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Antiquing, or collecting antiques, combines the thrill of the hunt with the joy of having desired items. Antiquing is gambling, intrigue, and adventure rolled into one leisure pursuit. People often collect antiques to re-create their childhoods, or the childhoods of their parents or grandparents. The connection to the past and to history is fascinating. It is also fun to find treasures in the midst of what others might consider junk. Ron Zoglin and Deborah Shouse personalized antiquing, and said: "Collecting antiques is like falling in love: You are constantly discovering new and interesting aspects of the antiques. The more you know, the more you want to know. You never get bored with your explorations, and you want the relationship to last forever" (p.1).

For centuries, people were fascinated with and collected old items. The interest in antiquing increased after the end of World War II. Baby boomers with disposable income and a sense of nostalgia are currently at the head of the interest in collecting antiques. Since antiquing is such a broad topic, it is difficult to determine the number of people who collect antiques. In 2003 it was estimated more than 20 million Americans collected something, although it was not clear how many of these people solely collected antiques. It was also difficult to determine overall sales in the antique industry. There were approximately 1.5 billion visits a year to places like flea markets or antique malls, with flea markets alone generating more than $30 billion in annual sales. Antiquing clearly was a leisure activity many people invested time and money in pursuing.

Antique? Collectible?

In general, most people think anything old is an antique. Others subscribe to the "Grandmother theory" that notes items as old as your grandmother are antiques (Jenkins, p. 6). The legal definition of an antique, however, is any object that is 100 years or older. This definition evolved from the 1930s when antiques were considered artwork, and could be brought into the United States duty-free. Customs agents began to question what should actually be considered an antique. They determined objects that predated mass production of the 1830s, and thus were 100 years old, should be considered antiques. The 100-year threshold became the benchmark for an item to be legally considered an antique, or to be duty-free when brought into the United States.

The legal definition of antique is not accepted without question. Antique connoisseurs feel that an antique is an object that predated the Industrial Revolution, and was handmade. Connoisseurs believe true antiques ceased to be made when machines took over from individual craftspeople. For these connoisseurs, the benchmark years for something to be considered an antique are before 1820 to 1840. Those who collect toys also question the 100-year benchmark of the legal definition. They consider toys made before World War II to be antique.

Other terms such as antiquities, antiques-in-waiting, and collectibles are inaccurately interchanged with the term antique. Each of these terms has unique definitions. Antiquities are items that are unearthed and represent ancient cultures like Greek, Roman, and Egyptian. These items are extremely old, rare, and valuable. Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Art Moderne period articles are pieces that are highly valued and often collected. Using the 100-year benchmark, these pieces are not old enough to be antique, but are antiques-in-waiting; items that will eventually become high-quality antiques. Collectible items are fun to collect, but they are also too young to be antiques. Collectibles are defined as items that were mass-produced, are less than 100 years old, and were relatively inexpensive when made. Items such as Hummel figures, Harley Davidson tree ornaments, Jim Beam bottles, Mickey Mouse watches, Beanie Babies, or baseball cards are examples of collectibles.

Antique Collectors

Palmer and Forsyth conducted a qualitative research study to observe shoppers in antique malls. These researchers identified six types of customers or shoppers. There are people who are "just looking." These customers come into the mall for entertainment, as if they were going to a museum. They really have no intention to buy, but they may want to determine the value of old or antique items that were handed down to them by family members. "Casual shoppers" buy items they can afford and happen to catch their attention. "Knowledgeable buyers" are often more informed collectors. They have an idea of what they want and the general worth of the item. "Repeat customers" are collectors who have specific antique items or categories of antiques they prefer, and who have previously bought items from a dealer. "Dealer customers" are dealers who buy items to resell or to add to their own collections. Many dealers are true collectors who travel thousands of miles looking for special items. Finally, "value customers" are not really antique collectors or interested in antiques, but they look for functional items, such as wrought-iron bed headboards or wicker swings, because they are disappointed in the cost and quality of items that can be purchased in today's marketplace. At varying levels of involvement, the first five of these groups could be considered antique collectors.

People who go antiquing might also be called "collectors" or "accumulators". Collectors look for the finest items to complement their collection. They purchase only select pieces. Accumulators, however, buy what attracts them or anything they find, regardless of quality, in a chosen area. In reality, most antique collectors are somewhere along a continuum from true collector to accumulator, with many in between the two extremes. For example, a person may accumulate every piece of vintage jewelry they see, but be selective of Queen Anne furniture by only purchasing a piece that took years to locate. Regardless of whether they are accumulators or collectors, true lovers of antiques are very knowledgeable of the objects they collect. True lovers' involvement in antiquing could be considered serious leisure, leisure that requires specific skills and knowledge.

Antiquing Skills and Knowledge

Antique collectors tend to focus their collections on specific categories of antiques. There are, however, as many categories of antiques as there are authors who write antique books and articles. For example, Milan Vesely indicated there were major categories of antiques that are divided into subcategories, including numerous specialty areas. In his book, Vesely identified fourteen major categories: porcelain; furniture; glassware; silverware; jewelry; commemorative antiques; toys; oriental; clocks, barometers, and instruments; memorabilia; militaria; collectibles; architectural antiques; miscellaneous antiques. Carol Prisant listed eleven categories, many of which are similar to the categories noted by Vesely (for example, furniture, silver, and toys). Prisant added categories (such as paintings; metal work; rugs, quilts, and samplers; books and manuscripts), and deleted categories (such as commemorative antiques, memorabilia, militaria, architectural antiques) to form her list. Other authors also categorize antiques, but most lists differ slightly from one another.

As the various categories demonstrate, antiquing can be fascinating, confusing, and very complicated. Preparation for hunting antiques requires conducting thorough research. Collectors learn about products, periods, markings, signatures, construction, prices, etc. Antiquing also has its own language and rituals, including when and how to negotiate prices. Numerous books, price guides, and magazines are published to help with the research. Some collectors build their own reference libraries, while others rely on public libraries. The Internet has made a wide range of information readily available to collectors. Two of the best ways to learn about antiques, however, are through firsthand experience in antique shops and talking to dealers.

There are also numerous places to hunt for antiques. The freestanding antique and specialty shops are the backbone of the antiquing business. In these shops one can find people who are walking encyclopedias of history and antiques. The dealers are like scholars who spend their entire lives studying antiques, and just listening to them can be fun. In addition to talking with the dealers, another excitement of antiquing is heading down a road looking for an elusive treasure. Stops might be made at flea markets, yard sales, antique malls, estate sales, thrift shops, galleries, antique shows, and so forth. Auctions are also locations where one can find antiques. Auctions might be sophisticated national auctions, like Sotheby's and Christie's, or local auctions with their own unique settings and rituals. The literature on antiquing advises collectors to buy expensive items from reputable dealers, but sometimes a great buy is found in an out-of-the-way flea market or some other place off the beaten track. The knowledgeable collector knows what to look for, where to go to find antiques, and how much the items should realistically cost.

Antiquing and the Internet

The Internet has certainly impacted antiquing. It has added new dimensions and new headaches. The Internet changed the nature of antiquing from ventures into dusty antique malls and quaint shops to international competition that can be accessed twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week from a person's family room. The success of the Internet caused traditional auction houses and dealers to have online auctions or shops. Some antique dealers have traditional brick–and-mortar shops, as well as a presence online. Others moved to having only "virtual shops," while some dealers sell a few of their items on Web sites like eBay or Yahoo! With the explosion of antique selling online, dealers fear freestanding shops may become a thing of the past. Others fear novices who shop online, but who are not educated on quality or value of items, may artificially inflate the cost of antiques.

The good news is that some dealers discover increased business due to Internet exposure. The dealers now have access to more potential buyers than to just those people who might physically wander into their store or mall booth. The other good news is that collectors can buy without travel, sell items they no longer want, chat with others interested in antiques, find informational and educational materials about antiques, locate addresses of antique shops, auction houses, museums, and so forth. They can also conduct comparison-shopping and research on prices, access appraisal services, and shop anywhere in the world. It is too early to know if the Internet's influence on antiquing will be primarily positive or negative.

Antiquing and Television

No discussion of antiquing is complete without a look at antiquing and television. The Antiques Roadshow, which had its television debut in 1996, grew from a few hundred viewers to over 14 million viewers per week and approximately 7,000 people at each taping stop during the summer of its fourth season (Prisant, p. xi). The Antiques Roadshow was the most-watched prime-time series on public television in 2003, and was one of the leading television shows connected to antiquing. This pop-culture phenomenon is similar to standing in line to buy a lottery ticket, playing a game show, attending a revival meeting, or going to a rock concert. Bishop noted "the function of the Roadshow is to acquaint and reacquaint us with the joys of collecting, and to sustain an ongoing dialogue about searching for and acquiring items for our collections" (2001, p. 196). Thus, the purpose of the television shows is to get a wide range of people excited about collecting antiques and learning about history.

People travel hundreds of miles to bring their items to the Roadshow so that well-known antique dealers or people from auction houses, like Sotheby's or Christie's, can appraise the items. Thousands of people talk to the appraisers, but few actually appear on the television show. Those selected to be on the show give a brief history of their item and an idea of its worth. The appraiser expands the history, and ultimately announces a dollar value of the item. Watchers of the show identify with the everyday people they see on the television screen, and feel they too could have valuable items in their basements or attics. The watchers may also believe their items are worth as much as those seen on television, when in reality they most likely are not.

As the show progresses from the appraisal segments, the camera scans the location and televises pictures of people walking with their items, appraisers giving advice, and large crowds of people at the show. Other segments of the show will include topics like how to recognize and care for antiques. At times the producers show historical locations in the city where the show is taped. All scenes are shown for a purpose, namely to educate viewers about the joys of hunting for and having antiques. The picture sends the message that collecting antiques is an incredibly popular activity. Between the actual show and the show's Web site, with games, membership, shopping, and opportunities to relive memorable shows, antiquing as a leisure interest becomes accessible and inviting to a wide range of potential collectors. The show attempts to get people hooked, or to keep people hooked, on antiquing. Like the unknown overall impact of the Internet on antiquing, it is not clear how television shows like The Antiques Roadshow will ultimately effect antiquing.

See also: Auctions, Auto Shows, Clocks and Watches, Coin Collecting, Collecting, Internet, Sporting Memorabilia


Antiques Roadshow. Available from

Bishop, Ronald. "What Price History? Functions of Narrative in Television Collectibles Shows." Journal of Popular Culture 33, no. 3 (Winter 1999): 1–28.

——. "Dreams in the Line: A Day at the Antiques Roadshow." Journal of Popular Culture 35, no. 1 (2001): 195–209.

Edwards, Simon, Phil Ellis, and Joyce Hanes. Miller's Antiques, Art & Collectables on the Web. London: Octopus Publishing Group, 2000.

Hirshey, Gerri. "Together, They Collect Memories." Parade Magazine (11 May 2003): 4–5.

Jenkins, Emyl. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Buying and Selling Antiques. Indianapolis, Ind.: Alpha Books, 2000.

Palmer, C. Eddie, and Craig J. Forsyth. "Dealers and Dealing in an Antique Mall." Sociological Spectrum 22 (2002): 171–190.

Prisant, Carol. Antiques Roadshow Primer. New York: Workman Publishing, 1999.

Vesely, Milan. Antiques for Amateurs: Secrets to Successful Antiquing. Iola, Wisc.: Krause Publications, 1999.

Zoglin, Ron, and Deborah Shouse. Antiquing for Dummies. Foster City, Calif.: IDG Books Worldwide, 1999.

Sandra Wolf Klitzing