What is an antique? To answer this deceptively simple question, we've turned to Michael Flanigan, a Baltimore expert in American furniture who likes to think about such things. In fact, Michael was one who suggested ANTIQUES ROADSHOW create a glossary, so we thought we'd have him introduce the first word in our glossary.
As Michael points out, the word "antique" generally refers to an older object valued because of its aesthetic or historical significance. This loose definition applies to how we use the word in the title of our show.
But to understand the more precise definition of the word used by dealers, Michael talks about American history. He points out that the word's definition changed in the 1930s. Then, as now, true antiques were considered artwork and came in duty-free. However, up until the 1930s the increasingly busy U.S. Customs Office kept facing the hard question: What objects should we classify as authentic antiques?
At the time, the word had different meanings for different people. In European collecting circles, the word could describe an antiquity from ancient Rome or Greece. In the United States, with its much shorter view of history, the word "antique" could describe an object made as recently as the Civil War. Businessmen looking to skirt duties tried to use an even vaguer definition, using the word to describe any beautiful and valued item that was less-than-new.
Seeking clarity (and a guidepost for what to collect duty on), the Customs Office polled dealers for a definition and from these formulated one of its own. Antiques, they concluded, were objects that pre-dated the mass production of objects in the 1830s. Since the defining moment went back about 100 years, the office defined an antique as something made over 100 years ago. Duty was collected on objects younger than the century-old divider, and it still is.
"The beauty of this definition is that it's so elastic," says Michael. As the years move forward, so does the cut-off date that delineates an antique.
"In a stroke of luck, the Customs Service ended up doing us all a favor," says Michael of the new industry standard. "The one-hundred-year mark may be crude, but it's helpful. We tend to think in terms of centuries. To have that as a gauge gives people a sense of time and distance."
The definition also did away with a lot of the arbitrariness that used to go into deciding what objects should be considered antiques.
"It eliminated the subjective judgments," Michael says. "By having a fixed time gauge in the definition, dealers and appraisers no longer had to judge objects by their artistic merit or their historical significance or how they were made. They no longer had to twist themselves into pretzels trying to convince a customer that something truly is an antique."
The definition has stuck and is now one that collectors and dealers use to separate an antique from a collectible.