Thursday, February 6, 2014

Book Review: The Antiques Magpie

Title: The Antiques Magpie: A Fascinating Compendium of Absorbing History, Stories, Facts and Anecdotes from the World of Antiques
Author: Marc Allum
Publisher: Icon Books
Publication Date: September 5th, 2013
Read: October - December 2013
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley*
Genre: Nonfiction
Rating: 3.5 Dusty Treasures Found in a Pile of Junk at a Yard Sale

Old things are neat. Forget simple yard sale picking—I harbor fantasies of appearing on the Antiques Roadshow. I enjoy trawling through antique stores and Goodwills and yard sales and markets and bazaars, hoping to come across a hidden treasure. And when I come across something truly unique, it’s exciting to wonder is it worth something? I love the thrill of investigating and exploring and discovering something that speaks to me, whether it is valuable in a monetary sense or not. I love the hunt. So when I saw this book on NetGalley, written by someone from the BBC Antiques Roadshow, I pounced. (Disclaimer: It looks like this is published in hard copy only in the UK and the Commonwealth, but it is available for Kindle on Amazon.)

Rather than an overview of the world of antiques or a guide on how to get started collecting, the book is more of a collection of anecdotes and mini-essays on topics and tangents ranging from one corner of the world of antiques and collecting to the other, from the author’s personal stories of working in that world, to broader topics such as copyright, to practical information for an antiquer (a gold purity percentage chart, for example), to the truly strange, such as a story about a museum of taxidermied animals arranged in tableaux depicting them engaged in very human pursuits, like birthday parties (more on that later).

I thought the book was fun! The short stories and conversational tone make it a quick read, like you’re listening to a friend in the industry tell you tales of their experiences over tea or a couple beers. It’s the kind of thing I think would be ideal to keep in your bag and read on the train, on your lunch break, while waiting at the doctor’s office, etc. since you can easily finish a section or more in that time, avoiding the annoyance of being interrupted in the middle of something longer. Images, quotations, and little blurbs about related topics are interspersed throughout the text to add a little extra oomph. I would’ve liked even more images (visual learner that I am), but now I have a list of things to Google for further information and pictures.

The array of topics covered in the book is truly impressive. For instance, you can learn about the rarity of the 1933 British penny (who knew?). You can also discover the wonders of “crude and often inappropriate” British seaside postcards. Appetite for antiques knowledge still not satiated? Try exploring the world of chair design! You can even plumb the depths of the world of gnome collecting—gnomery has more history than you might imagine. In addition to the main text, there are helpful appendices with a timeline of British and French monarchs and a rundown of the different periods and styles of art/architecture/furniture/what-have-you (useful info for would-be antiquers!). Upon perusing the bibliography I was a little nonplussed at seeing Wikipedia listed, but I was glad to see a nice listing of books as well (there’s also a long list of websites that were sources for specific entries in the book). The inclusion of some links to useful trade and industry websites was a neat idea, too.

“The Death and Burial of Cock Robin”

But I promised you a story about taxidermied animals throwing birthday parties! (When I flipped back to that section, it turned out birthday parties were not actually among the tableaux listed. Sorry!) During the Victorian era, there was apparently a man named Walter Potter who was a self-taught taxidermist (dare I ask…?) who specialized in dioramas of animals dressed like humans doing human things, “back in the days when stuffing animals was an acceptable pastime for young boys.” He had them displayed near his home, but as more and more visitors came to see them, he ended up making a sort of museum of them that became a major tourist attraction. He based some of the displays on nursery rhymes, and some of the more famous dioramas include “The Death and Burial of Cock Robin” (a funeral scene including 98 birds, with a rook as the parson and an owl as the grave digger), “The Rabbits’ Village School” (48 young rabbits sitting at desks or engaged in educational pursuits), “The Kittens’ Tea and Croquet Party” (self-explanatory, featuring a horrifying 37 kittens), and "Athletic Toads” (18 toads doing various exercises in a park).

While such a thing might have been acceptable to the Victorians, as sensibilities changed after Potter’s death in 1918, the museum had to face claims of animal cruelty and eventually close in the 1970s. It still must’ve somehow captured the mind of the public, though, because the “Kitten’s Wedding” tableau was featured in a 2003 exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The collection was eventually put up for auction and despite attempts to keep it intact, it ended up being broken up and sold off—“The Death and Burial of Cock Robin” went for £23,500 with the sale total for the collection being over half a million pounds. Macabre, a little nauseating, yet oddly fascinating…for me, this was definitely the strangest, weirdly intriguing-est story in the book. Can’t make this stuff up. Overall, The Antiques Magpie was an interesting read with many strange-but-true stories that would be amusing for Antiques Roadshow enthusiasts, and could also reel in newcomers to the world of antiques and collecting.

Do you like to go antiquing? Have any unique (hopefully not stuffed-kitten-unique) collections? Hit the comments and let us know!

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

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