Thursday, December 20, 2007

Interview with Jennifer Asencio of The Antique Beak

Birdwatching isn't the only way people can show their love for birds. Jennifer Asencio, for example, runs The Antique Beak, an online antiques store that sells only bird-related items. How cool is that?

There's everything a bird lover with an empty house could ask for. Salt and pepper shakers in the shape of robins? Check. Tie-rack covered in parrots? Yup. A photograph of some guy with his pet macaw? Of course.

There is some real great stuff here, my favorites being a 1930's owl-shaped perfume burner, a crystal cigarette lighter and this radical eagle lamp.

I talked with Jennifer about the world of bird-related antiques. At the end of our talk, she wanted me to say that anyone who orders over $50 of goods from The Antique Beak after reading this interview will get %10 off and free shipping! Not bad! Let's dig in!

How'd you get started on collecting bird-related antiques?

JA: It was inevitable really. I have owned and kept birds all of my life and they are an important part of who I am. I had been in the antiques business a number of years when I decided that a web presence was in order. I tried doing general antiques but it wasn’t rewarding (financially or spiritually) so I decided to specialize in just one thing. When pondering what I knew (antiques) and what I enjoyed (birds) the two just naturally came together. The shop name of Antique Beak was a given and the rest is history (all seven and a half years worth!)

What kind of bird antiques are out there? What are the most popular types?

JA: People often ask me that and I have to say, if you can imagine it, it’s out there! As people have enjoyed birds through the ages, so have they crafted and adorned things with them. You will find birds on just about anything old and vintage, from postcards to plates, teapots to inkwells, fireplace screens to tablecloths.

The most popular pieces are of course, figurines, followed closely by paper items such as books, advertising & cigarette cards, prints, stamps, menus and the aforementioned postcards. As these items were more fragile and often thrown away, they are now valued and highly sought after, especially those that are from the 1930’s and earlier.

Do people prefer antiques featuring wild or domesticated (farm birds, pets) birds?

JA: There is no doubt, domesticated (pet) birds are more in demand than wild birds, although in my opinion, the wild bird pieces are the more beautiful. The collectors of wild birds seem to be the most loyal, though, and almost all of my international orders are for the birds of the field and seashore.

Is there a "holy grail" of wild bird antiques?

JA: Hmm, tough question. It largely depends on the collector and what type of bird(s) interest them. If I had to give an answer I’d say items of the Victorian Era crafted of metal, such as elaborate cages, Vienna bronzes, bride’s baskets, candelabras and silver or silver plated tableware. The Victorians were quite keen on birds and Parrots, especially during the Aesthetic movement, and so you’ll find them on a number of items.

What's the most expensive item you've sold? What about the most expensive wild bird item?

JA: The most expensive item (to date – I currently have items that are more) was an early 1800’s bronze castor set with two bottles. It was basically a T-shaped metal holder with an attached tray and “caged” bottles on each side. In the middle (and serving as the handle of the piece) was a Parrot on a T-stand. It sold for $1,200.00. A Boehm Kestrel figurine was the most expensive wild bird, selling at $850.00, and was a truly gorgeous piece! (I have a special fondness for Raptors…..)

What types of wild birds sell the best? Are different types of birds associated with different antiques?

JA: Songbirds, definitely. People seem to enjoy collecting those birds that they know best such as Cardinals, Blue Jays, Orioles, Chickadees and Wrens as well as those that are commonly seen and colorful such as Barn Swallows, Bluebirds and Stellar’s Jays.

While every generation has enjoyed and adorned their wares and homes with wild birds of all varieties, I have noted that the Victorians were especially fond of Bluebirds, especially on china and jewelry and of Parrots and Cockatoos, found not only on plates and china but crafted of metal and fashioned into vases, epergnes, cake baskets and napkin rings. Their purpose was usually utilitarian. When they (the Victorians) got into the aesthetic movement, Herons or Cranes seemed to take center stage.

There was also a lot of taxidermy done, quite a bit of which still survives today, due to the airtight containers they were placed in. I do not carry this type of antique as I took a poll of my customers a couple of years ago and received an overwhelming response that this was not the type of item they would like to see. There is certainly a market for it, however, and extinct examples such as the Passenger Pigeon would fetch quite a nice sum.

What are some of the weirdest items you've seen in the world of avian antiques?

JA: If there’s one thing I’ve come to know and expect, birds are on everything! Some of the most unusual pieces I’ve come across have been a kitchen set in the shape of a parrot, that is, scoops and other utensils were placed upon a card and fashioned into the shape of a bird. The set had thankfully never been used or the bird would have long since flown away.

Other interesting pieces have been an old art deco speaker cover with perched Parrots in the middle, a Victorian bobbin holder that was in the shape of a pet bird on a T-stand (its head even tilted backward to reveal a well for needles), an epergne with a metal stand in the shape of a tree with hand painted birds perched in it and a fluted, glass vase in the middle, sterling pickle forks with Raptor handles, and an old peddle car in the shape of an Eagle. I am sure there have been others stranger still but my memory escapes me at the moment.

If I wanted to get into bird antiques, what's an inexpensive place to start?

JA: I’d began with paper items such as stamps, postcards, trade cards, cigarette cards and advertising calendars, for not only are they infinitely interesting (“Buy Dr. Fields herbal cough syrup for croup, colic, asthma and more!”) but they are also miniature works of art that can be framed or otherwise displayed. They are usually found in good condition as well, for oft times they were kept in albums and scrapbooks, protecting them from the ravages of time and sunlight.

On the same theme of paper items, old magazines are an excellent choice, too. Some of the covers were done by famous artists of the day, and the articles contained therein (say on bird keeping or extinct species such as the Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parakeet) are a rare glimpse into the past. And again, they can become decorative items as well.

What bird related antiques do you foresee increasing in value in the coming years?

JA: Items that are decorative as well as useful such as lamps, hall trees, fireplace screens, and desk accessories to name but a few, especially those from the Art Deco or Art Nouveau period. Also pieces that were made by famous factories such as Beswick who are no longer in business, and handcrafted or one-of-a-kind items such as samplers from the 1700 and 1800’s or oil paintings done by well-known and catalogued artists. Of course, there will always be a demand for fine art pieces, for example signed bronzes, pottery, and glassworks, and as the number of examples in good condition goes down, their desirability and pricing will go up. I do have to say, however, that one never knows, for what is in vogue one year may be out in two (think Occupied Japan collectibles). My best advice is to always buy what you like and what moves you. That way you’ll always be pleased, no matter what the market. ΓΈ


Lois said...

I'm a bird lover and a client of Jennifer Asencio's, The Antique Beak. I enjoyed this interview and learning more about Jennifer’s world of antique and collectible ‘birding’.

Personally, if it’s not a living bird, I lean towards collecting jewelry and porcelain. I’m sure if my home were larger, I could be persuaded to adventure into other bird collectibles :-} Jewelry is a great conversation starter and, when given an opening, it’s amazing to discover how many other wild and companion bird lovers there are and to share stories.

Thank you for interviewing Jennifer!

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