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Antiques, Vintage, Arts: Redefining the Antiques Show by Forrest D. Poston

The “don’t look back” psychology seems to be growing in current society, although it’s not enough to completely block the urge for “retro” or whatever is currently the buzzword for “cool”. There has, however, been something of a decrease in the traditionally promoted “antique” shows even as “vintage” shows are popping up in various cities.

In this context, “vintage” seems to mean things that might be old but not so old as to somehow be less cool, unless the can be slipped under another heading, such as good old “shabby chic” or “junque”. In addition, new or relatively new items are included if they fall into the “arts” or “artisan” category, although those terms don’t seem to be well-defined. They seem to be handmade items, possibly by the seller, of a quality above the “crafts” that once dominated in craft malls.

Although “arts & vintage” shows may use the term “flea market” in their descriptions, they are not “anything goes” flea markets, preferring the subcategory “artisanal flea market”, which seem to imply that there will be merchandise of aesthetic quality, while flea market still implies low prices without guaranteeing such.

This new type of show is capitalizing on a gap created by an oversight by “traditional” antique shows. Even by the mid to late 1990s, antique dealers were noticing that the average age of dealers and shoppers alike was going up because few of the younger generations were stepping in as time-induced attrition reduced the ranks. At a mere 40 years old in 1998, I was considered one of the rare young crowd, but time has now put me into the graying group.

Fashions in many categories run on a cycle of about 20 years, changing popular color, form, pottery, everything, and with each cycle even though what was old is new again, it comes back in a modified form, as Art Deco became a Deco Echo, and as the all-avocado appliances circa 1970 came back as later as traditional colors with avocado highlights. In some respects, antique shows lost luster with younger generations because the shows or the packaging stayed the same, not changing in appearance or, more importantly, in marketing image.

Even the terms “show” and “marketplace” carry different connotations. A “show” suggests something fancier and perhaps higher priced, while “antique show” perhaps carries a sense that is now too dry. A marketplace still has the sense of business, but it’s livelier, a place where anything could happen. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but antique, vintage, collectible, junque, show, and marketplace smell quite differently to the generations. To the younger generations, “antique show” smells like Bengay, assuming they know what Bengay is.

If antique shows want to not merely survive but grow, they need to borrow some of the thinking from these arts and vintage shows. It has been common for antique shows to mix in flea markets, but the results are often problematic because there is simply too much difference between the two concepts. However, the vintage and artisan ideas may be blended very well with a more traditional antique show, assuming we also do a little redefining of what an antique show is, a little repackaging of the image.

Antique shows aren’t just about a bunch of old stuff, not just about looking backwards. They are snapshots of our whole culture, more complete shots than the arts and vintage shows try to present. They’re about how we got from a crank phone, to rotary, to push button, to smart phone; how we got from irons really made out of iron, to steam irons and permanent press clothes. They’re about the patterns of our own lives, how we got from Matchbox cars and Tonka trucks to a driver’s license.

Since antique shows include a wide range of items with years of “experience”, these shows are like a very special library, filled with story after story after story. Sometimes we know a little of the history behind an item, a glimpse into some of the stories it might tell, but short of psychometry, these stories usually remain silent, secrets upon our shelves.



We have a photo on milk glass in its original case, complete with a lock of hair behind the photo. That in itself suggest so many stories, but there are hints of more. The backing for the photo includes a note, “Received Jan 30th 1872”, although that scrap may not be original. Meanwhile, the photo has a slightly curved wear mark, and if I hold the case open in my hand and stroke the photo with my thumb, it follows that wear. Did some sad lover stroke the photo just that way over 100 years ago?

Each piece of advertising has its company stories and its personal stories. How many summer days were cooled by that Pepsi bottle opener? That oil can might be worth more money now if it had never been opened, but was opening it the difference between a safe trip or a blown engine? How many cold nights were made safe and warm by that Lone Star quilt, sewn so long ago by forgotten hands?

And whether the item is antique, vintage, or collectible, buying “used” is green, making antique shows one of the greenest spots around. There may be a measure of conflict with the “repurposing” aspect of green if such seriously alters the antique, such as drilling a hole in a perfectly good vase just to make a lamp. (Although this is quite different from saving a damaged lamp from the trash through such re-designing.)



In the past, the “art” crowd and “antiques” crowd have not been the best of friends, but they may be able to forge a better match than the “antiques” and “flea market” groups if they are willing to do so. After all, the current artist or artisan are in many ways part of the same family, one about where we are and the other about how we got here.

Antique shows already typically carry items that crop up under the vintage heading at the new shows, and the Arts and Vintage shows typically list antiques among the items shoppers might find. The two things that vary are simply the balance of the items and the presentation of the image. Antique shows might do well to shift their balance a bit and promote a little more of the “marketplace” sense of adventure and anticipation.

(Although the essay is written specifically for the Collectors Carnival site, the opinions are my own and do not necessarily represent the opinions of anyone from Collectors Carnival Antiques & Collectibles Shows. Photos come from previous shows, my own collection, or from the internet when searching for images listed free for use. “Artisanal flea market” and some other terms show up on the Facebook page for the Indie Arts & Vintage Marketplace.)