There has been much discussion within the antiques trade over the past several years surmising that the word “antiques” is off-putting to potential new and younger audiences. The argument is that the word conjures images of fusty artifacts, gaudy furniture or delicate bric-a-brac – not things that are practical or desirable for active, contemporary households.
Yet at the very same time purveyors of new merchandise, especially in ubiquitous home décor catalogs, liberally use the term “antique” to describe items of which they may have a stock of 100,000, bearing names such as “antique French café table.” These furnishings may be loosely styled after a period design, have an artificially aged surface or even be a fairly good look-alike reproduction, but they did not originate in the period they mimic. Roadside gift shops also often display the word antiques prominently, turning their store sign into a siren call compelling certain shoppers to stop in, only to find a store full of new merchandise with vaguely antique flair. The word antique seems to lend a cache to what these merchants are selling. So while some antiques dealers seek to retreat from the term, marketers of new goods are flocking to it. That is a conundrum to contemplate.
Despite how it is often misused, antique as a noun fundamentally implies that an object has significant age (used as an adjective in phrases such as “antique finish” or “antique style” the word is less restrictive). But how much age is significant? A definition derived from the criterion that the U.S. Customs Service uses to decide if something can cross its borders duty-free is that an antique is 100 or more years old. Yet the 100-year benchmark, while convenient, is somewhat arbitrary. What is more important in the antiques business is to understand an object’s origin, specifically whether it was original to the time period and stylistic expressions of the past era in which it was made. A piece of furniture born of the 1940s can thus be called antique, even though it is currently just 70 years old.
While age is a prerequisite for an object to legitimately enter the antiques marketplace, it is not all that is important. To qualify as an antique worthy of buying and selling, an object must meet a standard of quality, having an intrinsic value based on features such as craftsmanship, aesthetic appeal, rarity or historical importance. In other words, not everything old merits being traded as an antique.
Is it possible, then, to coin a new term that conveys the same standards of authenticity and value as “antique” while sidestepping negative associations of antiques with irrelevancy? Some subgenres within the broad antiques market have adopted descriptors such as “mid-century modern” or “folk art” that distinguish those objects in a helpful and appealing way, but there is no alternative nomenclature broad enough to encompass all categories of historical objects.
We propose that a term that has potential to appeal to hipsters and general consumers without repelling traditionalists is Heritage Goods. “Heritage” conveys the positive attributes associated with antiques – history, special meaning, inheritance and value. “Goods” is broad enough to cover all forms of furnishings and decorative arts, from tea cups to tall clocks. To add clarity (and protection from having the phrase co-opted by marketers of newly manufactured goods), antiques dealers would need to customize the term with a subtitle specifying the age range of the antiques they most typically carry. In our case that would be “Heritage Goods: 1840s to 1940s.”
New terminology can creep or sweep in to common parlance depending on how popular the object, behavior or phenomenon it describes becomes – whether “jogging” or “blogging.” Short of a multimillion dollar marketing campaign, however, it could be difficult for antiques dealers to use a new descriptor for what they sell without the risk of missing their target audience altogether. Those who already know the range of what authentic antiques can encompass do not need to be lured by alternative terminology. But for people who have yet to experience the pleasures of owning and living with goods from past eras, an intriguing descriptor might invite them to partake, and in the process make the antiques marketplace a more inclusive domain.
We are curious what reactions the term “Heritage Goods” will generate. As readers of this Journal article, you are the first trial audience. Let us know your thoughts, and stay tuned as we report back with the results of our foray into broadening the lexicon of our trade.
(© Copyright 2012 CherryGallery.com. Text is not to be copied without permission. Flag image from Library of Congress public archives.)