It seems like a paradox, but the fun of antiques lies in their ability to elicit the thrill of the new. From ancient Chinese bronzes to Victorian chaises, objects from the past have the power to reawaken lost worlds, inspire the frisson of discovery, and rouse us to see life through fresh (if centuries-old) eyes.
Perhaps surprisingly, this dynamic is nothing new. In Ancient Rome and Ming Dynasty China, connoisseurs prized old things (sometimes very old things) with full appreciation for their age. Just as we feel modern today, our forebearers often felt modern in their own times, and they had complex ideas about history—and its material culture.
Across time and space, a funny thing holds true: The more people think about the past, the more they want to preserve and collect its products: antiques.
Today, as pre-industrial history recedes out of memory, rococo commodes and jade “bi” are cast in ever-higher relief against Ikea and the iPhones that have become our constant companions. Temporal distance can transform old things into thrillingly exotic rarities, but it can also make them feel…remote. In recent years, some have wondered if the history of antiques is ending. Would museums and storage units become the sole preserves of historic material culture?
If younger dealers, designers, and collectors have anything to do with it, the answer is a resounding no. A new generation of tastemakers is embracing antiques and ensuring they join us in the digital age and beyond. To celebrate, I’m looking back on 11 great moments in antiques and recalling the transportive magic of the treasures that have captivated us through the ages. Here’s to a timeline of antiques appreciation that extends well into the future.
1388: A Near-Encyclopedic Guide to Antiques Appears
Collector Cao Zhao’s three-scroll treatise on antiques connoisseurship, “Gegu yaolun,” encapsulates the collecting craze of the early Ming period in China. Beyond setting forth standards for 13 disciplines such as ancient bronzes and lacquerware, Cao Zhao dispenses advice on dealers and competing collectors. His stated principle of only discussing material he had personally handled (including works from his father’s collection) speaks to his rigorous approach.
1700s: The Age of Antiques (And Antics)
It’s study abroad for the aristo set: To cultivate their taste (and have the time of their lives), young European nobles set off on their Grand Tours. And guess what they bring home as souvenirs? Hint: It isn’t Ikea.
1736: Connoisseurship Reigns in the High Qing Era
After the Qianlong emperor ascends to the Manchu throne at age 24, the “preserver and restorer” of Chinese cultural heritage (and voracious collector) feverishly expands the imperial collection, which had origins in the first century B.C. Surrounding himself with curators and literati, Qianlong closely follows the art market, buying up private collections and pressuring other connoisseurs to store their works in his imperial palace, the Forbidden City, for “safekeeping” (i.e. his own enjoyment).
1750-1850: Obsessive Connoisseurs Amass Intensely Personal Collections
In 18th-century England, a newly prosperous middle class asserts itself by devising elaborate domestic interiors and filling them with rare and special objects. For roughly a century, connoisseur collectors Horace Walpole, John Soane, William Beckford, and Thomas Hope epitomize this shift, demonstrating that collecting isn’t just for aristocrats and royals. They develop complex practices as collectors, art patrons, architects, and even fiction writers, producing unique houses, collections, and texts—portraits of their singular personalities—that inspire antiquarians still today.
1874: Oscar Wilde’s Teapot Moment
With a single aphorism (“I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china”), the poet captures the spirit of antiques-enamored aesthetes everywhere, inspiring even robber barons to become collectors.
1920s: Syrie Maugham Rethinks Antiques
As Europe emerges from war, modernism and Deco are in and everything old is out. Then British decorator Syrie Maugham begins pickling and painting antiques until they gleam brighter than the Bauhaus.
1932: Folk Art Goes Modern(ist)
Old things aren’t just for antiquarians. In the 1930s, modern artists and modernist intellectuals find inspiration in folk art and early antiques, helping expand their market in America. At the Museum of Modern Art’s folk art exhibition in 1932, largely drawn from the collection of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, curator Holger Cahill extols the “unconventional side of the American tradition,” positing a continuum of identifiably American artistic vision extending from the 18th century through the modern era.
1934: Antiques Get Serious
London’s Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair, the now-defunct ancestor of today’s antiques fairs, formalizes the practice of vetting pieces for authenticity, date, and condition to protect buyers from fakes, embroidered histories, and inflated prices.
1954: The Winter Show Begins … with the Sale of Five Louis Vuitton Trunks
Quelle surprise: In the early 1950s, socialite Norris Harkness inherits five couture-stuffed trunks from an aunt in Paris. After selling them at a junk show in the old Madison Square Garden with the help of friend Grace Lindquist, associate director of East Side House Settlement, Harkness donates her proceeds (a cool $1700) to the community-based non-profit. Over cocktails, antiques dealers John Bihler and Henry Coger celebrate the women’s success and ask Lindquist a question that goes down in history: “Why don’t you start your own antiques show?” And so the iconic “Great American Show” begins, swiftly becoming the leading antiques fair in the United States—and raising millions for New Yorkers in need.
1985: “Treasure Houses of Great Britain”
By the close of the National Gallery of Art’s blockbuster exhibition, the English country-house look has swept America, inspiring a decade of Chippendale, chintz, and wall-to-wall antiques (or, depending on budgets, faithful reproductions).
1997: Antiques Roadshow Premieres
The market for American art and antiques hits big. With seemingly modest items such as weather vanes fetching millions, Americans scour their attics for a winning ticket in the antiques lottery—and tune in to PBS to watch others hit the jackpot.
2010s: Antiques Enter the Future
As ’90s minimalism fades and the midcentury craze of the 2000s abates, record-setting estate sales of 20th-century tastemakers Bunny Mellon, Lee Radziwill, and Mario Buatta herald a nostalgic revival—and a passing of the torch to a new generation of collectors.
Today: Future Nostalgia
From fashion to cinema and K-pop to TikTok, historical aesthetics and visual cues from the past—including truckloads of antiques—saturate contemporary art, design, and culture. Touchstones include Gucci under the creative leadership of Alessandro Michele, Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s internet-breaking music video at the Louvre, fashion brands Bode and Batsheva, the films of Luca Guadagnino (“I Am Love,” “Call Me By Your Name”), art by Kehinde Wiley and Cynthia Talmadge, recent television shows “Dickinson” and “The Great,” and just about all of our favorite interior designers and home products (epitomized by designer Sheila Bridges’s iconic Harlem Toile de Jouy pattern). As country-pop sensation, Kacey Musgraves says in an August 2021 interview: “I always love when something traditional and something futuristic meet.” The new generation agrees, and they’re the future of antiques.
This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io