given a light flick with a finger-nail, finer ceramics will make a clear resonating ring. If you hear a dull, flat note, check for cracks. Hairline cracks will take more care to find. Crazing is cracks to the glaze on the pot’s surface not to the body underneath; it can be light or extensive and won’t weaken the piece, although crazing may weaken value in some cases.
Surface wear can be everything from rubbing away or etches on painting, gilding or an iridescent finish, to utensil wear, where forks and knives have travelled the plate for a century scarring the glaze.
The condition of an antique is described differently depending on what genre of thing it is and the material from which it is made.
Damage and restoration should always be disclosed. Generally, it will run from mint — rarely found unsullied perfection or ‘attic condition’, to excellent condition; to good condition, (reasonable wear but not cracked or heavily chipped); to fair (more obvious damage); to ‘as is’ or ‘as found’ (of little value or a restoration project).
Restoration, especially of ceramics, can deliver outward perfection, but a restored object can never return to the virgin land of mint condition. 19th century stapling (or riveting) of say a 17th century pottery charger might look like the work of Dr Frankenstein’s intern, but is in fact regarded as honest repair, and is in the best practice of conservation — just about meant to be seen. My shelves are heaving with ‘as is’ ware and these elderly survivors have an integral beauty and accrued history, and I want to be with them. When you start collecting, chances are you will be forced to buy the imperfect thing — imperfect things are easy to buy but very difficult to sell. As time passes and you trade up, you will become more exacting; flaws will probably irritate you more. The hunt for the thing ecomes the hunt for the perfect thing, and if funds are available you will want the piece as close to mint or excellent condition as possible.
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