Ask Ken: Tips for Collectors

What types of items do you personally collect?

The first year of our marriage, we were very fortunate to both find jobs in Wytheville, VA.  There is a great Germanic arts and decorative arts tradition there and as we saw more and more of it we just fell in love with it.  To this day, we still love the furniture and decorative arts of the Backcountry, western North Carolina, southwestern Virginia, and eastern Tennessee.  But, in contrast, we also collect things that were made in the mid 20th century or later, particularly design and decorative arts within our region. Ultimately, we’re drawn to anything that is unique and shows the personality of the artist or craftsmen.


How long have you been collecting?  

Since the 1970s - and we’re still at it!  

What was the first piece that started your collecting passion?

My last year in college I rented a room in a house, in Glade Spring, Virginia, that belonged to an antique dealer.  Supposedly, she had a dining room table that Henry Ford offered her a blank check for, but she didn’t accept. Sometimes she’d wake me up on Sunday mornings to help unload from auctions she’d just attended in northern Virginia.  So that all sort piqued my interest.

The first piece we ever bought was a wooden stirrup that we keep our napkins in just like the dealer that we got it from.  It's still on our breakfast table today. We then started collecting lots of baskets, there are so many great examples from that region, and eventually began branching out into furniture and folk art as we could afford it.    


What advice do you have for young collectors?

Well, the best advice I ever got was to try and focus on an area of knowledge that you can easily familiarize yourself with.  Also, try to buy the best quality that you can. Rather than buying ten little things, save up to buy one really good thing. That said, when we were starting out we would purchase what we could afford and then “upgrade” as time went on. Starting out, we didn’t have the money or knowledge to buy the things we have now.  It took us a long time to figure out the balance between what we really wanted and what we could afford.

If you’re going to collect its helpful to decide if it's for fun or if you’re going to take a more serious approach and learn about what you’re buying.  If it's just for fun all you need to figure out is your style and your budget. If you want to become educated, make sure to go to museums and auctions as well as studying online resources.  Auctions are especially great because you’re often able to hold and examine items and there will be experts on hand to ask questions!


How does that advice differ from what you would tell those who have been collecting for many years?

If you’re going to spend good money on collecting learn as much as you can or work with someone (an art or antique advisor or auction house) who is very knowledgeable to help you navigate.  One thing to keep in mind: It is difficult to convert antiques into cash these days. Today’s market is challenging and I would advise people to buy what they like with the possible hope that it might be a good long term investment. Just look at average quality Victorian furniture and decorative arts - 30 years ago it was highly valuable and popular and these days it is much harder to sell. It's still great to buy if that’s what you love to collect, but it doesn't always make for a great investment.


How can collectors stay on top of market changes?

By subscribing to auction results and reading the trade papers like Maine Antiques Digest, Antique and Arts Weekly.  There are also so many websites that specialize in what art is doing and what the market in general is interested in.  Take time to go to auction houses and preview as well as antique shows where you can talk with dealers. The more stuff you see, the more you’ll learn.  You can learn a lot by research, but you need to get out there and touch the stuff and look at it in person - that’s what really teaches you.


What are the hottest collecting trends right now?

The top 2% of quality in all categories.  Top tier of quality is where it is these days.  Modern art appears to have the most demand right now, followed by fine art, Asian art.  Mid century modern or post war is also popular at the moment. But, really, it all ebbs and flows and and often has more to do with who made an item or piece of artwork (Basquiat, Eames, etc.) than anything else.

Click through the photos below to see some great collectible items!