The most challenging task a wedding guest faces is finding a nice gift. Sure, you can always snatch something off the registry on your lunch break, but if you are a close friend or relative of the couple, you may want to put in some more effort. If you truly want your gift to be remembered, be different and go for something special that has a story in it. Or as Mark Hill, an antiques specialist and expert on BBC's Antiques Roadshow, puts it: "Antiques are much more evocative and much more romantic than buying a brand new piece, or a fish dish, or a saucer. Who would want that? It’s boring and they probably already have it anyway." You can't argue with that, can you?!
Mark swears he's never bought a new object as a wedding gift. Ever. Sure, you may say, that's easy for someone who's written numerous books on the subject and has over 20 years of experience in the field, but how do you go about finding a good vintage piece to give someone as wedding gift?
We asked Mark, who's a guest speaker at this weekend's brand new AFE London Art Antiques Interiors Fair, to share with us some of his professional wisdom on how to find an antique that's sure to impress.
Is every old object considered an antique?
An antique by definition is something that is 100 years old or more. But today the antiques business has changed dramatically so something they made in the 1950s or 1960s could be called an antique. And that’s a good thing because it gives much, much more scope to people who are looking for something.
But don’t get hung up about that sort of thing. Ultimately, you’re buying something because you love it or because you want to give it to somebody you love. I don’t think that necessarily the word 'antique' has to be applied to something. Vintage is a word that we use here quite a lot—it can be anything made from the Art Deco period in the 1920s or 30s all the way to the 1970s.
If you want to buy a vintage piece as a gift but you're not an expert, how do you start your research?
Buying an antique or a vintage piece is very much like buying a new flat-screen TV. There’s nothing to be scared of. The information is out there.
Once you’ve looked through and found the sort of thing that you like, go out and buy a book or find a website that’s trusted. There are a number of organizations across the world that auctioneers could be members of that you have to abide by a set of traditions and rules to be a member. For example, the National Auctioneers Association, the American Society of Appraisers, the Antiques Dealers Association of America, the Appraisers Association of America, and the The International Federation of Dealers Association. So there are plenty of organizations and companies that deal with trustworthy people who know what they are doing.
Then you need to find out what it’s described as and what period it comes from. From there, it’s a matter of finding through one of these organizations' dealers who sell those objects and then talking to them. Auctioneers are very passionate about what they buy and sell and what they put through their auction houses. So always ask questions.
Should you hire a consultant to help you?
If you’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions of dollars there are plenty of consultants within the art world that you can hire to advise you. But if you’re buying on a much smaller basis, a couple of hundred or dollars, then it’s a really good idea to make friends with a dealer in that area.
Dealers will be able to build up a relationship with you, they’ll learn what it is that suits you and what you really want, and they’ll help you out with buying that. They’ll give you their advice. Of course, nothing is free. You will be expected to buy something from a dealer if you’re picking their brain and learning through their expertise so it’s a two-way relationship.
What about provenance? How do you check if an object’s story is true?
Very carefully. In 75 percent of cases, provenance is not vital. Provenance is a story that links someone somewhere to something. So, for example, if you’re buying Jimmy Hendrix’s guitar that he played the famous Star Spangled Banner [in 1969] in Woodstock, you would want to know how that person got hold of that guitar, the person selling it, and how it got from Hendrix to the current owner. That form of provenance is absolutely vital. And it has to be cast iron.
But if you’re buying a Wedgwood vase from the 19th century, that’s the object as it is. So except for making sure that it is indeed a Wedgwood vase from the 19th century, looking for a further story is probably pointless because it might have been owned by any 19th century person. So there’s no direct story there. So provenance applies primarily to objects where you have to connect them to a certain house, a famous collection, or to a notable or famous person.
What is the best vintage piece to give as a wedding gift?
Unless you know the person very well, I would stay away from buying jewelry or very personal items. A piece of jewelry is a very personal item so you need to be sure the person is going to like it.
Similarly, a lot of people today own a lot of objects. Maybe 30-40 years ago people had a new home and they didn’t have that much stuff, but stay away from essentials, because a lot of people have bought those. Go for something that’s a little bit more unusual.
In terms of size, I would shy away from buying anything that’s too large simply because someone might not have the space to display it or use it. And it might be something that suddenly takes over their room.
What do you like to give as a wedding gift?
My favorite thing to give people is a decanter. And that’s a wonderful thing to give somebody. Today we don’t really use decanters because we prefer to show off the bottle of wine to say: 'Look at me and the wine I am giving you.' But actually pouring wine in a decanter is a very special thing. It does improve the taste of the wine. And it’s not something that everyone would buy.
I always include a little story on a card with the decanter pointing out who owned this object initially, what sort of wine did they drink, what sort of dinner party did they do. And when you’re looking at a decanter from 1920 or 1930, you’ve got the obvious style and [it] becomes the centerpiece on the table. A bottle of wine just doesn’t do that.
Also, Galle vases or vintage cutlery—something that’s a little bit more unusual.
What are people looking for nowadays?
Mid-century modern. Pieces made by good designers and good companies from the 1960s and 1970s have really been hot over the past decade or two decades. They’ve been increasing in value and increasing in desirability. And that’s to the detriment of what we may call traditional antiques so Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian pieces.
Also, whereas maybe 20 or 30 years ago someone might go for a country cottage look or a 19th-century look, people are now mixing and matching. Younger people in their 20s and 30s are buying 19th century furniture and putting a 1960s vase on it. They are matching it to what they like and to what their story is about. There is more freedom today than there ever has been.
You see people buying something that's handcrafted, that speaks of its time, that speaks of its style, be it Art Deco, be it Victorian or Art Nouveau, and they are bringing it to their home, they are mixing and matching. They are going away from that boring, mass-production, dictatorial style that chain stores tell us we have to do.