For antiques lovers, Judith Miller is practically a patron saint. Over 30-plus years, she has published 105 Miller’s Antiques Guides in the United States and the United Kingdom, covering every topic under the sun—from motorcycles and porcelain to costume jewelry and furniture—and including identification tips, prices, and all the other details collectors really want. Also an antiques columnist, lecturer, and appraiser for the British version of “Antiques Roadshow,” Miller often travels to the United States and appears as a guest on “Martha.”
One key to Miller’s charm is the way quickly she deflates any preconceived notions of stuffy British antiques hounds. A student of history, her passion is finding the story each object tells, often using a thing’s imperfections as her clues. And she delights in studying workmanship and contrasting mismatched objects in her home, from glasses to chairs. Recently, Miller spoke with us by phone from London, where she lives with her husband, John Wainwright, the youngest of her three kids, Tom, and their Russian terrier, Vlad. She explains how it all got started with the “Antiques Price Guide” in 1979.
Judith Miller: Most of my friends and colleagues from the “Antiques Roadshow” grew up with antiques, but I didn’t. My parents were part of what’s affectionately called the Formica Generation, in that after the war, they wanted to get rid of everything that was old. Not only did they get rid of my grandparents’ things, but they paid people to come and take them away.
“If I go to auctions, when there’s a lot coming up that I want, I find that I get sweaty palms, my heart starts beating faster, and I start glaring at anyone bidding against me.”
I had no background in antiques or art, but my passion was history. I went to the University of Edinburgh to do history in the late 1960s. At the time, I started buying old plates, because I was fascinated by them; I wanted to know how old they were and where they were made. If they had Chinese decoration, were they actually Chinese? If they had people in 18th-century clothes, were they actually 18th century? Because I was a student, I started to research these things and try and find out the answers.
Really, that’s where the idea for the guide started, because I looked at all the books at the time and couldn’t find the sort of things I was buying for a couple of cents. Somebody said to me, “Well, you should go to auction because everything is cataloged, and you can handle the objects.” And so I started to go to auctions, which was a dangerous thing because you can become an auction addict very easily.
Collectors Weekly: Did that happen to you right away?
Miller: Oh, totally. Immediately. And I still am. If I go to auctions, when there’s a lot coming up that I want, I find that I get sweaty palms, my heart starts beating faster, and I start glaring at anyone bidding against me.
Collectors Weekly: What was your very first plate?
Miller: I bought an 18th century Worcester, a very common transfer-printed fence pattern that was probably made about 1770. Which I didn’t know at the time; I bought it because I liked it. And I bought some Delft things. I bought some Chinese things. I was literally paying a couple of cents for these. I would be sitting on the floor of junk stores and going through all these different plates. The dealers used get so sick of me, they’d say, “Look, just take them!” This was in the early 1970s, and they just wanted to be rid of these plates. They weren’t valuing them at all.
When I look back now on those things I bought then, a lot of which I still have, some of them have gone up incredibly in value, while others have gone up but not that much. I wasn’t that discerning in those days. It was just things that I liked.
These were junk stores, literally household clearances. At that time, I would never have gone into a real antiques shop because the things would’ve been too expensive and I didn’t know about them. You can still find these incredible shops that just take everything. They had furniture, they had glass, they had ceramics, they had silver, they had plates.
Collectors Weekly: How did your history degree lead to your interest in decorative objects?
Miller: To me, the objects are part of history. I’m still fascinated by the “who made the thing, who used it, how was it used.” It’s a very much a tangible way of having a link to the past.
I’ve researched everywhere. I have a phenomenal library of books. Obviously, nowadays I also use the Internet. I’ve always advised people to cultivate a friendly dealer because if you are polite and responsive to a dealer, they will help you. Most dealers are passionate about their subjects.
“That cup is a lovely piece because you can imagine that little girl in this factory. That’s one of the things that makes us all so passionate about collecting.”
I had a wonderful time with a dealer in New Hampshire a year ago. I bought a little English pearlware cup that was tranfer-printed and hand-painted—just a charming little thing. He and I spent a lot of time talking about thinking back to the little girl who probably painted that cup in a factory. Obviously, she would be painting by candlelight. This one was painted “F is for Fanny returning from Church.” And, she’d not got it quite right. She hadn’t left enough room for the last “h” of “Church,” so she’d painted it on the handle because, obviously, she was going to be paid by the number. To me, that cup is a lovely piece because you can imagine that little girl in this factory. That’s one of the things that makes us all so passionate about collecting.
Collectors Weekly: Is anyone else in your family interested in old things?
Miller: Not really. My youngest son, Tom, who is 18, he’s very interested in watches and cufflinks. But my daughter Cara, when she was about 10 years old, I remember picking her up; she had been to a friend’s for tea. And I’d said to her, “Have you thanked Mrs. Brown for having you for tea, Cara?”
She went back, and she said, “Mrs. Brown, thank you so much for having me for tea. It’s so wonderful to be in a home where everything is new.” I don’t think it necessarily passed on. But I found that it’s still fascinating to me because I’ve learned so much. And you never learn everything. There’s so much more to know.
Collectors Weekly: Why do you think your books resonate?
Miller: People want solid information. If you’re talking about costume jewelry designer Stanley Hagler: what did he do, what types of things did he do, and what sort of money are you going to have to pay to buy it? It has to do with that wonderful thing about combining nostalgia with greed, like on “Antiques Roadshow.” You tell them all about the story of the piece they’re looking at, but they also want to know how much it’s worth. What people need are good photographs, helpful captions, and a price band.
“My parents were part of what’s affectionately called the Formica Generation, in that after the war, they just wanted to get rid of everything that was old.”
The “Antiques Price Guide” was the first one. So many people come up to me and say, “This is what got me started, and I became a dealer because I could use your books,” which is great. When it started, 33 years ago, it was just that one book, and it was black and white. It was really difficult to get the material. But now, we have all the books, and they’re all in color. Plus, we’ve got our web site, so we’re using modern technology to improve what we do.
Along the way, we’ve been helped by the most amazing number of dealers, auction houses, everybody. I’ve learned a tremendous amount along the way, but I don’t do this on my own. We have amazing enthusiasts with lots of information, a network of people literally all over the world that help us with various areas of our books. The encyclopedia was definitely the most challenging, because it was very difficult to condense it into 600 pages. It was so much information.
I had started off with no knowledge and wanted to find out about things. I wanted to help people become as excited about antiques and collecting as I am. Genuinely, I think we don’t own these antiques. We’re conserving them for the future.
Collectors Weekly: How much do you use the Internet for research?
Miller: You’ve got to be quite careful, because there’s a lot of incorrect information on the ‘net. If you’re going to look things up on the Web, you must go onto good sites. A museum’s a good site. I think the more museums that put things on the better it is because they’re researched properly and they’re edited properly, so the information is probably correct.
Collectors Weekly: Whom have you connected with in the jewelry world?
Miller: Thanks to the books I’ve done, I’ve had so many letters from daughters of costume jewelry designers, telling me different things about what their father or mother was involved in. The books have become a tremendous connection tool to reach other people who remember things, like people who worked in the factories, making the jewelry. They actually write in to tell me about how things were designed or how things were produced. I’ve heard from Tina Joseff, whose father-in-law was Joseff of Hollywood. A fantastic person wrote in about Stanley Hagler, whom her father had worked with, and she knew all about the different designs that were done by Ian St. Gielar rather than Stanley.
Collectors Weekly: Which movie stars were the biggest trendsetters?
Miller: I’d say Vivien Leigh, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Greta Garbo, Pier Angeli, and many stars more up to date. For example, Madonna wore Trifari in “Evita.” Joseff of Hollywood was very popular with early Hollywood stars, as was Kenneth Jay Lane, Haskell, and Dior. Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Raquel Welsh loved Kenneth Jay Lane. Dior designed for Marilyn Monroe and Bette Davis; Hobe was worn by Bette Davis, and then Ava Gardner.
“By the end of the day, I was wearing something like Cleopatra.”
Joan Crawford had an example of every piece of Haskell that was ever made. She wore it all the time. Of course, again, that was the whole thing. If your favorite film star wore it, you wanted to wear it, too. Virtually every film you can name had some fabulous pieces of costume jewelry because it looked great.
The manufacturers were thinking about the fact it’s a very good marketing tool. If you can get Bette Davis to wear a piece of your jewelry, there will be a tremendous demand for it in all the department stores in the U.S.—and here in Europe, too.
But the actresses wore the stuff themselves anyway. They wore it when they went out. Then when U.S. first lady Mamie Eisenhower wore Trifari costume jewelry designed by Alfred Philippe at the 1953 Inaugural Ball, people thought, “My goodness, this is fun!” That gave it such acceptability. In some ways, people felt that if you were wealthy, anybody could buy precious jewelry. There was a bit of a cachet about wearing costume.
Collectors Weekly: Is costume jewelry as popular in pop culture now?
Miller: Yes. The stylist for “Sex and the City” is well known for mixing vintage and contemporary clothes and jewelry. The great thing about costume jewelry is that it appeals to the young. There’s something very individual about wearing it. A lot of precious jewelry is very reserved, very restrained, whereas costume jewelry can be totally over the top. It’s got humor.
Stanley Hagler, he really was over the top. He’d worked for Miriam Haskell, and he did a lot for the Duchess of Windsor. A good idea with his pieces, especially with his pins, is to attach them through your bra, because they’re very heavy. He used quite heavy stones, like mother of pearl. In general, his pieces do tend to be quite big, which, of course, people love. But he has some absolutely exquisite pieces. People used to go to him and get him to design special things to go with their dress. It was very much done, a very distinctive style. People will comment on it.
Collectors Weekly: Do you want people to notice your jewelry?
Miller: Yeah. I used to do the Atlantic City Antiques Collectibles Fair, and I have lots of friends there who are costume jewelry dealers. They would say, “Wear our jewelry!” During the days, I would start off with something a little bit reserved. By the end of the day, I was wearing something like Cleopatra.
I think the great thing about costume jewelry is there’s something for everyone. You get all different styles. You can find something that suits you. I often say that even about designers like Lea Stein. Her stuff is not that expensive, but you wear it and people comment on it. My son, when he was about 8, gave me a Lea Stein pin of a fox that he’d bought with his own pocket money. It looks as if the fox is leaping. It’s red and black and it’s got sparkly bits in it. The fox is very flat, but he sits on your jacket. And Tom just fell in love with it, so he bought it for me. It’s one of my favorites, for that sentiment.
You’ve got to look for a style you really like, and go for that. Some people just collect Miriam Haskell, or just collect Trifari. I don’t do that. I collect things I really like. There’s a fabulous jewelry maker in New York called Larry Vrba, whom I met, and I’ve put him in both of the costume jewelry books I’ve done. He very sweetly made a pin especially for me, a very large pin in greens and yellows, and it’s absolutely beautiful. Vrba’s very theatrical in his designs, and that’s to say they’re very big. But I love this piece. You wear it on simple black, and you suddenly transform what you’re wearing. People will look at it.
Also, it’s just so well designed. That’s the thing about costume jewelry: You want to look at how it’s designed. I think people should be looking at unsigned pieces in that they’re very good value for money. You’ve got to be able to distinguish quality. If you’ve got an unsigned piece, are the stones multi-faceted? Is the color combination good? Are they prong-set rather than glued?
Collectors Weekly: What is your Holy Grail piece of jewelry?
Miller: If I was looking a certain piece, I would probably look for Trifari designed by a man called Alfred Philippe [see faux rubies and diamonds Poinsettia pin at the top of this article], who is just one of the greatest designers. He had worked for Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier. He joined Trifari in about 1930, and he worked for them into the late ’60s. His costume pieces were designed like the fine jewelry he designed previously, but they were just made of glass rather than emeralds and diamonds. He is the most collectible person in Trifari. He did this special thing called invisible-setting technique, so you couldn’t actually see the way the stones are set. It looks as if it’s not set in prongs, but it actually is.
Collectors Weekly: Can you tell me about your other interests?
Miller: I started buying a lot of ’20s and ’30s Art Deco glass, probably 25 years ago, and buying it for very little. It’s now gone up in value. Because I’m originally from Scotland, initially I bought Monart, which is a Scottish glass made by Spanish glass makers called the Ysarts. And they went to the Moncrieff glassworks in Perth, Scotland. There, they started creating decorative glass, which was thought of as very kitsch. I also love glass from the ’50s and ’60s, which I buy mainly on the Internet.
“When I’m going out antiquing, my husband always says to me, ‘Repeat after me. We do not need one more single chair!’”
I’m also passionate about single chairs. If you buy chairs singly, you can get them very cheaply. Auction houses and dealers don’t know what to do with single chairs, because people want sets. Around my dining room at home, I have a set of dining chairs that are all from about 1780, and they’re all totally different. Same with my glasses. If I’m having a dinner party, I have my glassware—which, again, is 18th century—and none of them match. To me, that’s really interesting.
Also, in my front room, I have a big bay window. In one alcove, I have a Queen Anne walnut shepherd’s crook arm chair, which is circa 1710. Opposite it, I have a Philippe Starck Lord Yo chair, which was designed in 1994. I find the contrast really interesting. If I had a pair of either of these chairs, you wouldn’t notice them. But because I have the contrast, people go, “Oh, my goodness!”
Collectors Weekly: When did you start to love chairs?
Miller: Years ago. Really, always. The chair is probably the best object to look at how style changes through the periods. I have to find excuses why I have all these chairs because when I’m going out antiquing, my husband always says to me, “Repeat after me. We do not need one more single chair.” I always say to my friends it’s very easy for them buy a dress and sneak it into the home. When they wear it and the husband says, “Is it new?” they go, “No, I’ve had it for ages.” But it’s very difficult with a chair because my husband notices.
Collectors Weekly: What’s going to be the next trend, in terms of eras?
Miller: We’ve all been looking for what comes after Mid-Century Modern, the 1950s and ’60s, but I think Mid-Century Modern probably comes after Mid-Century Modern. People are still really interested in it. It’s a style that my daughters like as much as I like. Art Deco is also very strong.
“If I had a pair of either of these chairs, you wouldn’t notice them. But because I have the contrast, people go, ‘Oh, my goodness!’ and look at them.”
Interestingly, I think the middle-range furniture from the late 18th, early 19th centuries, is very underpriced at the moment. And there’s just a little twitch for it. I’ve also heard that some hotels in New York are now going back to doing afternoon tea and serving it in 19th-century cups and saucers and plates that are all different.
I do the “Antiques Roadshow” here in the United Kingdom, and for the last few years, we’ve had Victorian tea sets; nobody wants them. Yeah, they’re a hundred years old, but my daughters, they don’t have a teapot. They have mugs that go in the dishwasher. But there’s a little feeling now that drinking out of a hundred-year-old teacup might be coming back.
Collectors Weekly: Are trends different in the U.S. versus the U.K.?
Miller: The one thing I would say after all these years of publishing in both countries is that they are coming together. When I started publishing in the U.K. about Arts and Crafts ceramics, nobody had heard of Rookwood or Roseville. Now, people here are collecting that. People in the U.S. are collecting Ruskin because they see it on the Internet. I just bought a pair of earrings on eBay today that are coming from Illinois. It’s just so easy. It doesn’t make any difference now whether it’s in the States or in Australia or here. Maybe the postage is a little more expensive, but that’s it.
“The dealers used to get so sick of me, and they’d say, ‘Look, just take them!’”
Tiffany will still sell better in the U.S. than it does here, but actually, if you consider the Internet sales, it sells very well here, too. When I was in Galveston, Texas, I bought some costume jewelry, and the chap knew exactly what it was. After I had paid for it, I said to him, “These are really good prices,” and he said, “Yes, I know.” In Texas, people had previously been into costume jewelry from the ’40s and the ’50s, but now they want the real thing. So there’s not nearly so much demand in Galveston as there would be in New York.
There are always those little interesting areas, which makes some collectors very excited and happy. When I came back with all these pieces from Galveston, my husband said, “The thing was, you didn’t have to buy it all.” But somebody else would go in there and buy it and put it at the Triple Pier Show in New York at three times the price.
Collectors Weekly: Why is it that the people in Texas don’t want costume?
Miller: Right now, they are genuinely more interested in precious jewelry rather than costume; they think costume is maybe a bit too much flash. These things happen. I bought a pair of Wedgwood creamware salts in California very cheaply. The dealer I bought them from said, “Well, nobody wants these. They’re too plain.” They’re impressed Wedgwood, circa 1770, and they’re fabulous. But most people in California like things that are more decorative. So that’s a great thing about traveling around, you find things in different places that are not particularly popular in that area. As I say, with Internet, that has changed quite a bit.
Collectors Weekly: What are people in their 20s and 30s collecting today?
Miller: Well, they’re looking at Art Deco. They’re buying ’50s and ’60s Italian ceramics and glass, as well as Czech glass, which was exported to the U.S. in vast quantities in the ’50s and ’60s. Also, there’s just a tilt now back to the fact that if you buy some flat-pack furniture, you’ll be throwing it out in 10 years’ time. Whereas if you buy something with some age that’s solid wood, you might be able to sell it in 20 years when you get tired of it, and you’ll probably make a profit. There are some very good interior designers mixing old with new, and there’s been a growing interest in textiles.
Collectors Weekly: What textiles are you interested in?
Miller: I’ve always bought old textiles and curtains and drapes at auction, a lot of Arts and Crafts fabrics. At auctions, you can find some lovely Federal fabrics, too. My poor, dear mum who died a couple of years ago, she used to say to me that when I’m finished paying for my children going through school, I’d be able to change the fabric on my four-poster bed. But I love the fabric on my four-poster bed because it’s early 19th-century fabric. It’s a little bit distressed, but that doesn’t bother me.
There’s a big movement in the U.S. about period, paint, colors, looking at replicating, and not being worried about mixing new things in, too. It’s quite a healthy market out there now. Of course, vintage—anything vintage. We’re talking about costume jewelry. We’re talking about vintage clothes. We’re talking about handbags, shoes. All of those things have a big market now.
Collectors Weekly: What do you think of the current crop of U.S. and U.K. reality TV shows about antiques?
Miller: With some of the programs, I’m just worried about the accuracy of the information; that’s the only thing. If they encourage people to become enthusiastic, fantastic, but I’ve seen some people are giving out wrong information. I do the “Antiques Roadshow” here and I know the “Antiques Roadshow” in the U.S., and everyone’s very careful to get things right. It’s a little bit worrying if these other shows use people who are very good on TV, but don’t know enough about the subject.
But if it encourages people and makes people excited about it, makes people go to yard sales or estate sales, great. Those people will learn on their own.
Collectors Weekly: Do you have a reality show in the works?
Miller: No. I did one called “Antiques Trail” for many years, but at the moment, I love doing the “Antiques Roadshow.” It’s just the best program to be involved in. When I come over to the U.S., I’ve done quite a few programs with “Martha,” which is always great. I have to say, Martha Stewart’s research is probably the best I’ve ever found anywhere. If you do 12 minutes with Martha, you get a lot of information in that 12 minutes.
(All images courtesy Judith Miller)