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Book Review


Leon Rosenstein, Antiques: The History of an Idea. Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 2009. Pp. 263. $35.00 (hardcover)


     As a museum curator of decorative art objects, specializing in the medium of glass spanning 2500 years, I receive phone calls and emails almost daily from people who believe that every leaded-glass lamp found in grandma’s attic was made by Tiffany Studios and is worth a million dollars. Or, who think that a piece of glass made in the 1940s qualifies as “antique” and is therefore valuable. The process of delivering the bad news is much like watching the hopes crushed on the Antiques Roadshow on PBS. How is it that so many people are misguided as to what qualifies as antique, valuable and museum worthy? So, imagine my delight in finding a book that attempts to define what is truly “antique” with the intention of passing along this information to so many hopeful, yet misinformed, people. 

     Leon Rosenstein, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at San Diego State University and 25-year veteran antiques dealer, attempts to examine what qualifies as an “antique” in the present day by investigating the history of the idea of the antique. He takes readers on a three-part journey, with three distinct approaches to chapters. The first chapter involves his philosophical musings on the definition of “antique.” Rosenstein lays out the qualifying factors for an antique through a confusing dissection of word meanings and categorizations that prove unsuccessful in clearly defining the idea of antique. There are many references to established philosophical scholars and art theorists in the well-documented endnotes (which are frequently better written and more engaging than the text itself). The chapter’s purpose is to present the idea, rather than to define it. Although is it is the most difficult chapter to digest, many readers will find it worthwhile to circle back and re-read it after finishing the entire volume.

     The second, and most interesting, chapter charts the historical development of the idea of antique from the ancient Greco-Roman world to the present day. The author skips across 2500 years rather briskly and uses specific examples to illustrate the evolution of the idea. He also includes some non-western examples, but more as a nod than as a genuine investigation of different cultural approaches to the idea of antique. This section is very accessible for those with any working knowledge of western history or art history. The understanding of an object in the context of its time is much easier to grasp if a reader comprehends the general political and cultural movements of the period first. As in the first chapter, the endnotes greatly help supplement the main body of the text. 

     Finally, Rosenstein synthesizes this weighty material drawn from 2500 years of history and numerous scholars into ten streamlined criteria for an object to qualify as antique. Rosenstein’s aim in documenting the idea of the antique is directly addressed in his conclusion:  the development of the idea of antiques parallels the ongoing development of civilizations, and knowledgeable appreciation of antiques encourages us to be more humane, and thus more civilized. His secondary motive in the work is more personal and subtly alluded to in his introduction. Like me, Rosenstein has probably been on the receiving end of too many frustrating inquiries from people who think they own an “antique.” This book is a way to firmly establish and disseminate the true definition for the benefit of future civilizations.

     Antiques is well-suited for instructors of philosophy, history, cultural studies and art history at the college and postgraduate levels. However, it is unclear whether a college student would be able to get past some of the silly language sprinkled throughout the text and the occasional condescending tone toward contemporary art and culture. The gross overabundance of “per se,” “furthermore,” and endless parenthetical asides was a disappointing distraction to a good thesis. Knowing your audience is important to choosing the method of delivering your point. If Rosenstein wanted to enlighten the next generation of antiques connoisseurs, he should have enlisted a better editor. Nevertheless, the book is an important contribution to the ongoing debate surrounding the hierarchy of fine arts, decorative arts, and crafts. Although the debate is contemporary, Rosenstein often references it throughout his historical examples. This allows readers to better understand how and when the hierarchy was established, often on a parallel track with the antique. Rosenstein circumvents the issue when establishing his ten criteria in the third chapter. He subtly suggests that moving forward on this particular issue is critical to the continuing evolution of the idea of the antique.

Kelly Conway is the Curator of Glass at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. She studied American history in college and then went on to immerse herself in the historical decorative arts as a graduate student. She also worked at an antique store for six years before beginning her career as a curator. She can be reached at


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