Buyer's guide: How do you know what's an antique?

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If you've spent any considerable amount of time in the Berkshires, you've probably walked or driven past an antique shop or 12. Perhaps you've also doubled back and stopped in for a visit, attracted by the unique blend of practicality and nostalgia these stores engender with windows filled with ancient furniture and kitchenware, and art.

However, unless you're really up on this stuff, you might not be able to tell if a table, for instance, is 40 or 60 or 100 years old. How do you know that you're actually buying an antique and not just a vintage item?

The answer is: You probably won't. After all, dealers themselves even argue about what defines an antique.

"You could interview 10 antique dealers in the business and each one ... would give you a different answer," Charles Flint of Charles Flint Fine Art & Antiques Gallery in Lenox said.

According to Webster's New World College Dictionary, an antique is "a piece of furniture, silverware, etc. made in a former period, generally more than 100 years ago." That 100-year standard is oft-cited, including by Edith Gilson, president of the 29-member Berkshire County Antiques & Art Dealers Association (BCAADA), "the professional trade organization for the leading antiques and art dealers in the Berkshires," according to its website. But Flint, one of BCAADA's members, disagrees with the 100-year bar.

"One hundred years is basically for customs agents because they don't have the knowledge to know what really is an antique, so they make it 100 years," he said.

So, where would he draw the line?

The Lee native considers himself to be a purist, so he adopts tougher standards that vary, based on the types of antiques he is selling. For example, he generally wouldn't consider furniture made after 1850 to be an antique because of the proliferation of manufactured items following the Industrial Revolution. "Anything before that had to be made by hand because there was no other way," he said.

Similarly, he said, antique bottles should pre-date the early 1900s, when Michael Owens invented the automatic glass-forming machine. Essentially, then, Flint's definition of an antique is tied to it being hand-crafted.

Neither Shirley Cogswell of Great Barrington Antiques Center, nor Keith Bona of Berkshire Emporium & Antiques in North Adams, abide by the 100-year mark, either. But their definitions are less strict than Flint's, with items from the 20th century being particularly popular in both places.

Even if other stores don't adhere to the 100-year standard, it's safe to say that an antique's age should be in that vicinity. One way to determine the age of wooden antiques is to assess their patina, or their sheen after natural wear.

"Wood has a personality. Wood shrinks. It warps. It does all kinds of things according to moisture," Flint said. "If the finish on it has a different personality, different chemical makeup, that's doing its own thing and, between the two, you end up with patina."

But even that tip requires a keen eye and understanding of wear and tear. It's better to leave it to the experts. For example, part of the BCAADA's vetting process for prospective members involves assessing whether the shops are accurately determining the age and place of origin for various objects, according to Gilson. Asking if the store owners belong to BCAADA or similar organizations is worth the time.

Additionally, the internet is the consumer's friend. Items are now posted online and scrutinized by the masses, adding another layer of accountability for stores, according to Gilson.

But perhaps the best way to avoid a bad purchase is to do your homework. It's how Flint got started in the business.

When he was a teenager, his father asked him if he wanted to dig for ancient bottles. A Sandisfield antiques dealer was buying them.

"It sounded like archaeology or treasure hunting," Flint said.

After a couple of weekends, they had filled 14 bushel baskets with containers. But before they took them to the dealer, Flint wanted to learn more about bottles, preparing for the negotiation with the dealer.

"I became addicted," Flint said of the research, which involved extensive reading about their history and questioning people he trusted.

Unfortunately, what he discovered wasn't promising.

"There wasn't a good one in the bunch," he said.

Still, the experience didn't dissuade Flint from pursuing antiquing. He continued expanding his repertoire, gleaning knowledge from books and experts in Shaker and Early American furniture. When he wasn't working jobs in construction, manufacturing or advertising, he spent time as a picker, or "a dealer's dealer." Early American paintings and Shaker furniture were his specialty.

"I would almost know ahead of time who was going to buy what," Flint said.

After 11 years of picking, he wanted his own shop. He moved into the downstairs space of a Lenox gift shop without looking at any other locations. Big mistake.

"I almost closed my doors because I had such a hard time making a go of it," he said, noting that antiques collectors often "hate" gift shops and, consequently, never bothered to enter the building once they arrived.

However, Flint's store had quality items, and a national advertising campaign eventually yielded some customers. Forty-two years and several properties later, Charles Flint Fine Art & Antiques Gallery in Lenox now has two floors of antiques. A corner of his upstairs room is currently devoted to bottles. He said that while people who buy and sell antiques don't need to be students of history to enjoy it, those who do may appreciate it more.

"People that are interested in history also have a tremendous respect for objects that survived against all odds, and that would be painting and antiques, folk art, whatever," he said.

And they may actually be able to discern the difference.


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