Collecting a piece of the past
The Antique trade
Collecting pieces of the past
Among other things, social historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists are interested in how people lived in the past - what they ate and wore; the sports they played; on what they sat and slept; their customs and rituals, etc. But sometimes, the information they seek is not available through written documents and the oral tradition. So, with no text to pore over, and no voices to listen to, they turn to objects, inanimate storytellers, narrating the tales, sensibilities, and ethos of yesteryear.
These objects, some of them old enough to be called antiquities, can really give you insight into the past. They fill historical gaps and make connections between the past and the present, and for some people, they are guides to the future. For this, some objects from the past are highly valued. Treasured, or not so treasured, historians and archaeologists call them artefacts.
While historians and anthropologists might be interested in antiquities and other objects from the past for their historical and academic value, there are people the world over who are interested in them for their commercial and ostentatious worth. Collectors and traders call them antiques and collectibles.
The trade, legal and illegal, in antiques and collectibles is big business worth billions of dollars. The pieces change ownership through private trading, fairs and festivals, roadshows, Internet trading, etc. Right here in Jamaica, there are serious
antiques/collectibles traders and collectors.
For 23 years, there has been the Antiques and Collectibles Fair, organised by Ainsley Henriques. On Sunday, November 23, Arts and Education caught up with him at Campion College, where the event has been held since its inception.
Henriques, who was once an antique trader himself, said the idea to have the show came after the BBC road show came here 23 years ago. In a conversation with an associate, Steve Solomon, he said, among other things, "We have to make all of this available to the knowledge of everybody."
In essence, Henriques wanted everybody - the privileged and the not-so-privileged - to be aware of these objects and their historical significance. "These are artefacts of the past, so what we want is for the people in particular to understand the heritage of this country in these artefacts," he said. The show, then, is to showcase our heritage, to teach people about their history, and for the sale of collectibles and antiques.
Though Henriques would like people from every social background to be aware of these objects and their narratives, and historical value, trading and collecting these objects from the past still seems to be the preserve of the privileged. "If you look at some of the artefacts here, they were collected primarily by people of wealth, and they were maintained in certain places of wealth. They say what their likes and dislikes were," Henriques said.
Just for 'show'
Incidentally, the great majority of the said curios were originally owned by wealthy people. "Artefacts of this nature were the domain of those who felt they were privileged," Henriques remarked. These objects, then, were objects of ostentation, bought and possessed just for 'show', not for their utility and commerce, but to project a certain image.
So, is it all about wealthy people collecting and preserving what was owned by other wealthy people? Do antiques and other collectibles not owned by privileged people have value? Of course they do. And they, too, are in great demand. Private collections and museums the world over are replete with them.
But, what makes some objects from the past so treasured and highly valued? What is their intrinsic worth? Some of them actually have none to start with, but for whatever reasons, historians, academics, and traders place monetary, sentimental, and other values on them.
And of the objects that we use now? Look around. Will people of the future be interested in them? Will the chair you are sitting on become a collector's item just because you sat on it? Will your very body become a much-sought-after object from the past?
One of the many anecdotes that Henriques told while Arts and Education chatted with him was that he stopped trading in antiques because people might mistake him for one of the antiques. An object from the past, perhaps?