The Myth of the Antiques Expert

For reasons too dull to go into, I spent a fascinating day at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford yesterday with a ceramics specialist, looking at both Chinese and European porcelain. If I lived to be 150 years old there would still not be enough time to absorb either subject completely.

Also touring the Ashmolean was a small party of visitors being guided and informed by a self described “antiques expert”. Overwhelmed by my own ignorance of even the subtle differences between Liverpool and Bristol made blue and white, imitation Chinese porcelain, I wondered by what definition of expert anyone could make such a claim for themselves. No doubt the tour party left feeling informed, but then, in the kingdom of the blind…….

Having spent thirty odd years involved only in antique silver I still feel that I have a long way to go. More or less every day I come across a silver mark or object that I was previously ignorant of.

I have been lucky enough to be tutored by some profoundly knowledgable silver specialists and yet still I get it wrong often enough. The truth is that taking a punt and getting it wrong is the only way to learn.

As a very wise old silver dealer once told me, “if you don’t make one mistake in every ten things you buy, you are not working hard enough”. I take a great deal of comfort from that as I plough on in my trade hoping to limit the disasters to one in ten.

Even if we limit the subject of antiques to english Georgian, the sheer number of objects, furniture and applied art produced is staggering. Even to be able to name them all would be a great feat.

The term “expertise” infers to me that the days of mistakes are largely over, a very dangerous supposition indeed. From any reasonable standpoint the idea of an “antiques expert” is, at very best, a hostage to ridicule. In the world of antiques, single discipline specialists are getting there, experts are delusional.