Antiquing with Judith Miller: Nostalgia and greed drive the collectors' market

It's not every day that we get to spend an afternoon antiquing, much less an afternoon antiquing with expert Judith Miller, the author of more than 80 books on collecting, antiques and design.

So we jumped at the chance to tag along on a recent antique-hunting jaunt with Miller and learn what's going on in the world of collectibles and antiques.

A collector since the 1960s, Miller co-founded the international best-selling "Miller's Antiques Price Guide," and, in 2001, began a joint venture with DK Publishing to create full-color price guides. Her recent books include "Antiques Price Guide 2004," (DK, $35), "Collectibles Price Guide 2004" (DK, $25) and her new collector's guide, "Costume Jewelry" (DK, $30).

Wandering through a large, broad-based Nashville, Tenn., antiques mall with a lot of different booths, Miller talks about how collecting is changing, how antiques hit on both nostalgia and greed, and what might be on the horizon in terms of what's hot (and what's not).

Q: How did you get into antiques and collecting, and what's changed about collecting over the past few years?

A: "I just started buying old plates in junk shops," she says. Miller began collecting during her college years in Edinburgh, Scotland. She didn't grow up in a house full of antiques.

"As my mother always likes to say, she paid people to take away my grandparents' things," says Miller with a mock groan.

"The world has become so much smaller with eBay and with people beginning to look at auctions. ... eBay has 79 million regular users, and by that they mean people who buy three or more things a year," she says.

Still, there are some things that sell best on a regional or national basis, she says.

"If you have an American painting or American folk art, you sell it in the U.S.," says Miller, "or really good American furniture."

Q: How did you get to be an expert, and an expert on pricing at that?

A: "You become an expert by working hard. We've got fantastic museums, collections and antique shows," she says. "You can go and just start looking. That's the great thing about knowledge. If you collect Doulton figures, you know about the rare ones."

She says narrowing shopping choices to what you like the best and learning everything about that specific area is the way to become an expert in that area. If you don't know about another topic, it pays to learn about it before you buy something and risk wasting money.

Take glass, for instance.

"Often, the difference between a pale amethyst and deep, well that can be a $500 difference," she says. (The deep is more expensive, she adds.)

And that's why Miller has teams of full-time photographers working on her books. Good photography, she says, is critical when it comes to a price guide, since it makes all the difference in the world when it comes to identifying things correctly.

Q: How would you characterize the antiques market in general right now?

A: "We're still going through a phase where people are cocooning, and people are looking to their homes more," she says, noting that items from childhood, whether from the 1940s or the 1980s, are popular.

"You've seen how die-cast toys are already really popular. This thing of scared boys go back to their toys, it is evident.

"Rock- and pop-related items that were really popular recently aren't so much anymore. I think because of a number of fakes. Whenever you see fakes in an area, the market softens."

Q: Are you always on the lookout for common fakes?

A: "We've all got to look at and question anything that's painted. There's a tremendous amount of painted furniture, and in the '50s and '60s, everything was stripped. Now, suddenly out of nowhere, there are these incredibly distressed Shaker boxes."

She notes that paint technology has come a long way, and there are a lot of very skilled artists who replicate old finishes.

And while something may have started out as a totally legitimate copy, it might get sold and not labeled a copy, and it becomes a fake when it's not represented as a copy.

"A lot of it has been refinished. It's an area where you have to be very careful," she says as a general caveat.

Something priced wildly below market is another tip-off.

There's also the common-sense factor. Step back and really think about the time period of an item you're getting ready to buy.

"There are more English Elizabethan oak refectory tables in the U.S. than there were houses in England at that time," she says.

Q: What would be some good items to buy now?

A: "In terms of buying, I think people should be looking at single chairs. I think you can get the best value with them. That's what I'm doing — actually have done too much — I think I have about over 100. The clever thing to do is set a period."

"To buy now, also American glass from the '50s ... not necessarily named but good quality. In fact, the '50s are still an area to look at. American Victorian glass has seen a bit of a downturn, but Pairpoint and Mount Washington (two makers) are now a good buy. People should look at auctions. You often get three or four pieces in a job lot (a mixed group of things sold together) at auction."

"I think 20th-century glass is still very underpriced. ... American Arts and Crafts, Zanesville pottery, is still good, and I think people have now discovered Steuben glass. Earlier they thought it was poor man's Tiffany, but it's much better quality than that.

"And English silver is cheaper over here than it is in the U.K.... English silver is a good buy here, particularly at auction."

"Swedish stuff is becoming so hot," she says. "It suits so many styles."

She relates the story of how the late 18th-century King Gustav imported French craftsmen to work in Sweden, and how the workers returned to France when they weren't paid. In France, things tend to be gilded and rich-looking, while Swedish pieces will be simpler and painted.

"It's a much more rustic tradition," she says, "And you can still pick up pieces reasonably cheaply."

Q: What do you buy for yourself?

A: "I buy 1920s iridescent Scottish glass," she says. "I love the way the sun hits it every morning. You touch something and you know. To me, people should buy something they love. Buy something you'd want to come downstairs and stroke."