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Antique, Collectable, Vintage (and Numerous Other Labels): What Do They Mean?

John Mildwaters

4 October 2013

One of the most common questions we receive at Ipswich Antique Centre is some variation of “What is an antique?” It might be “Does an item have to be a hundred years old to be an antique?” or “Is a retro item an antique or collectable?” or “What is the difference between Georgian, Regency and William 4th.- they all seem to have similar dates?” Regardless of the actual question or how it is phrased, it is clear there is considerable confusion about what various dates, periods and ascriptions really mean to those interested in, but not expert with, antiques and collectables. Hopefully, the following will provide some clarification.

However, in an effort not to, instead, actually add to the confusion (and infuriate the pedants) first a few “housekeeping” matters. English language usage is constantly changing and evolving both internationally and on a regional basis. What is entirely acceptable terminology for antiques in Brisbane, Australia in 2013 may not have been so a couple of decades ago or even be so now for antiques in Sydney or Melbourne (or especially in London or New York). In addition, explanations with such fine, accurate detail that the pedants are satisfied often become so convoluted that they are incomprehensible to the people who asked the questions in the first place. “Just tell me in simple terms!” they beg. So what follows is a ‘working’ explanation of what is an antique or a collectable or ‘retro’ etc. Hopefully it will be of some guidance to laypersons: sufficiently comprehensive to answer casual queries whilst remaining simple enough to be readily understandable. I am aware of its simplifications and approximations and it should not be relied upon in satisfaction of formal matters.

Australia was first colonised some 60000 years ago by the people who came to be known as Aboriginal Australians so we need to start with terms that describe their material culture.

  • Pre-Contact
  • Traditional
  • Classic (Australian Aboriginal)
All are generally intended to mean pre the First Fleet of 1788. Pre-contact can be misleading as the first known European contact was by the Dutch around 1620 and the last in the Western Desert in the 1960s. Traditional can refer to modern items made in a traditional fashion. Ethnographic is sometimes also used but does not refer to a period but to a class ie goods made by native people anywhere at anytime. Classic, used in conjunction with “Australian Aboriginal” is possibly the most acceptable term that can be used by an antique store but may still cause confusion with other ‘Classics’ ie. the Neo-Classical period and Classic cars mentioned later.
  • Antiquities
Again strictly, a class of item rather than an age. Generally refers to manufacture before the Middle Ages. Can refer to very old excavated Aboriginal items but usually refers to ancient items from elsewhere around the world.
  • Elizabethan
  • Queen Anne
  • Chippendale
  • Hepplewhite
Furniture styles from the approximately 200 year period before the First Fleet of 1788. Seldom seen in Australia and then likely only for sale at established “High Street” antique shops or dedicated antique auctions which should be prepared to guarantee provenance. The terms are more likely to be encountered as “styles” or “influences” on much later pieces- do not be misled.
  • Georgian
  • Regency
  • William IV
The Georgian kings, I to IV, ruled in England from 1714 to 1830 so the time of first British colonisation of Australia was a ‘Georgian’ period. When George III became ill, George IV ruled as Regent from 1811 until becoming king in his own right in 1820. On the death of George IV, William IV became king for the short period from 1830 until 1837. It is difficult to date a piece accurately enough to distinguish between late Georgian, Regency and William IV hence the confusion about this period of about 30 years. Most attributions are made by way of style factors and attributions should be accepted ‘with a grain of salt’.
Remember that Australia’s European, furniture using, population was still very tiny at the end of the Georgian era. A limited number of items were needed and very few pieces of furniture were actually produced in Australia. Even fewer were signed or labelled. Be extremely wary of any piece purporting to be such unless accompanied by excellent provenance. This ‘Neo-Classical’ era was heavily influenced by the newly discovered treasures of ancient Egypt and Pompeii ,etc.
  • Victorian
  • Colonial
Victoria reigned from 1837 until 1901, coincidentally the year of Australian Federation. Thus all the Australian States were colonies of Queen Victoria for the whole of her reign so it is appropriate to date both Australian and English pieces to her era. The Victorian period saw the rise of the middle classes and a massive expansion of machine made items. For example, turned legs and coil sprung upholstery became the norm with a consequent increase in the depth of seats and a reduction in the length and design of legs. Most Australian furniture referred to as ‘Colonial’ is from this period and is likely to be in local timbers such as cedar, hoop pine or silky oak. It may have a higher content of hand-finishing but again, little was signed or labelled.
  • Arts and Crafts
  • Art Nouveau
In the last couple of decades of the 19th century and up to around the start of WW1, there were craftsman led reactions against the machine made excesses of the late Victorian era in Britain and the Rococo in Europe. In Britain, maker William Morris and art critic John Rushkin of the Arts and Crafts Movement, advocated a return to more simple and ‘pure’ designs and better workmanship. In Europe, the Art Nouveau movement adopted simplified flowing lines and forms from nature. Especially significant was the art glass of artists like Emile Galle and Rene Lalique in France, Loetz in Europe and Louis Comfort Tiffany in the USA, plus the silver of W.M.F.
  • Edwardian
  • Federation
Edward VII ruled in England from 1901 to 1910 but the period is usually taken to end with WW1 in 1914. As Australia became a Federation in 1901, it is strictly incorrect to refer to Australian made, as distinct from British made, items as Edwardian. However, locally made ‘Federation’ items show influences of the Arts and Crafts or Art Nouveau styles whereas ‘Edwardian’ items of the same time are generally more ‘traditional’ in design. By this time, the cedar was largely exhausted and the common timbers were pine, maple and silky oak.
  • Art Deco
Produced from around World War 1 to the 1940s and was again a reaction to an earlier style- the muted colours and flowing lines of the Art Nouveau period which preceded it. It is characterised by bold, primary colours and geometric or abstract designs typified by Clarice Cliff ‘Bizarre’ porcelain.
  • Retro
Originally referred to items imitating things from the past, usually in a nostalgic or ironic manner such as a 1960’s style digital radio or a newly made ‘old fashioned’ evening gown. The term has expanded to incorporate the actual items that were being reproduced. Thus original artefacts from the 1960s- 1980s are now also often termed ‘retro’.
  • Rustic
  • Country
Refers more to construction than age and usually means handmade or semi-handmade, especially of common, utilitarian materials. Often used for such things as stick or kerosene tin and box furniture.
  • Vintage
The term originally referred to such things as wines and antique cars. (Strictly cars made between 1919 and 1930, but increasingly to any collectable car made before WW2). Now applied loosely to antiques and collectables to denote something of quality with some (indefinite) age or that is characteristic of the ‘best’ from the fairly recent past.
  • Veteran
A term relating to antique autos. It refers to cars built before 1919 (and includes the ‘Edwardian’ sub-group built before 1904). Seldom seen applied to antiques and collectables.
  • Classic
Take care with this term- it has been applied in such a variety of ways that it can only be understood in context. For example, Classic cars are often taken to be those made after 1930 but not later than 15 years before the present. However, motor clubs, car insurers and motor vehicle registration authorities apply various other definitions. It is similar with antiques. See earlier for some of its various uses with collector items.
  • Ming (China)
From 1368-1644. Oriental Periods are often subdivided into Early/ Middle/ Late. Severe restrictions now apply to the export of Chinese artefacts over 200 years old. Superb bronze and porcelain reproductions are available from such reputable places as the Shanghai Museum and the designs may include the original maker’s marks. (This is not considered fraudulent but a way of honouring the ancestors). So beware!
  • Qing (China)
From 1644- 1911. See below re mass produced export wares. However, due in part to the Hong Kong trading houses and the 19th century Chinese influx to the gold fields, significant quantities of quality goods did enter Australia and collectors should be alert to these pieces.
  • Edo (Japan)
The rule of the Tokagawa shoguns. From 1615- 1867.
  • Meiji (Japan)
From 1867 - 1911. See below re export wares. However, from around 1890 to 1920, high quality studio Satsuma was produced and is now highly sought after in both Australia and Japan.
  • Post Qing / Meiji
After 1911 to Circa 1950. Most of the vintage Oriental porcelain (Satsuma, Imari, etc.) and Cloisonné available in Australia was mass-produced as export wares during this period and made for foreign tastes rather than to traditional designs.
  • One Hundred Years
Many think that an antique has to be more than one hundred years old. This idea arose from the tax concessions that once applied on imported furniture of that age. Importers attached a sticker from a British antique association certifying that the item was over 100 years and, with the flood of containers of furniture from the UK that entered Australia, an antique became known as something over that age. It is a useable concept but the term has no other intrinsic significance.
  • English Porcelain Marks
  • ‘Limited’ or any contraction- After the Companies Act of 1861.
  • ‘Trade Mark’ After the Trade Marks Acts of 1862.
  • ‘Registration Number’ or contraction- After 1883.
  • ‘England’- After 1891.
  • ‘Made in England’- No precise date but in the 20th Century.
  • Collectable
A collectable (or collectible) is simply something worth collecting or sought by collectors. (Descriptions do not come much more circular than that!). If you collect it then it is a collectable and there are some very weird things that are collected!
  • Shabby Chic
  • Paris Apartment
  • French Provincial
Localised terms and more descriptions of what rather than how old. Shabby Chic usually involves an artificially distressed painted finish whereas the French influences are often associated with a more refined painted finish. French Provincial may occasionally refer to an antique actually made in France but do not assume it is so!
  • Named Makers
Where a local manufacturer is known, items are often described by the maker’s name. In Queensland, famous makers were, for example, L J Harvey and his School for Australian Pottery and Bell Brothers and Ed Rosenstengel for furniture. Since the periods of production are generally well known, ages may be assumed to also be known and thus not stated.

These are the more usual periods and terms likely to be encountered with antiques and collectables in Australia at present; at least those I can think of at the moment. If you have others then send me an email and I will add them to the list. If you find clear errors, by all means send corrections. But please remember the intended use of the article and do not send in quibbles.