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Guide To Garden Antiquing

Updated on May 31, 2010

Everywhere you look these days, items manufactured expressly for the garden seem to be making their way into the home. Watering cans hold bouquets of flowers, porch chairs flank fireplaces, and potting tables support cookbooks and mixing bowls in the kitchen. Garden objects are some of the hottest antiques on the market. One reason for this trend is the widespread popularity of gardening as an American pastime.

Collectors respond strongly to handblown antique glass with nice forms and colors. In addition to its aesthetic qualities, vintage glassware is also versatile. For example, diminutive cobalt, amber, and amethyst medicine bottles make ideal bud vases (line a windowsill with them and watch them catch sunlight), while large cloches set on a dining table protect cheese, bread, and fruit pies until guests are ready to eat.

Although birdcages number among the most sought after garden items, the popularity of these decorative pieces is by no means a recent phenomenon. It was quite common in the late 19th century to place a birdcage - a diminutive symbol of a more spacious aviary - in the conservatory, sunroom, even a corner of the parlor to create an enclave of nature within the home, and there were designs to fit every taste: pieces that looked like real homes, or pagodas, or rustic gazebos.

One drawback of the continued interest in these items has been the influx of reproductions to the market. To avoid newly made cages, buy from reputable dealers and look for wear consistent with use. An even, all-over coating of dirt should immediately raise a red flag.

Once you've been bitten by the garden-antiques collecting bug, you may find yourself tempted to fill every nook and cranny of your home with these decorative pieces. But giving in to this urge may result in a look that is overwhelming. With too many objects, colors, or textures incorporated into one decorating scheme, the eye is unable to focus on individual pieces. Instead, place one favorite garden item within a traditional setting - a section of wrought-iron fencing behind a sofa or over a mantel, for example, or a flower-filled Victorian urn on a table in the foyer.

When you take an object out of its original context - in this case the garden - you notice its details as if for the first time. Another option is to group collections of smaller items into striking arrangements. Gather items of similar size, shape, or color, but be sure to limit their scope to a clearly defined area - a tabletop, a mantel, or a corner cabinet, for example - to concentrate their visual impact.

Finding new functions for objects designed for use outdoors is one of the secrets to the successful positioning of garden antiques. Lamp bases can be created using small urns, wooden finials, or marble balustrades, like the late-1800s examples. Topped with beveled glass or a plank of wood, matching columns, large urns, or tree trunks make long tables for the home office, dining room, or foyer; for coffee tables, try painted garden benches.

In the bathroom, wire trellises intended for training vines make handy towel racks, while gathering baskets become carryalls for beauty products. Porch swings and garden benches can move into the parlor as settees. Portions of wrought-iron or picket fencing form dramatic bed frames. And flowerpots, watering cans, and aluminum florist buckets make out-of-the-ordinary vases.

Prices for garden antiques can vary widely, depending on an object's age, rarity, and condition. While patina is a plus for many collectors, all details on an item should remain intact; urns with symmetrical handles, for instance, are more valuable when both elements survive. Size is another important factor when attributing value to an item. Small flowerpots, watering cans, and tools can be spotted at flea markets, yard sales, and country auctions for $5 to $40. Classic garden furnishings like benches, chairs, and potting tables generally sell in the $50 to $1,500 range. And large pieces - fountains, trellises, statuary - appear most often in shops specializing in garden antiques and architectural salvage; prices begin at about $500 and rise steadily from there.

For most collectors, the patina that comes with years of exposure to the elements lies at the very heart of a garden antique's appeal. Still, there are those who prefer that the graceful lines of wrought-iron fencing, cast-concrete urns, or rustic benches be unmarred by dirt and wear. Some collectors love the look and feel of an old surface, while others buy a piece, sand it, and repaint it.

Because of the personal nature of the decision, most garden-antiques dealers leave weathered wood, moss-covered terra-cotta, and rusted metal untouched, allowing customers to do with their purchases what they will. If you are considering removing any dirt, lichen, or chipping paint from an antique, think long and hard before you begin. Once the surface has been altered, it cannot be restored to its original condition. Signs of age are easy to take off, but they're difficult to replace.

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