Antiques Today – February 2013

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Looking in the mirror I often wonder with a wry smile whether I am becoming an antique faster than the treasures I collect. Yet, despite the receding hairline and corresponding increase of grey in my beard, I have to admit that there is nonetheless an inner child in my soul – it of course accounts for the fresh twinkle in my eyes! – and a plane journey remains something of a thrill-trip no matter how blasé I pretend to be.

Just a few days ago, again in my preferred seat – next to the window, as close to the front as possible – I stared in wonder at the approaching Cape landscape as if for the very first time: green fields, craggy mountains, clusters of urban sprawl, and the magnificent blue sky stretching over False Bay.

advert-antiquesfairSomehow I can never get my head around the fact that the way in which we record our environment is never exactly the way it is in reality. But modern technology does it so precisely, that I’m somehow – if just for a moment – tricked into thinking that the first visitors who sailed into the Cape several centuries ago were met with a simply-outlined bay and mountain of exaggerated proportions and distorted perspective, all on a flat and slightly aged off-white background.

Equally there’s an instant in which I fervently believe that Capetonians of a hundred odd years ago walked around a monochromatic sepia-tinted city.

But – while the sky was just as bright, the sea equally blue and twinkly, and the verdant fields and craggy mountains of centuries ago matched what we see today – antique maps and early blackand- white photographs were once simply the most advanced method of representing the environment, and should not be seen as an accurate representation. Indeed it is this abstraction of the physical world that makes such items appealing to me as a collector. So during my visit I took myself off on an excursion to Simon Curtis at Quagga Art and Books in Stellenbosch to see what he has in stock. “Oh yes, old postcards, photographs and maps of the Cape are always popular, as are views, particularly views of Table Bay”, he said as he led me over to a brightly hand-coloured engraving entitled Le Pays des Hottentots aux environs de Cap de Bonne Esperance.

“The French title adds to the exotic element of the map, doesn’t it?” As I nodded in agreement, he explained that the map was produced by the cartographer Nicolas Bellin in 1748.

Antique French Map“It’s amazing that maps like these have lasted all that time, and this one is still in such good condition… And look how he has depicted the abandoned French settlement at Saldanha Bay and the colonies of the Cape, Stellenbosch, Waveren and Drakensteen… It’s noticing details like these and comparing them with the landscape of today – how things have developed, changed, and sometimes even disappeared – that makes collecting maps so rewarding!”

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Le Pays des Hottentots aux environs de Cap de Bonne Esperance

“For maps and prints there are a few golden rules if you want something that will hold value and even become an investment: Check that the print or map has not been glued down to a card backing; that the margins have not been trimmed; and that the general condition of the paper is stable. Of course this comes at a price, so if you want something that is simply decorative, a print that has been glued down or trimmed, or has water damage can be a considerably cheaper option.”

“There is a trend in modern interiors to include vintage items that are unfussy and convey a sense of history and travel. Maps are the perfect way to do this. One really good antiquarian map or topographical print can lend a fantastic edge to even the most ultramodern interior. Here framing is key, and there are also certain colours to paint your walls that will bring out the unique qualities of antique paper. Maps of Africa are some of the most decorative ever created – the menagerie of wild animals and exotic creatures the continent offers has inspired cartographers for over 500 years – so they make ideal focal points of interest in a room”.

Wondering aloud what mistakes novice collectors can make, “Obviously buying a copy of an original from an unscrupulous non SAADA member”, he replied with a chuckle. “There are a few books in this field but they are not particularly informative, so it’s best to get advice from a dealer with experience. Our passion is our business, and most dealers are happy to give an opinion free of charge”.

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While showing me some books on maps, I noticed a few others nearby whose subject matter clearly focused on Cape furniture given their titles.

“Books are another way of introducing a layered sense to a contemporary space: collectively they add gravitas and can help anchor the design of the room… These two by G.E. Pearse – Eighteenth Century Furniture in South Africa and Eighteenth Century Architecture in South Africa – are fantastic sources for the detail design of this period, and would resonate well in an interior that features one or two pieces of early Cape furniture”.

Photographs, maps, books, and now furniture! My Cape vacation was starting to send me in all kinds of fascinating directions, and so I decided to meet up with Riaan Bolt who also happened to be visiting the fair peninsula.

“You are quite correct: people are having fun with Cape furniture these days, choosing to live with their collections and enjoy their investments. Why not use your early 19th Century Neo Classical Table from the Overberg as a desk? Or stack a pile of fresh white towels on your Tulbagh Chair in the bathroom? This will give your modern living space soul.

Cape Stinkwood chair“It is popular at present to juxtapose Cape with Mid 20th Century Design and Art. Collectors aren’t afraid to hang an abstract painting by Meerkotter above an 18th Century Cape Stinkwood Baroque Tea Table with a 50s Fornasetti Chair next to it.”

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A Cape Stinkwood “Tolletjie” Chair, 18th Century

This sounds very exciting! But what should one look out for? “As far as collectors’ trends go, Boer War Memorabilia is hot property at the moment, with fierce bidding wars occurring amongst local and international collectors at almost every auction, however young collectors often burn their fingers by buying the ‘wrong’ piece at the ‘wrong’ price and then loose confidence in the field”, explained Riaan.

“This can be avoided by buying from a specialist SAADA member. If you are trying to build a collection, specialize: identify a style – such as Cape Baroque, Cape Neo Classicism, Cape Regency – or a region – it could be the Sandveld, Overberg, or Eastern Cape – that appeals to you and focus on that. Rather buy one excellent example than settle for many mediocre pieces, as top quality has proven to have higher investment value in the long term.”

After I said goodbye to Riaan I began to wonder how it was that good examples of Cape furniture have survived over the decades and continue to crop up from time to time, and so I contacted Hannes Zaaiman at Cape and Country Antiques in Stilbaai.

“As people began to recover from the economic gloom following World War II, they began to feel wealthier. Furniture and industrial design was flourishing, and individuals wanted to embrace this sense of new beginning, so they replaced some of their old things with newly manufactured pieces. They would usually give the “unwanted” items to their domestic staff, who took them back to their homes in the townships… Ironically it is the coat of enamel paint they would often subsequently paint them in that has helped conserve these pieces of furniture over the years since then.

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“But good pieces are becoming harder to find, and their often clean and simple lines have made them popular for today’s interior aesthetic, so Cape furniture has become a pricey investment. The better the example, the longer-lasting the value! Rather pay more for one exceptional piece that shows the design influences of the time in which it was crafted and is made from materials that were locally available then”.

When I got hold of Randall Hare at his restoration workshop in Wynberg, he had just the thing: A rare Cape Teak gable-top wall cupboard made in the late 18th Century with its original brass fittings and some of the original glass panes.

“The timber shows a good patina, and you can clearly see how the style here has been adopted from the Dutch aesthetic of the same period… Similarities are evident in Cape armoires, however this was instead made to display a collection of smaller household items, quite probably porcelain.”

So where can you find the Cape treasures that will give your home the pizzazz it needs and your investment portfolio the diversity it requires? My suggestion would be to hot-foot it to the up-coming Cape Town SAADA fair to be held at Kirstenbosch from Saturday the 9th to Sunday the 10th of February 2013.

Paul Mrkusic

Cape Town Antiques Fair February 2013
DATE: 9th to 10th February 2013, 10am to 5pm
VENUE: Kirstenbosch Gardens
Visit the SAADA website at www.saada.co.za for news and information on SAADA and its members.

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