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The new collector: Mark Hill, millennial curation and decorative antiques

Meet the new collector: Mark Hill – expert in 20th Century design and collectibles, a well-known face from the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, and one of our very own SideStory Insiders. We sat down with him this week to discuss the ways in which collecting has changed over the years, from granny’s china collection to the funky individualism of the selective Millennial.

As always, you can click further to find out more and book Mark Hill’s Antique Treasure Trove Experience.

Most of us have accumulated a certain set or group of things at some point, be it stamps or postcards or teacups. What is it about collecting that’s so appealing?

I’ve always collected things, certainly, and actually I think there’s an innate human instinct to do so. It comes down to that hunter-gatherer mentality of going out, finding something and bringing it back. We have this deep-seated, ingrained need to learn and, in collecting things, we enable ourselves to do that very tangibly and visibly. It’s immediately rewarding in so many ways.

Collectors must collect, after all: the clue is in the name. I started off with fountain pens and I would go and find these things for a couple of pounds, buy them, enjoy them, learn about them and above all, use them. It was the same later on for ‘Fat Lava’ – West German pottery of the 1960s & 70s. I think the things that appealed to me when I first started collecting run through into what I do now and how I view the world of antiques and collectibles.

That’s a really interesting item to collect. How did that come about?

I guess it was kicked off by finding my grandfather’s fountain pen at home, but I really can’t say. I suppose they were something I noticed being around, almost like they were waiting to be collected and learned about. I began collecting before the digital age exploded, so one could only write, and I always liked to be different and didn’t want to use a biro like everyone else. I think that often we don’t really know why we collect certain things. I suppose it’s a bit like a joke – if you analyse it too much it stops being funny. A lot of people collect for nostalgia, but obviously I wasn’t around when fountain pens were first used, so in my case it wasn’t that.

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For many people the world of antiques can seem clandestine and rather intimidating, but you talk about it in a very informal and relatable way. Why do you have a different perspective?

You’re right in suggesting there’s a problem with the term: I think the word ‘antique’ does put many people off. I’m a great believer in finding new, under-appreciated or ‘forgotten’ areas, designers and trends, but also in using and enjoying those things and not just locking them away behind glass.

I give a NADFAS lecture where I say that it was the generation of people who bought the kind of Georgian sideboards or whatever that we associate with ‘antiques’, that have made the antiques world seem scary and unapproachable to many people today. I’m sure we all remember being young and in a relative’s house with these apparently sacrosanct objects and being told to not touch, to be careful, to stay away. As a result, we’ve now got generations who were put off buying antiques because they see them as delicate and very formal things they can’t or shouldn’t have. So, ‘antiques’ are often associated with negative things and feelings amongst many younger people.

I didn’t grow up around antiques but my parents are very liberal and encouraged me to learn and to go for the job I wanted. I also love reading and discovering new things, and communicating my passion.

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The fact that we’re having this conversation means that something has changed, though, doesn’t it?

For me there are two areas that are changing. The first is that over the past 10 years or so, we’ve seen enormous growth in what the antiques trade call ‘decorative antiques’. These are pieces that don’t necessarily have any intrinsic value and in fact might be damaged or very worn, so they don’t have any collectable merit, but they look damn good. They’ve become more popular with more people than many traditional ‘antiques’, perhaps partly as they’re more readily understandable and enjoyable and they look like they have a story to tell.

I was lucky enough to go straight from university to Bonham’s, the auction house, and when I started in the business, if we saw a battered old Art Deco armchair, people would often turn up their noses. They’d point out where the covering wasn’t in great condition and that it was over-used and had stains and scuffs from use, so it might sell at a certain price. Now, that kind of thing can be enormously desirable because it’s a lovely looking original piece of furniture that conjures up a certain lifestyle and story. It looks worn, yes, but it also looks like it’s been loved. If you put it in the corner of a room, people would be drawn to it because it looks comfortable and it says something. So that’s a big change in how things are fundamentally viewed.

Secondly, I think the way we collect is different. The collector of old – Granny and her china cabinet where everything was locked up, behind glass, or Grandad with his enormous dinky toy collection of Morris Minors or whatever in every colour, except the sky blue one, because they only made 50 – those both represent behaviour that’s on the decline. Most people don’t really collect like that anymore. I don’t think we’re completists in that sense, or that we collect in such a defined manner now. It doesn’t appeal and most of us don’t like to live around that sort of collection any more.

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How are the younger generations different?

I think about it in terms of the difference between ‘custodians’ and ‘millennials’. The older generation saw themselves as custodians of objects: they wanted to look after them or preserve them and they also represented a certain financial investment, so they might think of a chair that is worth so much money. They also tended collect something clearly defined, and defined as an ‘antique’, like Worcester porcelain or Georgian furniture.

For millennials, though, three objects is often enough. And they can be any objects that appeal to them, from worn and used Victorian wooden tools to gleaming stainless steel. They don’t need ten decanters – they just need one, because it’s kind of funky and they know they wouldn’t use an additional nine. They don’t want a whole range of Scandinavian vases by one factory or designer, but actually that group of three different ones that they saw at a vintage fair last month looked really nice together, so they bought them and that’s all of that sort of thing that they’re going to buy for now. At the point that they get tired of them, they’ll sell them and buy something else that fits their mood or their decor better.

That’s a very different way of approaching collecting – and decorating for that matter…

It really is. Nowadays there’s big movement towards individualism and representing yourself and your story at home. You might visit friends and see they have a slightly incongruous Victorian vase in their modern home, but then you find out the story behind it: that they were having a holiday in France, drank a bottle of wine at lunch and on the way home found this amazing vase, which they just found so funny and curious that they brought it home and it now reminds them of that wonderful holiday. There might also be a colour in it that works with their wallpaper or paint, or it just looks great on a shelf. Or maybe you have your grandmother’s tea set, which isn’t necessarily in the style of most of the things in the rest of your house, but you have those very fond memories of afternoon tea in the garden with her, so you treasure it and display and use it. It’s things like that which bring back memories or illustrate a story that appeal to us now.

Rules are also being broken, so much is about mixing and matching and an eclectic way of collecting, with an eye for how things look as well, as what they say about you and your story. The craftsmanship and story an object tells is important too. Younger generations do collect, it’s just they do in a way that’s not the same as older generations.

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So is it that those flaws and idiosyncrasies can – and should – actually enhance your appreciation of an object?

I think so, yes. For instance, I bought a decanter a little while ago. It’s from about 1790-1800 and it’s hand-blown and hand-cut.

Culturally we don’t use decanters anymore, partly because they’re a faff, but also because – whether we know it or not – we kind of like to show off that we’ve bought nice wine for our guests, but I do use them. Now, to a decanter collector, this particular example is of absolutely no interest: the rim has been chipped over the years and polished down. The stopper is the right shape, but it’s not the right stopper: really it’s a damaged decanter body and another stopper entirely, but it cost me a few pounds and when I put it on the dining table, people always comment on it. I say that it’s from the turn of the 19th century, not so that they should be careful of handling it – far from it – but to get them to consider its narrative.

For example, what happened when it was chipped – was there an argument? Was it at a drunken Georgian table? Where was it when Queen Victoria came to the throne? Where was it when she died? What were they drinking out of it? Where was it in World War One? Did the father who owned this ever come home? And where was it when bombs fell in London? When you think of it like that, it becomes an incredibly resonant object. That’s a pretty good five quid, isn’t it?

It certainly is: a useful and functional object and an interesting backstory. Put like that it makes high street objects seem rather bereft of personality, doesn’t it?

Absolutely. People like that connection to history. It goes back a little bit to when your mother used to read you stories in bed and you’d be transported off to foreign lands and different experiences and cultures, and you’d drift off to sleep in this other world. I think that’s what antiques give you: that style, that association and link with history, that wonderful connection with culture and our collective past. To say that the world of antiques is stale and boring is just plain wrong: it’s the exact opposite, really – all these things have a story; past lives and past impressions.

We want to live around things we like: we want to live around things that make us happy and in times of economic crisis – and let’s face it, we’ve enough of those after the past ten years – there’s a little bit of a nesting thing going on. You want to be around things that make you feel comfortable, happy, nostalgic – in a good way – and I think that’s what these things with a personal connection do. It’s very hard to feel that nostalgic about a Billy Bookcase, isn’t it?

For enquires and bookings, click here for Mark Hill’s Antique Treasure Trove Experience