Our urge to collect is as natural as other animals' urge to hoard. The big difference is that most of us, unlike squirrels, don't eat our collections. There are many beautifully wrought objets out there calling out for your disposable income, so here's a guide to some recent guides primarily to furniture, but also to jewelry, porcelain and glass.
A good place to start is John T. Kirk's American Furniture: Understanding Styles, Construction, and Quality. Because it's an Abrams book, you know it's going to be handsomely put together and stuffed with information. It is. Kirk, a cabinetmaker and a professor of art history at Boston University, has contagious enthusiasm for many interesting topics the subtleties of finishes and stains and what they say about the period of their popularity, the innate grace of certain styles versus the more labored effects of others. Many color and black-and-white photos of furniture join designers' drawings and early advertisements. Kirk explains everything from recent design revivals to the origins of designs that, like evolutionary dead-ends, no longer seem wise in our modern conception of useful art which, in the long run, is what fine furniture is all about.
Once you've learned the basics from Kirk, you should turn to Caring for Your Family Treasures: Heritage Preservation, with text by Jane S. Long and Richard W. Long. The authors provide useful advice on how to care for books, fabrics, ceramics, dolls, photographs and even such items as military mementos. They also explain insurance and other security measures tailored to your individual needs. The style is friendly and the illustrations lush. However, it's the commonsense but expert information that makes the book surprisingly appealing.
Those encyclopedic twin brothers from Antiques Roadshow, Leigh and Leslie Keno, have written (with Joan Barzilay Freund) a new book, Hidden Treasures: Searching for Masterpieces of American Furniture. The brothers tell countless anecdotes about the thrill of the chase and their delight in well-made objects. At the age of 12, they started a joint diary with the prophetic words, We are antique dealers. They have fulfilled their ambitions. Their stories demonstrate both their passion and their expertise. They have hung exhibitions of chairs from walls to force viewers to confront furniture as sensual forms, and they have organized auctions at Christie's that resulted in almost $600,000 paid for a single table. And along the way they have informed countless viewers of Antiques Roadshow. This book is fun even if you don't have the budget for serious collecting.
Since 1979, collectors have depended on the Miller's Antiques Checklist series of guides. Four of them are out in new editions—Furniture, with Richard Davidson as primary consultant; Jewellery(British spelling), with Stephen Giles; Porcelain, with Gordon Lang; and Glass, with Mark West. These volumes are well-made, pocket-size and illustrated with color photographs and even diagrams for comparison. They address variations on themes, recognizing fakes and determining true condition. They provide helpful background context about periods and styles, and extensive glossaries of terms both common and obscure. Checklists consist of questions to ask yourself about each item. From Wellington chests to Chippendale settees, from the glories of 18th-century Meissen porcelain to the difference between hardstone and shell cameos, from glassmakers' marks to jewelers' tools, these books cover an impressive amount of information in a very small space and do so painlessly. At least one of these should be in your pocket on your next trip to the antique mall.
Michael Sims' next book will be a natural and cultural history of the human body for Viking.