When we compliment an antiques dealer or collector for having a “good eye,” we recognize that person’s subtle curatorial perspective, and acknowledge that it sharpens our own vision. Or, perhaps just as often it’s a way to say: “I have no idea what you’re up to, but I’m feeling it.”
When I’m told that I’ve got the “good eye” I think it’s usually for the latter reason. I ask others to see value where they might not otherwise. As a young-ish dealer in the Americana trade, I’m the outlier at any given antiques show. First, at age thirty-six, I’m often the youngest person in the room, sometimes by two decades or more. Second, the material I handle isn’t for everyone.
By way of example, at the New Hampshire Antiques Show this year, a well-known dealer I admire purchased several things from me— and generously complimented my eye—before turning to examine a folk art portrait in my booth. The 1830s oil on panel—which I attribute to M. W. Hopkins, or Noah North— depicts a grief-stricken woman holding her lifeless pet bird. With its stark style, enigmatic subject, and strikingly modern feel, the painting is important for its poetic diversions from the genre.
The dealer looked at the painting for several seconds. “Dead bird,” he said. Then he walked away.
I was not surprised by this reaction, nor insulted. After decades in the business, this dealer has gained an expert eye for accessible things—wonderful things—but appealing to the largest possible audience. In contrast, I look for the inaccessible things—the singular, challenging, unusual, quirky, off-beat, whatever insufficient word you’d prefer to use. My “good eye” is not only drawn to these compelling objects; these things are also what my customers want—and in my view, what the market will increasingly demand in the future.
New ways of seeing are necessary if the antiques business is to survive. The young people in the trade I know—you’ll meet a few of them later—each have a different focus and sometimes radically different tastes, but they all share something in common: the good-eye approach. We “Good Eyes” aren’t out to see something for everyone, nor do we have our sights on things of verifiable dollar value. Rather, we go about business as passionate seekers and curators, handling mainstream things but also elevating material that most of the old guard would never touch. Found objects, folk art, and anonymous design find champions with the Good Eyes—precisely because the structure of the contemporary marketplace sidelines this material.
Over the past two decades, the trade in antiques has adapted itself to default online search-term driven infrastructure: siloing categories across online sales platforms while making the attribution of a name—an artist, designer, or manufacturer— more important than the thing itself. Meanwhile, equipped with a handful of keywords, millennial protocollectors pay thousands of dollars for slightly less-disposable mid-century modern standards. The result: a collecting culture as thin as Knoll laminate veneer.
How can the glow of felt patina, or an unsigned self-taught canvas compete with those #mcm Helvetica labels, legible at a smartphone swipe? My answer to this question is counterintuitive, but not out of step with that of fellow Good Eyes: embrace more challenging material and make customers work harder to get at it.
My store—called Old as Adam and located on College Hill in Providence, Rhode Island—is about as removed from the mid-century modern monoculture as it gets. Half of the space is allocated to an eclectic inventory reflecting my interest in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American material culture, folk art, and vernacular design. The other half I call the Found Object Gallery, in which every few months I install a new thematic collection, a group of diverse objects bound by a shared conceptual thread.
For example, the presentation I called “Humane: Objects of Kindness and Cruelty” included material such as a folk art orphanage donation bank in the form of a doll, but also pieces with evocative qualities that seemed to capture the other side of the concept—for example, a basket made from barbed wire. The upcoming collection is “Anthropocene: Man-Made Nature” and features objects that characterize our relationship with the environment, most literally represented by a hand-carved wooden foundry mold used in the production of faux-bois iron hitching posts.
I sell online as well, but my website eschews categories, and my account on Instagram (my preferred sales platform) is the perfect fit for curating visually potent, divergent material, and for reaching potential customers receptive to it.
Is it too much to ask most customers to engage with antiques this way? Yes, it is. But again, counterintuitive as it may seem, I have more and more dedicated and interested repeat buyers because of this “inaccessible” approach. Whatever our individual approach, we Good Eyes all creatively engage the material past in new ways that are gaining purchase in a growing new market of collectors who gravitate to our curated Instagram feeds and soulful sole-proprietor shops, where finding unexpected discoveries—the greatest pleasure of collecting—is possible once more.
I’ll now introduce you to several of them, all younger people in the trade who are under age forty. To be clear, the best Good Eyes I know have been in the business for decades—dealers I admire and who have influenced my work—but for the purposes of this article, those featured here belong to the next generation.
At Luddite Antiques in Germantown, New York, Luke Scarola deals in lighting, furnishings, objects, and art with an industrial and modernist bent, primarily from the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. “High design is everywhere,” Luke says, and backs that view up by being one of the most far-ranging dealers I know, hunting the pre-dawn fields of every flea market in the Northeast.
Luke sells works that reflect his instinct for timeless forms and design. He describes his approach as driven by an eye for functionality and aesthetics, but “coming at it in a truly open, not a studied or academic point of view.” Rather, Luke looks for elements of design he characterizes as “organic and evolved,” qualities as likely to originate in found, crafted, and utilitarian pieces as in items by major designers.
“You can find design pedigree in almost anything. It doesn’t have to have a label or a name.” In his experience, a great piece is equally likely to emerge from a “dumpster or a Rockefeller attic.”
Luke recounted a recent visit to a former warehouse, where he found a pair of shop-made iron stands and an oval cast-concrete slab that had been outdoors for years and was covered in lichen. In his view, the evocative characteristics of such objects make them “just as relevant, just as interesting, just as important as anything with a person’s name on it.” (Instagram: @ludditeantiques)
New York City–based Eric Oglander is the antiques dealer behind the Instagram account @tihngs. His customer base has grown to over twenty-four thousand followers on the platform, and though social media stats are a dubious measure of significance, the popular success of @tihngs is for good reason. As an artist himself, Eric sells both fine and folk art but also sees art without intent in the material past, and curates with precision. “I sell things that were made out of necessity and not primarily for aesthetic reasons,” Eric says. But he also seeks out “happenstance, inadvertent stuff that wasn’t made with the intention of being artful, but is.”
Examples from his inventory include an early antique painted game board, a timeworn braille pocket watch, a pair of homemade clown shoes, a puzzle-box folk art baby rattle, and a staple-repaired plate. These are the types of things that may appear at any given antiques show, but often won’t command much attention in traditional spaces. What makes @tihngs different?
“They’re buying from me because I present objects in an isolated, artful way,” he says, “which enables people who aren’t necessarily into antiques to absorb and appreciate what these pieces are: art objects.” The common thread between the works in Eric’s inventory is not a category, era, style, or a price point. Rather, Eric’s things reflect his own sensitivity of spirit, playful whimsy, and eye for humble elegance.
Our technological moment makes an ideal environment in which to advance this kind of personal vision. Eric has proven that Instagram can be used to win over new collectors by replicating the magic of antiquing in real life. “I have this random thing that I think is beautiful or compelling, I throw it on Instagram, and it just appears in front of these people,” he says. “And so it happens the same way that it happens for me—they don’t know that they love it until it appears in front of them.” Moreover, it is Eric’s mission to set these things apart by elevating them as art objects. “My role is to shine more light on the anonymous and argue for these things having value,” he says. (Website: tihngs.com)
Avi Kovacevich is also based in New York and specializes in modern design, but his interests take him well beyond the category. “In the past, my niche has been unusual works of modernism, specifically the interwar period.” But rather than focusing on big names, Avi is drawn to atypical material. “I’m not excited by a chair that three hundred other people have,” he says.
While Avi does handle the work of well-known designers, he also deals in unique vernacular examples without pedigrees. This confidence to elevate a homemade chair or anonymous lamp reflects his scholarly approach and an eye honed by passionate interest. “I’m interested anytime there’s a moment in historical design when there’s a new form introduced to the visual palette,” he says. “Because of that, anytime I see a new form in anything, I’m interested in it.”
Avi points to “artificial divisions” in the antiques trade as one way the traditional market falters. “There’s been a void in eclectic presentation of material and so certain things have fallen out of favor,” he says. His advice to dealers: “Transcend what’s trendy and what’s not and just focus on what’s interesting and how it goes with other things that are interesting.” He sees young collectors gravitating towards unusual, sculptural objects across eras and genres, driven by an attraction to dealers whose material “reflects a personal eye” rather than a collecting niche.
Avi and Eric Oglander formed a new joint venture: an online auction house called Catalog Sale (@catalogsale on Instagram). The longtime friends curate sales that flout tried-and-true conventions of the auction business. For one thing, they first consider consignments with the question, “Do we like it?” More innovative still, the potential sales price is not the primary concern when selecting lots. “We are conveying a context to things and not turning away objects based on their value,” Avi explains. “My interest is building new markets.”
Building new markets means building new value. With the goal of “lifting up the anonymous,” Eric contributes striking primitives and folk art while Avi brings unusual twentieth-century art, craft, and design to the sales. Catalog Sale offers work by established artists and designers, but alongside this material bidders will discover a machinist-made lamp, a nineteenthcentury paint bucket, and an anonymous photograph. “There’s a newfound power in the one-off,” Avi argues, and he’s on to something.
Eric and Avi see a growing new class of collectors receptive to compelling one-of-a-kind, offbeat material—especially when such pieces are elevated by careful and creative curation. Catalog Sale anticipates the market potential of the worthy one-off: with customers primed to seek art without intent, an exquisite found paint bucket could—and perhaps should—command the top lot. (Avi’s Instagram accounts are: @holemilk and @non_house)
Laura Cunningham is not a dealer—not yet, anyway—but is one of few studying ways to bridge the gap between the old and new markets. Laura works for folk art and Americana dealers David Schorsch and Eileen Smiles of Woodbury, Connecticut, and although she comes at the trade from a traditional angle—a museum curatorial background and experience working at a prestigious antiques auction house—Laura is drawn as much to the “imaginative and inspired” American antiques she handles as to more unconventional material she encounters as a collector. “I love anything that resists definition, objects included, and my career has reflected this sentiment too.”
“Broadly-speaking I’m drawn to folk art and within that genre I’m interested in objects that have a particular warmth or quirkiness to them.” But she sees a complementary eclecticism within collecting areas friendlier to millennials. “I also love vintage clothing and mid-century kitsch, and I see all these categories working together aesthetically.”
Laura draws a connection between generational income disparities and changes in the antiques trade. “It’s perhaps the frustration born out of these circumstances that encourages us toward folk and found art,” she says, but welcomes a shift to “truly human” material, such as the “expressive and kaleidoscope- like grain-painted furniture” she handles in her work with Schorsch and Smiles.
“There is a baton of knowledge and skill to be passed from the leading dealers of today to those of tomorrow,” Laura believes, and she is grateful to her employers for sharing their knowledge with her. “Younger dealers should do all they can to learn from their predecessors who have book and street smarts. That said, the future of the trade and market is ours to shape.”
As it stands, the expertise and connoisseurship passed down through generations of dealers and collectors has few hands outstretched to receive it today. However, by reengaging the material in fresh, creative ways and breaking down arbitrary partitions in the market, those who love antiques will find a new generation of collectors close at hand. Yet even with their growing niche audiences, the Good Eyes won’t see a red-hot marketplace as of old— those glory days grew out of circumstances, demographic and otherwise, that are gone.
But the Good Eyes have singular visions appealing to select audiences, and they reach young customers with no prior interest in the material past. By sharing their appreciations for artful patina, nuanced form, and timeless design, the Good Eyes impart the fundamental values of collecting antiques. And, by offering unique material beyond the reach of Google search terms, the Good Eyes reinvigorate marketplaces by fostering the pleasures of the hunt and the chance discovery.
With Eric, and together with other dealers—of all ages— I am working toward building two such marketplaces. The first—“The Found Object Show: Art Without Intent”—will feature old things inadvertently transformed by time and circumstance—think “patina” with both an aesthetic and conceptual luster. The second is a show of anonymous work, dedicated to unattributed self-taught art and vernacular design. I hope these will develop into annual events with a wide range of dealers and materials, much of which would be at home at any traditional antiques show—and that these events will eventually lead a new generation of customers to attend those longstanding antiques fairs.
The “Good Eye” concept highlights what I consider the most extraordinary aspect of the antiques business: that the same object, in the hands of radically different dealers, is a prism, revealing new beauty and significance through facets cut by an individual dealer’s own vision. Although the individual viewpoints discussed here may now cast only scattered beams of light, taken together, they point to a more vibrant and colorful future of collecting and dealing.