How to Start Collecting

Many of us wandered into brick-and-mortar antique shops or art galleries. We handled ceramics, where touch is basic to sensory experience. We saw colors and surfaces with no glass in the way. We learned from dealers.

This is still true for contemporary art, but less so for antiques because so much business has gone online. Digital information works for people who already know what they are looking for. It doesn’t help people who need real things to learn what they like best. Even many experienced collectors will only buy what they see and feel first-hand.

That said, you can learn just by looking. When you visit a museum, think about why you like some things more than others. You may not get to buy what a museum has, but you can learn your own criteria. Do you like technical finesse or a hand-crafted look, subtle colors or strong accents? Do you respond first to pure form, or to human figures and stories, or to the ideas that distinguish one historical moment?

Few people can afford Italian Renaissance drug jars like these rare types at the Legion of Honor, San Francisco. But if you like them, look for other hand-thrown pots with colorful decoration.  (SFCC photo)

Read about what interests you. Learn the scope of production to understand a particular work. It’s fine to like a routine example, but let that be an informed choice. Alternatively, I’ve been engaged by a piece from an unfamiliar maker, but then a book or website showed me that I didn’t care for their output as a whole. For online book shopping, go beyond Amazon to abebooks.com, an aggregator site for independent booksellers.

Be comfortable with changing your goals as you learn. Be cool even with making mistakes. As an elder told me long ago, “That’s why God created closets.”

Finally, there are affordable collecting areas—meaning really good things for under $200, or even $100—with blog posts on the way.

19th-century English transfer-printed wares have a great range of colors and decorations, and they meet most people’s idea of affordable.  We’ll see more of them in a future blog post. (Photo: SFCC member collection)