David Bouchier: Traveler In An Antique Land

Jun 26, 2017

At school we learned a poem by Shelley called Ozymandias that began with the words: "I met a traveler from an antique land," and I always wondered where the antique land was. When I came to Long Island I discovered that it was right here, down in the Hamptons, where selling antiques seems to be the main industry in whole towns and villages. There is a mysterious force, like gravity, that attracts old furniture and what are humorously called “decorative objects” to certain places. This force has not been definitely identified by scientists, but I think it's called money.

The extraordinary popularity of the Antiques Roadshow on public television has created the illusion that domestic treasures lie all around, just waiting to be discovered. The meaning of the word "antique" has suffered some damage in the process. The Oxford English Dictionary says: "Having existed since olden times, old, aged or venerable." But the frontier of antiquity is moving closer all the time. Most antique stores these days contain things that look perfectly familiar and serviceable to me, like manual typewriters, telephones with dials, and Kodak box cameras. Rusty garden tools, push lawnmowers and wind-up clocks are displayed like relics from an Egyptian tomb. It seems that anything without a motor or an electric cord qualifies as "antique," because it reminds us of the ancient days when life was full of brutal, physical tasks, like winding clocks and mashing potatoes.

The word "treasure" is also used more freely than a strict dictionary definition would allow. Nothing I saw on my antiquing expedition could, by the farthest stretch of the imagination, be called a treasure, or have been treasured at any time in the past.

Real antiques certainly do exist. Colonial objects are highly desirable, and expensive. They are also remarkably common, which raises the question of authenticity. The whole population of Long Island in Colonial times would have fit three times into the Nassau Coliseum. They also had to work long hours at farming and fishing, just to survive. It's hard to imagine how they found time to make the vast numbers of genuine colonial antiques that now fill the boutiques and auction houses.

It is of course possible to enjoy antique shops without worrying about authenticity. They offer such an intriguing window into the past. What must it have been like to actually have all this junk in your home? Our honored forbearers seem to have had a passion for glass and china objects of incredible ugliness, hideous lamps, comfortless chairs, and dreadful oil paintings. People really were made of sterner stuff in those days.

It's also intriguing to wonder about the antiques of the future. How will our children's children imagine this century, as seen through the detritus of our busy lives? For all we know, when the twenty second century comes around, the same old rubbish may be recycling through the basements and yard sales and antique stores of the world for the hundredth time, and the present will look as tasteless in the future, as the past looks in the present.

Copyright: David Bouchier