Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Poor Mans Archeology

One of the things I like about collecting silver is the difficulty I face in finding quality pieces that I can afford. There are a lot of great silver shops that specialize in beautiful and rare objects, but usually a trip to them for me is a like a trip to a museum. Pleasant, a learning experience, but I am not taking anything home at the end of the day.

I have to find silver where I can. This means a variety of places, junk shops, thrift shops, pawn shops, flea markets, garage sales, antique stores, auctions, Ebay, craigslist, and wherever else. It would be nice to walk into silver or reputable antique dealers shops and have a piece that I knew what it was and its heritage. But I do not think I would enjoy it as much.

When I was a kid, it seems, several of my friends and I, went through a phase where we were fascinated with Egyptology. This then lead to a general fascination with history and archeology. Today I do not practice either one of these fields professionally. However, antique silver hunting provides an experience that I think bears comparison.
It is true that I am not out in the sand, of foreign lands, hunting for lost kings tombs. Although I suspect that I romanticize the real art of archeology which at times must by its nature be tedious and exacting. However I am out in my own culture moving stacks of broken pottery, dust covered papers and general bric-a-brac in an effort to uncover something. Then, you have to look at a lot of “garbage silver” to find anything remotely good. Persistence is a key to this I think. Then you have to have a decent base of memorized knowledge to avoid frauds, fakes, trash, and junk. I have a bag I carry with me that contains the tools I feel I need. We can talk about its contents later.

I do not get to crate up this object de arte and ship it to the British museum. I get to pay for it and take it home. However, the archeological fun gets to continue at this point. First I get the joy of cleaning the object. This has to be done carefully so it does not get destroyed. I imagine we will talk more about this step at another time, as it is a crucial one. Then the research begins. The marks are examined. Sometimes this is a difficult task. Then even if you can read the marks, they bear looking up, and being able to do this is no easy task, it takes research. This research is an ongoing process. Sometimes when I come across a new source, or have access to better resources I learn what I thought I knew about a piece to be wrong. In this step my training as a social scientist helps.

When I find a piece of silver I often want to mentally make it more than what it is. I see a lot of this in shops and on Ebay. A small cup found in grandma’s cupboard is a part of the Romanoff family heirlooms. The scientific method, forces me to put all this aside and really examine a piece. Though I have to admit that in the moment of finding an interesting piece, I am always tempted to anticipate too much. In my early days of hunting this lead to acquiring several pieces that I now look at as learning experiences.

However, stepping back from the piece emotionally helps. This “scientific” study allows me the chance to look at the piece for what it is and its condition. This happens most often when I am trying to identify flatware. I always tend to want to “force” the actual object in my hand to match a similar pattern, and I have to stop and think through the comparison.

Sometimes research on the piece yields nothing after a search through the typical catalogues and books. In this case I have to stop and hope to recall it at a later date. Other times it yields minimal information. Such as a general maker, location and year. Rarely do I have a piece and can really pin it down. I am trying to increase my ability to do this.

So, why do all this? Because, for me, it is fun. I may not have the training or the funds to go to Egypt. But I can afford, mostly, to do this. I get a joy and excitement from it. It may not be important to understanding broad views of civilization, but it is something constructive to do. I look at it as my poor mans archeology.

It takes skill, patience, and learning. It gets me out of the house (searching). It gives me the chance to talk to a variety of interesting people of all social classes (searching). It gives me something to do late at night (polishing and research). Finally, it gives me a beautiful, useful object, that has a history and I am connected to.

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