Whilst it would be easy for me to say read as much as you can and watch educational videos, and of course you will learn a certain amount through doing this, there is one definitive answer…….handling the goods!
I have found that for most people their love of art and antiques becomes rooted at a young age, say 11 or 12 years old, so by the time they’re ready to leave school they are often set on following their passion to work with what they have grown to love. So where do they start?
Naturally, the first thing they would be likely to do is look at the options available within higher education and with many universities, colleges and indeed private institutions offering courses it appears that the options are there. However, most of these courses are in Fine Art and therein lies something of an issue! Now these programs are by and large run by extremely knowledgeable academics and by the time a student has gained their degree or diploma they’ll be able to recognise and date paint types and canvases and probably be able to give a fairly respectable opinion on the whys and wherefores of whether a newly discovered El Greco is genuine or not. BUT stop and think just for a moment! Let’s go back to that 12 year old child going to the local monthly antiques fair and immersing themselves in their love of all that surrounded them. A Georgian walnut lowboy, a Beswick figure, an Edwardian nickel plated police whistle or a trio of World War One medals……..but NOT an oil painting claiming to be a lost El Greco!
So these courses are fabulous if the intention is to move into the world of high brow fine art but not particularly useful if you see yourself working in a provincial auction house, which rather ironically is where most of these graduates end up!
So, on leaving school where should they be looking? Well lets use me as a perfect example, not a perfect example of manhood of course…..although I do have my admirers!.....but a perfect example of the ideal route to follow. Like many others before and since I really had no idea what to do once I had finished my education but I had always been interested in history and ‘old things’ so when my father came back from the local auction house and told me that they were looking for someone to fill in for six months and perhaps I should approach them I jumped at the chance. I was duly taken on as a temporary junior porter and ended up many years later as their Senior Valuer!
From day one I learnt ‘hands on’, so for instance after a short while I was able to recognise different woods through not only looking at the polished finish but by being able to open a drawer and look at the interior where it was unpolished. After a year or so I was able to tell from sight alone whether a piece was likely to be solid silver or silver plated or if a porcelain figure was German or French by looking at the scroll work on the base. After a while I was trusted to do some basic cataloguing and within a year or two of this I was lotting our entire general sales which included the lesser antiques and art as well as household goods. And so it went on, although obviously it did take a good few years before I was cataloguing entire antique and fine art sales which encompassed everything from furniture, through paintings, ceramics, glass, silver, rugs, militaria, toys and much, much more!
In my line of work you really do learn something new every single day and this still applies with me, even though I’m now well into middle age. In fact, the one piece of advice I always give to young valuers is “Don’t ever think you know it all…..because you’ll learn something new tomorrow.”
So, once again lets go back to that 12 year old who wants to learn about and maybe forge a career in antiques. Approach your local auction house and offer to work at their evening viewings or perhaps during the school holidays. You’ll be starting at the very bottom but theres a lot to learn and you’re lucky enough to have a whole lifetime ahead of you.
You will never learn it all………..but you’ll have a lot of fun trying!