There is a great deal of fretting these days about the future of collecting and the dearth of young collectors. Were there ever many young collectors? Probably not. It takes the perspective of age (as well as the accumulation of capital) to do what the best antiques collectors do: value a folk art painting or a tall-case clock for the image it gives us of the past, the picture of what we were, against which we can measure what we have become. That, for the most part, is not a young person’s game. So I didn’t worry recently that there were not throngs of well-heeled thirtysomethings strolling the aisles at the splendid San Francisco Fall Antiques Show. Their time should come, if all goes well.
But what if all does not go well? What if the culture of collecting dies out? In hard times like these I am sure that it often seems that it will. And yet hard times are also the best times for reaffirming the values that made us love antiques to begin with—not as commodities but as paintings and clocks and rugs that are unique, authentic, and irreplaceable just as each of us is. That sounds disgustingly high-minded I am sure, but I do think there is, or can be, a deeply civilizing, spiritually nourishing force in the best of dealing, collecting, and curating. That force certainly plays an important part in our work at the magazine, where we too must worry about how we can widen the circle of people who are passionate about Shaker boxes and Wedgwood creamware.
Of course we are all up against something more daunting than a deep recession. The digital world has eroded our physical environment. The books and CDs that have a tangible and comforting presence in my life can be vaporized by the Kindle and the iPod. And while there is no digital replacement for a great piece of scrimshaw, the habit of accumulating objects may not come naturally to the next generation.
If there is one tiny remedy for these woes, I would suggest that it lies in giving a young person your album quilt now so they can learn that living with it will link their past to their future in a way that makes it doubly precious. When he was under arrest, Ezra Pound, the poet who famously commanded us to “make it new,” turned to the sustaining roots of tradition:
What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage…