A Brand New “Antique”

I saw a friend recently who was eager to hear about my trip to the Colonial Williamsburg Antiques Forum. “So…” he said curiously, “Tell me what you bought at the antique show!”

“Ah, it wasn’t an antique show, it was a conference,” I clarified.  “There wasn’t actually anything for sale—we went to lectures and toured exhibits.” I think he was disappointed. And I suppose it was funny in a way, for me to be gone for two weeks on an antique-themed trip and come home without any antiques to show for it.

When I was in DC, I prioritized seeing exhibits over shopping. With limited time, I figured the free national museums were a better bet than trekking out to the high-end design district in Georgetown, where all I was likely to come home with was sticker shock. And in Williamsburg, there are (oddly enough) no antique shops nearby, and certainly none in the historic area. Lacking both the car and the time needed to explore neighboring towns, I was content to stay put.

But despite the apparent lack of antiques for sale at Colonial Williamsburg, one finds instead a time-traveling portal to the places where our beloved objects were once purchased by their original owners: the cabinetmaker, the silversmith, the milliner, the foundry, etc. These Colonial Williamsburg historic trades are working shops, run by masters of the crafts and populated by journeymen and apprentices much as they would have been in the 18th century. As they create new works of functional and decorative art, the pieces that are not needed by the Foundation are put up for sale in the Prentis Store (or in the case of the silversmith, the Golden Ball shop)…

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The Prentis Store, selling items handmade by the Historic Trades

…which is where I picked out these little pewter beauties:

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The advantage of buying these brand new pewter candlesticks as opposed to period ones is that I was able to meet the man who made them! After leaving the Prentis Store, I headed down to the Geddy Foundry to seek out “MN,” as the sticks were signed. “That would be me!” said the journeyman working near the back of the shop. “MN” is for Mike Noftsger. Pleased to meet you, Mike. I just bought your candlesticks!

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Apprentice Suzanne Dye and journeyman Mike Noftsger work in the Geddy Foundry

They were working on something else by now, but the foundry master very kindly got out the candlestick molds to show me. He explained the whole process from melting the pewter to burnishing the finished product—everything done by hand with carefully researched period techniques and materials.

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Separate molds are used for the shaft of the candlestick…

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…and for the base. Because pewter has such a low melting point, metal molds can be used. To make bronze or brass objects, sand molds must be made.

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The two pieces are them trimmed of excess pewter, and fitted together to make the candlestick. At the end, the piece is burnished to bring out a beautiful shine.

In going to the foundry to meet the craftsmen and understand the process by which they work, my experience of buying these candlesticks was in a way more true to the 18th century than if I bought the “real thing” in an antique shop, separated from its maker and its origin story by over two hundred years.

I was reminded of this experience during a lecture on contemporary art that I recently attended with an artist friend. The debate rages on over the merits of current artists working in historical styles or techniques (many modernists contend that if it’s not avant-garde, it’s not really art). But there is something uniquely frustrating about the fact that we can never talk to the people who created the great works of art of the past. A collector of Albert Bierstadt can never ask him what he was thinking or why he made the choices he did. But the collector could talk to Erik Koeppel, a living artist working in a similar style. The same could be said of the great cabinetmakers (or foundrymen!) of early America versus those making high-quality reproductions in the same manner today.

A consideration of the merits of my brand new candlesticks thus brings up larger issues that deserve a discussion all their own: What is an antique? What are the important qualities of an antique/what makes one more desirable than another? Certainly the word “antique” implies a certain age to the item, but I assure you that even those in the field argue over the right time cutoff for what “counts” and what doesn’t. And, even if we can agree that age is a requirement to make something an antique, is it sufficient? Or do we also want to require a certain threshold of quality craftsmanship before bestowing the hallowed word? These questions compel a more involved discussion that will have to wait for a future post.

For now, I’ll contend that my candlesticks are not, in a conservative definition of the term, really antiques. But in a way, I’d be hard-pressed to find a more fitting souvenir of my first trip to the Forum.

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