New Year’s Resolution: Learn From the Past

Design Expert: Judith Miller

ten_logo_ copyJudith Miller Antiques Expert

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!”

The antiques in my home are like a scrapbook of my life.

— Judith Miller

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.

18th Century Creamware“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:

Sorry, the Flash player for the sound clip failed to load. You may need to get the Flash plugin for your browser.

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.”

I think we’re all rather tired now of twenty shades of white. You know I think we need a few conversation pieces.

— Judith Miller

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.”

Liverpool Blue and White Saucer

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.”

Queen Anne Armchairs

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.”

1920s Teddy Bear“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.”

Jan 5th Answer copyCongratulations to Virginia for winning the trivia contest, with the first correct answer
of Djibouti.


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.

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17 Comments for “New Year’s Resolution: Learn From the Past”

As a bit of an antique buff myself I really enjoyed Judith’s ideas on collecting. After downsizing this year I have narrowed my own hunt to pieces for just a few very special collections but once a collector always a collector…even if only vicariously through fabulous ‘finders’ like Judith.

Hi Kate!

Nice to have you stop by! Judith has so many wonderful ideas. And the stories! I could listen to her stories all day long. Must be that lovely British accent. Plus the interesting places where she’s found things and the interesting people she’s met along the way.

Can’t wait to read what you have to teach us next week!

Have a colorful night,

I would love to win the books. She couldn’t go to Djibouti

I think the ship was unable to dock in Sudan

I truly enjoyed listening to Judith Miller’s comments, especially as we have several of her books. What a wealth of knowledge she has.
Her comments about mixing antiques with furnishings of different eras really hit home as this is what we’ve done for many years, and have been complimented over and over because of it.
Thank you for bringing such an interesting and knowledgeable person for our listening pleasure.

The ship couldn’t go to Djibouti.

Looks like we have a Winner!

Virginia, you were the first in with the correct answer of Djibouti, so Judith’s wonderful two latest books, Chairs and Miller’s 20th Century Design are yours! I know you will adore them.

Virginia, I just zipped you over an email so you can let me know your mailing address. And my thanks to Judith’s publicist, Sandy Goroff, for donating the books!

Yippee! This is so much fun!
— Kathy

Could it really b that easy? Dijbouti! Did you get your second winner??

I loved the 10 tips on the link and was happy to know I was doing many of them – only wish I could buy everything I love!

Oh sorry – I see that 2 books went to Virginia! Congrats! Thanks for the great info!

I may be biased, but that really was a fantastic interview, Kathy!!

Wonderful post and great suggestions on decorating. I could relate to her enthusiasm for antiques. Now that my kids are older, I have started to add a few antiques to our home and have really enjoyed finding them and integrating them into our existing decor. As I not an interior decorator, I picked up a book called “At Home With Laurie Ann”. She encourages readers to mix and match but not necessarily match, there is no right or wrong,and decorate to reflect your personality.

Thank you Claudia.

Judith was just a joy to talk with. And sounds like you’ve been on to “the secret” for the good mix. It really is striking when done well.

Sorry that Virginia beat you to the books. Please enjoy the rest of the special event, experts and prizes.

I am so glad you found,
— Kathy

Hi Dawn!

You cracked me up with your prize response. We are trying to be as clear as possible; sorry if it was at all confusing to you.

Great to hear you are already doing some of what Judith advises. She had some really helpful, practical ideas, as to many of our other experts.

So nice to have you here,
— Kathy

Hey fellow Design Maven 🙂

Thanks Sonu! It’s been so much fun visiting and talking with the experts for ten. We really are picking up some great information, and hearing some fabulous stories.

So much fun!
— Kathy

Hi Betty,

Thanks for the note. It’s funny, isn’t it that the idea of using antiques in our homes can grow on us over time?

Keep on decorating,
— Kathy

The answer is Djibouti. …great inspiration!

Hi Karen!

Thanks for the note. The trivia prize was awarded on the first day when the story was posted last Tuesday, Jan 5th. Hopefully I have made that more clear now — sorry for any confusion.

Judith is a wealth of information, but what’s most interesting are her stories that accompany with each piece. Fascinating.

Thanks for the visit and please come back anytime,
— Kathy

[…] Judith Miller, International Antiques Authority and BBC’s Antiques Roadshow Expert […]

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