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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Antiques, Antiquities or Artifacts: Does it really matter?


There are a number of terms used to describe objects from the past – Some of them are used very loosely or perhaps even erroneously, as a result of pure ignorance or to deliberately mislead others. It is imperative, therefore, to glean a general understanding of what some of the terms denote. Although it is somewhat difficult to isolate specific definitions due to dissimilarities between various countries and organizations, I have nevertheless attempted to provide some pertinent guidance below as a starting point:


An antique is an old collectible item. Although the exact definition can vary from source to source, generally an antique is an object that is at least 50 to 100 years old. In the United States, customs law reserves the term for objects that are 100 years old or more. The price of an antique is determined according to its craftsmanship, authenticity, aesthetic appeal, age, rarity and condition. Antiques can include a variety of items ranging from furniture to decorative arts. Comparable items that are not particularly old are often referred to as vintage.


The term antiquities (generally used in the plural) often refers to the remains of art work and everyday items from the distant or ancient past, although the cut-off date is not always precise and may differ considerably between various institutions. Some organizations may suggest an arbitrary date for ease of reference, but an important differentiation is that most antiquities are ancient and are discovered as a result of archaeology. Antiquities can come from various parts of the globe, including the Classical cultures of Greece and Rome, ancient Egypt, the ancient Near Eastern civilizations, the Orient and, of course, the Iron Age Celtic World (The Iron Age Celts spanned a period from the fifth century B.C. to the first century A.D.). Antiquities may include items such as buildings and works of art and even smaller objects, often referred to as portable antiquities. Portable finds, such as coins or jewellery, are frequently discovered by metal-detector users, people gardening or those merely out walking. Due to various legal restrictions in many countries about what can and can’t be collected, it is important to report finds accordingly, so that provenance and heritage will not be lost forever. For example, in England and Wales finds of “Treasure” must be reported to a coroner for the district within 14 days (Refer to The Portable Antiquities Scheme at: http://www.finds.org.uk/treasure/treasure_summary.php for further information).


Due to the imprecision of dates assigned to the term antiquities, most academic institutions no longer use it, but instead refer to those objects that have been made, used or modified by humans as artifacts (or artefacts -UK). For the purpose of this blog, however, I have chosen the term antiquities in order to meld with both collectors and dealers who generally utilize this term, as well as the academic world who understands what it means.


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