New Year’s Resolution: Learn From the Past
Design Expert: Judith Miller
One of the world’s leading experts in antiques and collectibles, Judith explains how to Learn from the Past and use these beautiful and storied objects in our interiors.
Judith Miller is surrounded by moments.
Glancing at her dining room table, she recalled the surprise in Newport Beach, California.
“I was doing a lecture at the Decorative Arts Society,” said Judith. “And I met an antiquer, David, and he said, ‘You must come and see my shop.’ And I really didn’t think I was going to find very much….But I walked into his shop and I bought the most wonderful pair of eighteenth century, impressed, Wedgwood creamware table salts.”
I can picture the gleam in her eye as Judith boasts, “You know they’re 1770, and I got them for $60!”
It was a steal and David knew it. Apparently Newport Beach folks favor a bit more gilding. But Judith was exhilarated. “To me that period of creamware is one of the most exciting of porcelain.”
The things in Judith’s home are not just about the hunt. Judith can peer into the past through an object. Like she did with the 1820’s pearlware ‘alphabet cup’ she was packing to take with her on a lecture cruise with fellow experts from the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow.
“It has some of the letters of the alphabet round the rim of it …the person who was painting it—probably a young girl, because they tended to be the paintresses in the nineteenth century—she missed, she got it slightly wrong. She’s got ‘and C is for Church’…so she has to put the ‘H’ on the handle because it doesn’t quite fit in.
Her voice dripping with British charm, Judith the storyteller continued. “I mean you can imagine this girl. She’d be paid very, very little but she’d be paid for how many pieces she decorated. So she’d hate to say that this one wasn’t finished because she wouldn’t be paid. So she put the little ‘H’ on the handle of the cup.”
“Now to me that is just a wonderful piece,” said Judith. “And what I think is just so delightful about it is gives you a feeling for that person who was making that piece at the time…it makes me tingle every time I see it.”
How does Judith think antiques can add to one’s home décor?
“Well I think the great thing—and I think it’s getting much more use now—is picking a great mix,” said Judith. “I think that we’ve been through a period of minimalism. And we’ve been through a period where people have really liked to pare back.”
“And I think we’re all rather tired now of twenty shades of white. You know I think we need a few conversation pieces. We need some things that excite the eye. And I think that’s what antiques can do in an interior.”
I so loved hearing Judith describe a mix in her front room, I thought you’d also want to hear it in her own words. So enjoy this audio from our talk:
It’s all about adding something intriguing to our spaces.
Judith knows a mountain about antiques for someone that wasn’t brought up with them. “My parents were part of what we affectionately call the ‘Formica Generation.’ People wanted to get rid of everything that was old,” said Judith.
“My mother told me that not only did she get rid of all my grandparents’ things, but in those days she actually paid people to come and take them away.”
Judith fell in love with history while touring old homes as a schoolgirl in the Scottish Borders. “I just became fascinated by the objects of the past,” she said.
Later a History major at University in Edinburgh, she started to go to junk stores and found she fancied ceramics. “I started to buy old plates and…to research them to find out where they came from and how old they were.”
“I still have one of the very first pieces of blue-and-white I bought when I was a student in Edinburgh,” said Judith. “It’s actually a saucer made in Liverpool, probably around 1760, a very simple little blue-and-white painted little thing, very cheaply done when it was done, not worth a tremendous amount now, but I suppose for me that was the start of a journey. So you know it’s an important memory—and all the things I’ve bought since then—I suppose it all started from that.”
Where should we shop for antiques? Does Judith have a preferred venue?
“I buy everywhere,” said Judith. “I buy at auction, I buy from dealers, I buy from specialist dealers, I buy from general dealers, and I buy at shows. And never be afraid to ask…a dealer about a piece.”
“Dealers can teach you an incredible amount,” said Judith. “The place I got that wonderful pearlware cup was a very nice dealer in Portsmouth, New Hampshire… And he was encyclopedic in his knowledge.”
And shop while traveling. Judith advises, “Well I think it’s lovely for people that do enjoy (shopping) as I do when I’m traveling. I usually manage to pick up a few pieces.”
“Because of that I find that the antiques in my home are like a scrapbook of my life.”
How do we determine the value of pieces we’ve inherited or are considering buying?
Judith said, “I think it is important to do a bit of research. I mean, obviously I’ve been producing price guides for thirty years and they’re very helpful.”
“What I always say about price guides is you need to have a ballpark figure; you need to know what these sorts of things sell for…it’s just a good starting point.”
Judith said to learn as much as you can from museums and books about furniture styles and manufacturers.
“Because maybe you can’t afford to buy an Early American Queen Anne chair. But they made fabulous copies in Grand Rapids in the late nineteenth century, which you can get very much cheaper. And they’re very good quality, and they’ll last you know forever…the Early American Queen Anne might be $10,000 or even $20,000 and a late nineteenth century copy from Grand Rapids could be a few hundred.” Good tip, Judith.
People often inherit things. So I asked Judith how do we know if an inherited piece always should have a place in our homes?
“As I do the Antiques Roadshow program here and people are always saying to me ‘Should I keep this?’ And I think that it’s very important for people to find out if things do have special family significance, and they should write it down.”
“I was doing a little valuation day here in London a couple of years ago, and an old lady came in with a teddy bear…And she was brought up in Germany, her family were Jewish, and they had to leave Germany very hurriedly in the 1930’s and she was only allowed to take one thing with her. And she had this photograph of herself as a little girl, holding this teddy bear and this was just before they left Germany to escape.”
“Now that story in itself add tremendously to the value in all sorts of ways of that piece…if the family wondered about keeping it…but also to any teddy bear collector—the photograph and the story—would add to the value of the piece.
“Those things are terribly important, you know my daughters are now 30 and 28 and they went through a period, one of my daughters in particular, she said she wouldn’t sleep in her bedroom anymore till I got rid of the antiques and would allow her to go and buy new things. But now she’s coming ‘round to enjoying the things that have a bit of history.”
“But family pieces are very important. They give you this tangible link with the past.”
History. Moments. Memories. It’s a new way to think about some of the old things in our homes.
“It’s wonderful,” said Judith. “It does add that element to your interior when you’ve got things where you remember what happened.”
Co-founder of the international best-seller, Miller’s Antiques Price Guide, Judith Miller has written more than 100 books—including her latest books and today’s prize—Chairs and Miller’s 20th Century Design. She’s been profiled in such publications as the Financial Times, BBC Homes & Antiques, House & Garden, USA Today and Country Living magazine. She is an expert on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow and co-hosts the popular BBC series The House Detectives, ITV’s Antiques Trail, and Discovery’s It’s Your Bid, and has appeared on The Martha Stewart Show and CNN.
BONUS: Visit Living In Color With Sonu to Download Your Copy of Judith’s Ten Tips on Learning from the Past and great ideas on how to best shop for and include antiques and collectibles in our interiors.