In all of the years that we’ve admired the book illustrations of outdoor and natural history artist Henry B. Kane, we had never seen a stand-alone piece of his artwork on the market until recently finding this woodcut (now sold).
It is a portrait of a mouse (likely a white-footed mouse, Peromyscusleucopus), rendered in a small scale befitting its subject (frame size: 8.5” wide x 9” high; woodcut size: 4” square). The crisp black and white contrasts that comprise the image of the mouse nestled on a small branch of a red pine in its woodsy home habitat, are the distinctive attributes of woodcuts. The artist was able to achieve great clarity of detail by carving a block of wood so that when inked and pressed onto paper the portions of the woodblock that were raised in relief join with those that were gouged away to create a stunning black-and-white image.
This woodcut is one of a limited edition, number 16 of 100, and is signed by the artist in pencil in the lower right.
The artwork was matted and framed in Boston, not far Lincoln, Massachusetts where Kane lived for many years with his wife, two daughters, and a son.
While Kane’s personal and professional lives were rooted in the Boston area, his artistic abilities and book projects allowed him to travel in his mind’s eye, by immersing himself in the variety of habitats and settings that his collaborating authors explored. He was a rare individual who was equally drawn to and adept at science and art, as well as skilled in administration. What else do we know about this accomplished man?
“Name an occupation, and there’s somebody considering a robot to take it over.”
(David Pogue, cbsnews.com, August 2017)
In all of our contemplations aimed at anticipating the next waves of the antiques business, the possibility of our job sector being taken over by robots or computers programmed with artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms had never occurred to us. Yet given our technologically innovative economy, predictions are that nearly 40% of jobs currently held by real people in the U.S. could be lost to robots and artificial intelligent systems by 2030 (PwC’s Global Artificial Intelligence Study, pwc.com). So perhaps we should worry about our job security.
While it is easy to envision robots zipping around an Amazon warehouse plucking merchandise from shelves to fulfill orders,
it is a stretch to imagine them galloping around the fields of an antiques market such as Brimfield in Massachusetts or Round Top in Texas to find antique treasures.
Yet robots are not only taking over manual jobs in many sectors of the economy, they are also encroaching on jobs that rely more heavily on cognitive expertise. Collecting and analyzing data in insurance and financial industries, drawing up standard contracts in the legal field, and doing routine health assessments or disease diagnoses as general practitioners and pathologists now do in the medical field, can all potentially be accomplished better and more efficiently by intelligent non-humans.
Even those higher order job skills, however, still seem more codifiable into computer algorithms than the uncertain processes of buying and selling antiques. Experts in artificial intelligence acknowledge that computers still don’t succeed very well when trying to accomplish tasks that require flexibility and non-routine procedures. Since a course in Antiquing 101 would have as its first lesson how to be versatile, intuitive, and adaptable, our profession may still have some time remaining in the human realm before computers catch up with us.
But perhaps not much time. Researchers on the cutting edge of AI are working diligently to program computers to master abstract reasoning, learning, creativity, problem-solving, and cognitive flexibility. A major goal of this work is for AI to mimic intuitive judgment so that a computer will be able to make good decisions on the basis of uncertain and incomplete information, just as humans do every day.
One challenge of this research is to understand and then codify how irrationality enters into decision making. If researchers crack the irrational, emotion-laden dimensions of how professionals make decisions in their day-to-day work, then perhaps they are getting closer than we realize to building robots that could become antiques dealers.
So to determine how likely it is that we’ll have antiquing robots in the not-too-distant future, let’s get analytical by breaking down the various components of the antiques dealer’s profession, and then rate each dimension from 1 (low) to 5 (high) on an automatization likelihood scale, which is a computer takeover Threat-O-Meter of sorts.
An Antiques Dealer Has to Know Stuff
Despite a trend towards melding the antiques business with the world of design in which what matters most is an object’s visual appeal rather than its age and historical authenticity, we still believe that it is essential for antiques dealers to focus on objects that are original products of a past era. Understanding an antique’s origin requires contextual knowledge of historical periods and their artistic or stylistic movements, who was making what kinds of things during that era (whether individuals, collectives or manufacturing companies), variations of forms by geographic locations (continents, countries, regions), typical materials and assembly or creation techniques used, and so forth.
All of this factual background information is supremely suited to becoming a massive database that could anchor object identification algorithms. So this dimension of our professional skill set merits a score of 5 on the takeover likelihood scale.
Likelihood of Robot/AI Takeover:
1 2 3 4 5
An Antiques Dealer Has to Find Stuff
A huge part of an antiques dealer’s job is seeking and finding antiques that are worthy of buying and selling. Computers are much better at certain kinds of searching (i.e., querying databases) than humans. But those searches will only be productive if the raw information being searched is high quality.
Most sellers, other than high-end auction houses that employ specialists in various subfields of antiques or specialist dealers who post their goods online, write sketchy or inaccurate descriptions of antiques which could pose a challenge for search algorithms that lack the wisdom to a) filter out worthless keyword hits, b) dig for unlikely labels and associations, and c) fill in the blanks of what isn’t said about an object. Then there is the challenge of following up on potential leads; will the antiques dealing “bot” chat with the auction house bot to get its questions answered?
Beyond these challenges to an intelligent robot scanning through antiques online, many antiques—in fact, most of what we purchase—never appear online. Robots finding antiques anywhere other than through a database search is highly unlikely (unless home monitoring security cameras that are becoming increasingly popular begin to automatically upload photos or video of the insides of homes, garages, barns, and storage units as searchable, pictorial data—yikes!). Since AI systems have high potential to search databases, but low potential to search physical nooks and crannies, this dimension of antiques dealing merits a score of 3 on the takeover likelihood scale.
Likelihood of Robot/AI Takeover:
1 2 3 4 5
An Antiques Dealer Has to Evaluate Stuff
Evaluating the merits of an object is where the first two dimensions of an antiques dealer’s repertoire—knowing stuff and finding stuff—interact. It is not enough just to know facts or to find an object; it is essential to be able to retrieve and apply knowledge in reference to a particular object that is in front of you. Is it real or fake? Is it old or new? Is it intact or broken? Is it solid or wobbly? Is it in original or modified condition? Is it rare or common? Is it aesthetically pleasing or unappealing? Is it a desirable or undesirable form in the eyes of potential buyers? Is it appropriate for our specialty niche within the vast universe of antiques? More often than not a dealer has to do all of this evaluation under time pressure to make a decision to buy or not to buy something before another interested party comes along.
This graceful center table (30″ wide, 21.75″ deep, 30″ high) is a stellar example of a decorative technique called pyrography, literally meaning fire writing, but better known as wood burning (a.k.a. “burnt wood etching” and “pokerwork”). The table dates from circa 1910, so was created during the late 19th-early 20th century time period when pyrography reached peak popularity with artists and crafters.
Before describing this table in more detail, it is worth recounting a bit of the fascinating background of pyrography which includes pieces of history from the domains of art, science, society, and commerce.
A Brief History of Pyrography
Burning designs into wood, leather, and bone for artistic expression dates back to at least the 1st century AD. In early times designs were etched with hot implements that needed to be constantly reheated as the artwork progressed.
That inconvenient and tiresome technique changed radically in 1889 when an artist named François Manuel-Perier introduced a “pyrography machine” at the International Exposition in Paris. He had adapted a medical instrument that a French physician had invented in 1875 for cauterizing wounds. The tool had an insulated handle with a sharp tip made of platinum, a metal which was uniquely able to absorb a certain gaseous mixture that could keep the tip hot.
Within a year, a compact version of Manuel-Perier’s thermo-pyrography tool, made by Abbott Brothers Manufacturing, was being sold in England within a kit called “The Vulcan Wood Etching Machine.”
The basic necessities included in the kit were pencils with varying size platinum tips, an alcohol spirit lamp, a jar of liquid benzene, and two lengths of rubber tubing – one connected to a bellows and the other connected to the hollow platinum pencil tip.
The artist would initially heat the sharp platinum tip of the pencil in the flame of the spirit lamp, then extinguish the lamp. While using the pencil tip to burn a design into wood with one hand, the artist would then constantly pump the bellows with their other hand which transmitted benzene vapor through the tube to the platinum point which then absorbed the gas to keep the tip glowing hot.
Conveniently, in 1891, a year after Abbott Brothers introduced its pyrography kits, a book titled A Handbook on Pyrography written by a Mrs. Maud Maude was published in England, declaring that “the art has lately attracted considerable attention and is now a most fashionable art with enthusiastic feminine amateurs.”
The book, along with a series of articles Mrs. Maude penned for the U.S. magazine The Delineator in 1892, gave explicit instructions for producing pyrographic art using the Vulcan kit, thereby helping the art form became a fad as a home craft, particularly among women. It turns out that Mrs. Maud Maude was a pseudonym for Ann Maud Abbott Freeman, a sister of the Abbott Brothers who manufactured the Vulcan pyrography kit. Savvy marketing, indeed.
Additional publications encouraging the craft of pyrography as a “delightful and profitable pastime” for women followed, including the 1894 Fancy Work for Pleasure and Profit by Addie E. Heron which detailed how women could make decorative objects for their own homes or to sell, and the 1903 book 300 Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Lilla Elizabeth Kelley which had a chapter devoted to pyrography filled with detailed instructions as well as encouragements such as, “If the point does not work well at once do not feel vexed.” Thus began the popular trend of adorning household objects such as small boxes, mirrors, frames, and wall plaques with pyrographic art.
Riding the wave of pyrography as a popular home craft, the Flemish Art Company was established in Brooklyn, NY around 1900 to began producing pyrographic objects commercially.
The company manufactured its own wooden objects – wastebaskets, hand mirrors, tabourettes, handkerchief boxes, wall plaques and the like – largely from basswood that they sourced “in the cold climates of Michigan, Minnesota, and Canada” which the company believed produced superior, whiter wood. Their artistic employees, many of whom were women, then hand-decorated the objects with pyrographic designs. The company’s artists also engraved metal plates that were heated and pressed onto wood to decorate some of their commercial products.
This frame (which we owned and sold several years ago), depicting a sporting woman with a tennis racket and bag of golf clubs, was likely handmade by a Flemish Art Company artist.
The Flemish Art Company also sold pyrography kits that included paints, stains, waxes and varnishes, instruction booklets, and other handy tools for do-it-yourself pyrographers.
One particularly interesting accessory was the “Flemish Art non-explosive absorbent – a cotton-like substance called asbestos” which crafters were encouraged to “place in the benzene bottle to absorb the volatile fluid make it safe and non-explosive should the bottle break.”
Although pyrography instruction books included some ominous warnings such as: “You should always have a fire extinguisher at the ready and preferably another person nearby who could help in case of an accident,” and “If a red flame issues from your vent hole, your benzene is too strong,” no one at the time understood the carcinogenic hazards of working with these materials.
Pyrography and the Rustic Aesthetic
The era of mass popularity of pyrography as a crafting activity, roughly 1890 through the 1920s, coincided with the rusticator era when city folk sought not only experiences in the wilderness, but also decorative reminders of nature and adventures in the outdoors. Not surprisingly, then, pyrographic designs have appeared on antique rustic accessories that we’ve handled over the years.
As summer nears its Labor Day finale, I am already wistful for opportunities to spend warm days and starry nights in peaceful, outdoor surroundings. Recently watching a movie filmed on the steppes of Mongolia (The Eagle Huntress – the best, albeit the only, G-rated movie I’ve seen in a long time) got me thinking about one way to live with just a fabric’s (or sheep’s hide) width of separation from nature: in a semi-permanent shelter such as a traditional Mongolian ger (more familiarly known as a yurt).
Having stayed as a guest in several back-to-the-lander friends’ yurts over the years, as well as having spent part of a college semester living in an oceanside tipi (free housing!), I can attest to how sleeping in a white-walled, round shelter somehow feels spiritually uplifting. Or perhaps it is the lack of clutter, the simplicity of lifestyle, the gorgeous setting, or the combination of all these things that feeds the soul more robustly than dwelling within the squared walls of a solid house.
Reinvigorating the spirit with a return to simplicity was the same motivation that impelled 19th and early 20th century rusticators to flock away from cities into the wilds.
Yet the rusticators of yore also wanted their creature comforts at the end of a day exploring the wilderness, which gave rise to the elegant Great Camp style that we still appreciate in lodges, inns, and private homes today.
The recent rise in popularity of “glamping” (glamorous camping), in which resort-style amenities are paired with overnights in simple structures such as yurts and tents, reveals that not much has changed in the desires of the rusticator demographic. Glamping proprietors proudly advertise tents provisioned with queen beds, sheets, blankets, pillows, towels, mini-fridges, coolers, fans, heaters, electric lights, bath amenities, and lounge chairs. Flush toilets, hot showers, and sometimes gourmet meals are available just a short walk beyond the tent flaps.
At a certain point one has to wonder, why not just stay at a luxury inn that is situated in a gorgeous, isolated setting?
I suppose novelty is one motivation for choosing glamping over a traditional luxury inn – experiencing how it feels to sleep in a traditional Adirondack guide tent, for instance.
Discovering new forms within a familiar genre of antiques is always a thrill for dealers on the hunt for quality pieces. This rustic armoire qualifies as one of those rare finds that expands the horizons of known hickory furniture types, so the discovery is satisfying from both scholarly and aesthetic perspectives.
Antique hickory case pieces appear on the market less frequently than hickory tables and seating because far fewer of them were produced by the six or so original Indiana hickory furniture companies during their manufacturing heyday from the early to mid-1900s.
We know that this armoire was made by Rustic Hickory Furniture Company of LaPorte, Indiana because it retains that company’s attractive magenta and green paper label intact on the back.
Rustic Hickory produced furniture from 1902-1934. The armoire does not appear in their catalogs and we have never seen one on the market, so we suspect it was available only as a special order or perhaps was made in a limited production run. The 1920s Rustic Hickory catalogs did feature bedroom suites (beds, dressers, and costumers) described as “Up-to-date bedroom equipment for the summer home, in typical Rustic Hickory Construction.” Although complementary in style, the armoire was not part of the company’s catalog line of bedroom furniture.
We are able to date the armoire to circa 1925 because it came directly from an Arts-and-Crafts bungalow-style lakeside summer home that was built in the southern sector of the Adirondack Park around that date. Upon completion of the home, the owners furnished it throughout with quality Rustic Hickory and Old Hickory furniture. The armoire had been in the house since it was built.
Although the house was relatively large with spacious bedrooms on a full-story second floor, closet space was limited. Armoires have provided a storage solution in rooms without closets since medieval times when they held everything from armor (hence the derivation of the French word armoire) to tapestries, rugs, linens, and clothing. Up until the early 1900s, most homes were built with few or no closets, so movable, free-standing wardrobe cabinets were common.
Armoire styles have changed throughout the centuries as storage needs and decorative trends evolved. This unique, rustic-style armoire has four doors, and hickory pole trim along the abutting edges of each door, between the sets of doors, and around the front, sides, and top edges of the whole case.
There are different storage features inside the left and right pairs of doors.
The doors on the left open to an empty space for hanging clothes from a hickory pole closet rod.
The doors on the right open to two shelves and four drawers for folded garments. The shelves and drawer fronts are made of pine.
The interior dimensions of each half of the armoire are 23” wide x 21” deep x 52” wide (the overall exterior dimensions are 51.5” wide x 24.75” deep x 61” high), so it is roomy enough to hold an array of clothing.
Beyond its functionality, this armoire’s grand scale, warm finish, and bark-on hickory poles make it a handsome anchor piece for a rustic room’s decor. It also evokes nostalgia for the simple lifestyle that early 20th-century rusticators enjoyed at their vacation home retreats.
This month our musings on antique sporting goods continue, but as the season gradually progresses towards summer our focus shifts from ice skates (our February posting) to tennis antiques.
We recently acquired and sold this rare tennis tintype. Tintypes were a photography innovation introduced in 1856 and used into the 1880s, in which images were printed on thin metal plates. The size of tintypes range from large full plates (6.5” x 8.5”), which are the most desirable to collectors, to small 1/16th plates (1.375” x 1.625”). This tennis photograph is a full plate tintype.
Tennis antiques do not fit exactly within the genre of rustic antiques so it may seem surprising to see this tintype featured here, yet there are some interesting areas of overlap. One connection between tennis and rustic antiques is that tennis was a popular sport enjoyed by genteel rusticators in places such as summer colonies near the turn of the 20th century.
Another connection is that early sporting accoutrements make intriguing accessories within present-day rustic décor, especially in vacation homes where enjoying leisure sporting activities has been a long tradition.
So the occurrence of an antique tennis tintype in our recent inventory is not completely anomalous. Also, like most antiques dealers we occasionally step outside of our main specialty area to buy and sell other types of antiques. Jeff has learned about tennis antiques over the years thanks in large part to the expertise and enthusiasm of his mother Jeanne Cherry, author of the 1995 book Tennis Antiques & Collectibles (the source for much of the historical information included here).
While the flourishing of tennis in the United States coincides with the height of the rusticator era, from the mid-1870s through the first decades of the 1900s, it is a game with a much longer history—the precursors of the modern game of tennis date back to the 12th century. By 1750 a game called court tennis had evolved in Europe, and although players (members of royalty and other elite classes) used a racket similar to the shape of the rackets used today, they played in a walled court using rules that were very different from those of modern tennis.
It was not until the 1800’s that tennis started to be played outdoors on lawns, giving rise to the game of lawn tennis which is the game we refer to simply as “tennis” today, whether it is played on grass, clay, or hard courts. The year 1877 marked the start of tournament tennis at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon, and by the 1880s lawn tennis had “supplanted croquet as a social garden party activity in which men and women could participate together” (Cherry, 1995).
Indeed, the seven women and four men shown in this tintype were most likely participating in just such a garden party. Based on some limited information we received with the tintype, we think the photograph was taken in the outskirts of New York City, which is plausible because one of the earliest lawn tennis courts in the U.S. was established in Staten Island, NY, thereby introducing people in that region to the game. In 1874 a young socialite named Mary Ewing Outerbridge had just returned from Bermuda where she had played tennis and acquired a boxed set of tennis equipment. When she returned home she convinced her local club, the Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club, to mark lines and set up nets to create lawn tennis courts so that she could introduce tennis to her friends.
The men and women in our tintype are holding lopsided tennis rackets, which is the earliest form of lawn tennis rackets.
Like many people, we adore wild birds. Jeff in particular is an avid bird watcher and observer of the ecology and natural history of bird life. So it is fun to occasionally mesh this leisure interest with a business pursuit, as in the case of offering these antique bird bookends for sale. The two pursuits are not so dissimilar as they might seem, as both require a keen eye for detail and the ability to pick out beauty and salient features from a crowded field.
This pair of handsome, circa 1920 cast iron bookends features accurate portrayals of two eastern songbirds: a Blue Jay and an Eastern Towhee. Each bird is accurately rendered and painted to represent how the birds appear in their full-feathered glory.
Each bookend is 5″ wide x 3″ deep x 5.75″ high, and has a brass nameplate stating the bird’s name.
Note that the Eastern Towhee bookend is labeled with the name “Chewink.” This is the former common name for this species, representing the onomatopoeic version of its call. This bird has gone through several name changes in the past decades, from Chewink, to Rufus-sided Towhee, to its current common name, Eastern Towhee.
The plants pictured along with the birds on the bookends are also northeastern species, accurately rendered and appropriate for the habitats of these two birds. The Blue Jay is shown on a branch of flowering dogwood.
The Eastern Towhee is on an American hazelnut branch.
The quality of the bookends is evident not only in the fine casting and detailed paint decoration, but also in the iron’s solidity and heft. Yet at the same time the shape of the bookends is delicate and balanced, having a simple scalloped edge along the top that is echoed on the base.
It will come as no surprise to those familiar with antique metalwork that these bookends were made by Bradley & Hubbard (B & H) Manufacturing Company. B & H cast iron accessories, from bookends to call bells to doorstops to doorknockers, are desirable to collectors of cast iron because of their quality and aesthetic appeal.
These bookends are each stamped with the logo that B & H used on the smaller accessories it produced:
Antique sporting goods – snowshoes, skis, skates, sleds, canoe paddles, tennis rackets, lacrosse sticks and the like – are reliably attractive accessories for rustic rooms. Within each category, examples range from “cheap and cheerful” to museum quality. For those who pursue sporting collectibles beyond their decorative value, there is always a lot to learn.
I recently came across this photo of a pair of antique ice skates that I deaccessioned from my collection several years ago (well, okay, that’s a pretty fancy word for selling a relatively inexpensive object from a relatively modest collection, but there you have it). These circa 1900 skates are missing the leather straps that would have secured the blades to sturdy boots, becoming the precursors of modern boot skates.
I am drawn to antique skates because of their pleasing sculptural forms, such as the swan-head, short-curl and high-curl skates pictured below.
I also love the contextual images they evoke of people skating in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including the physical settings, social groupings, and what people wore and carried, such as muffs and lanterns.
The history and forms of antique ice skates, as well as their value as collectibles, are well documented in books (Antique Ice Skates for the Collector by Russell Herner, 2001), articles (“Antique Ice Skates in America” by Ann Bates, Maine Antique Digest, Feb. 1, 2010), and websites (e.g., antiqueiceskateclub.com).
Beyond their styles or values, the deepest appeal of antique ice skates for me is the emotion they evoke. Skating as a child in northern Maine was all about getting outside and having fun during an inhospitable season. Anyone who has ever skated on a lake or river knows the sense of freedom and even escapism it allows – there are probably few among us who have not related at times to Joni Mitchell’s lyric “Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on…”
Although we just acquired these two rustic accessories, a mantle clock and a magazine holder, their styles are familiar to us. In the past dozen years, we have owned four lamps and a hat rack by the same hand.
All were made near the mountain resort town of Blowing Rock, North Carolina in the 1920s-1930s by a man whom collectors and museum curators for years referred to simply as “the Blowing Rock artist,” based on the location name he inscribed on some of his pieces. Both the range of unique rustic wares he produced and the story of how his identity was ultimately uncovered are intriguing enough to delve into before describing these two most recent additions to our inventory.
Works from the Blowing Rock Artist’s Oeuvre
This tall rustic sculpture was the first Blowing Rock piece we owned. It is a tree-like sculpture that incorporates a lamp, a clock, a magazine holder and a pencil holder (visible in the photo approximately mid-way up the base trunk). The sinuous, vine-like accents are the roots of rhododendron and laurel shrubs which grow abundantly in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge mountains near Blowing Rock. “Blowing Rock NC” was punched into the top of the pencil holder.
A year later we acquired this very similar sculpture that was not marked, but is clearly by the same maker. In addition to a clock, lamp, magazine holder and pencil holder, this piece also includes a cylindrical vase forming the right arm.
This artist seems to have been quite fond of pencil holders, which were also incorporated into this pair of table lamps.
The top of the pencil holder on one of the lamps shown in this close-up was stamped “Blowing Rock NC.”
Finally, this hat rack not only includes a plate punched with the Blowing Rock place name,
it has a second plate that says “ALT 4300 FT.”
Presumably the altitude refers to the elevation of the town of Blowing Rock, or to its renowned Blowing Rock cliff, although today the town’s elevation is listed at 3,600′ above sea level and the cliff at 4,000′.
The cliff is famous for affecting the strong wind currents that come from the gorge below it so that snow blows vertically upward rather than falling downward. It is also famous as an overlook onto stunning Appalachian Mountain views.
The cool mountain air and magnificent mountain vistas in the Blowing Rock region began attracting well-to-do tourists during the “rusticator era” of the 1880s. The upscale tourist economy became Blowing Rock’s main source of revenue and employment in the late 19th century, as it still is today. Thus the Blowing Rock artist was well situated to make a living selling his rustic creations to tourists during the first decades of the 1900s.
Although we have seen some spectacular antique rustic case pieces over the years, including those in the permanent collection of the Adirondack Museum, we can assuredly say that this cabinet stands in a class of its own. It is one of the most creatively conceived and constructed pieces of furniture that we’ve had the pleasure of handling during our career as antiques dealers.
Its stature is impressive yet not overwhelming, standing at 7’4″ high. The style is quintessentially rustic in that it echoes a form found in nature, namely an unearthed tree. The base represents a massive trunk fringed with jagged roots,
and the beveled mirror surround represents intertwined branches.
Amazingly, its tree-like character was achieved without the use of natural branches, twigs, burls or roots. Its arboreal likeness was created entirely with carved and shaped wood components that are covered with thousands of pieces of applied natural bark.
The pine disks that top the branch-like portions of the base are painted with simulated tree rings, furthering the tree illusion.