The Art of Collecting Antiques: Q&A with Fern Simon

Much has changed in the world of antiques since art historian Fern Simon opened her Winnetka shop Arts 220 in 1987.

But the dealer of 20th century art and design says nothing replaces the knowledge gained by talking with dealers and seeing pieces firsthand.

Simon will be exhibiting this fall at the 2010 Merchandise Mart International Antiques Fair and Emporium (October 1 – 4) along with other North Shore dealers, including The Country House, Richard Norton Inc., Martha Peck Antiques and Wellesley House.

How should people begin building their antique collection?
When you look at something, are you moved by it? If you are, then you can still pursue a collection in the old fashioned way, which is to learn everything you can, read everything you can and see everything you can. If you like American art pottery or first edition Dickens, you still have to go through that evolution from a beginning collector to an advanced collector, and that takes passion and knowledge. It’s a process that takes time.

What’s currently hot in the antique business?
I think the ‘70s and ‘80s are being reevaluated. There’s a “corporate cool” as I call it, where there’s an interest in plastics and more modern and high-tech materials. If I were just starting out today, I certainly would take a look at some of the very newest and most innovative techniques in creating things.

Speaking of innovation, how has the Internet changed the business of collecting antiques?
It’s a global world, and communication is amazingly fast and comprehensive. It was a big deal when you could actually follow auctions online. It opened up the field to a more eclectic collector.

How has this new influx of collectors changed the business?
It used to be that antiques were very rigidly defined from one period to another, but now a prototype that’s 2 years old might be very collectible. Another thing you’ll see is that dealers are doing their own editions of antiques, which used to be taboo.

With so much information so readily available, why are shows like the International Antiques Fair still important?
The Internet should be an important tool, but it doesn’t substitute for talking with dealers and seeing pieces directly. There’s a tremendous influx of things online, which are just not genuine. This has always been the case, but especially now, if you buy something from a dealer, you want to guarantee that it’s authentic and if it’s an expensive piece, you should only deal with people you know. The more you see the pieces that you collect, the more you get an intuitive sense of how something should look or how it should feel.

Why should people check out this year’s International Antiques Fair?
The show is an eclectic mix in an urban setting, and the history of the Merchandise Mart gives it an added panache. It’s a perfect place to show a global mix of antiques.