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Don’t think of antiques as investments, and other wisdom from a collector

A scene showing one of the antique dealers at the 2017 Washington Winter Show. This year’s show opens Jan. 12.
A scene showing one of the antique dealers at the 2017 Washington Winter Show. This year’s show opens Jan. 12. (Michael Kress Photography)

The antiques business has been going through a bit of a rough patch, what with the continuing vogue for midcentury modern and Ikea-addicted millennials' dislike for brown furniture.

But the passionate collectors of American, British and other objects that are at least 100 years old (the strict definition of an antique) continue to comb shops, auctions and antique shows for treasures.

The winter months are when many high-end antique shows are held across the country, including the District's Washington Winter Show (Jan. 12-14), New York's Winter Antiques Show (Jan. 19-28), Nashville's Antiques and Garden Show (Feb. 2-4) and the Charleston Antiques Show (March 16-18).

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We spoke to Washingtonian Michael Harreld, former president of PNC Bank of Greater Washington and an antiques collector for more than 40 years, about why people collect antiques and where the industry is headed.

Q: Are you worried about the future of the antiques industry?

A: I don't think the 18th- or 19th-century look is ever going to really come back. But there will always be people that love old furniture and accessories. Casual living has changed how people furnish their homes. Old pieces tend to be more formal, and some people today are intimidated by things that have a formality to them. But I'm hoping that the art of mixing formal and informal will catch on. A simple modern table with some old brass or silver candlesticks is a great contrast. Someone can set their table with inexpensive plain white dinner plates and pull out some beautiful antique English silver flatware to contrast with them. Hopefully more people will realize that casual and formal do go well together.

Q: Old things tend to have a story to tell, while something you bought at Ikea doesn't. Isn't that part of the charm, too?

A: Yes. One of the things you'll enjoy about your collection is telling stories about it. I love to talk about my favorite rug and desk and paintings. Friends are often fascinated by the old things you display in your home and love to hear what you know about them, whether they are family pieces you inherited or whether you selected and bought them yourself.

Q: What is the difference between collecting and investing?

A: This is not like Apple stock. It's a search and a passion, and actually it's a study of history. You look until you find something you like and can afford. I would be very careful about buying something you think of only as an investment. You buy for pleasure. You can buy something modest, but do it with a reputable dealer. They will tell you exactly where it came from. It if turns out to be a good investment then that's a windfall.

Q: What change have you seen in the antiques business?

A: The biggest change is that people used to buy all the same style of things to furnish their homes, whether all antiques, or all contemporary. Today, I notice people who may not really be interested in collecting a lot but want one or two wonderful old pieces that they want to mix with what they already own.

Q: If you want to start collecting, how should you begin?

A: Talk to dealers who have been around a while and want to start a relationship with you that will go on for years. They can educate you, whether it's about a piece of silver, an English desk or an Oriental rug. This is not like going to a stock broker; these are people who love what they do and they love the history of things. They will explain whether a piece has been repaired or modified over the years, which goes into the value of it.

Q: What would be a few good categories to explore?

A: You can think about wooden boxes, interesting trays or tea caddies. Old porcelain plates are a great place to start, and there are so many of them out there at all price ranges. You can hang them on the wall, put them on top of your dresser or hall table, put them in the back of shelves in a cabinet. They have beautiful colors and patterns in them that you don't find in china today. You can look for old metal flasks, and use them as vases on a table filled with a few flowers.

Q: Are younger customers discovering antiques?

A: People of any age that are interested in art and history will like looking at and collecting antiques. More young people in their 30s are shopping. People are considering things like passing a legacy on. In a world where so much is disposable and thrown away, and everyone just wants the latest iPhone, antiques have substance. Some people are lucky enough to inherit some antiques and many would never part with them; it's very emotional. But if you didn't inherit any, you can still start a legacy. If you buy a 100-year-old silver cup for your 4-year-old daughter. Maybe she will then will give it to her daughter.

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