The old draws the young

ANTIQUES

May 02, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers

You don't have to remember the Alamo to like old things. Just ask 27-year-old Dr. Doug Arbittier, a collector of antique medical instruments, or his 28-year-old wife, Liz, who fancies figural tape measures, or Phil Steer, age 32, who has a cache of 18th-century formal American furniture.

"I've been collecting antique medical instruments since high school," said Dr. Arbittier, a first-year anesthesiology resident at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. His mother got him started, paying $5 at a flea market in 1983 for a 1930s white-painted metal physician's examining chair as a gift for her son, the aspiring doctor. He later found the chair listed in an old medical supply catalog at the library. "Being able to attach history to an object really excites me," he said.

Dr. Arbittier admits that few young doctors understand his avid pursuit of medical history and artifacts. While other residents might catch up on their sleep or see a movie, he enjoys searching through old medical journals and catalogs at the library for clues about the vintage instruments he owns or covets. Weekend adventures often include antiques shows or flea markets.

Possibly the youngest member of the Medical Collectors' Association, Dr. Arbittier has amassed a collection of more than 140 medical instruments. They're carefully inventoried and proudly displayed in old glass-fronted oak bookcases in his boyhood room at his parents' house, since sharp scalpels aren't safe around his infant daughter. He buys privately (through correspondence with other collectors and advertisements in the association's newsletter) and from dealers.

Among his first purchases was a $50 group of 19th- and early 20th-century apothecary bottles. Since he spends most workdays in an operating room, he now focuses on surgical and bloodletting items. A metal canister about 4 inches long and 1 inch wide with a flat, perforated lid resembling a powder container is his circa-1840 portable leech-carrier. His rare complete circa-1870 ebony-handled amputation set, made by Arnold & Sons of London, could fetch around $5,000. Five years ago he paid $1,300 for the set, then missing six scalpels. Gradually filling it in cost another $400.

Like other young collectors, Dr. Arbittier often buys on credit, paying for items in three or four installments, particularly since his wife be

gan collecting. Liz Arbittier likes late 19th- and early 20th-century palm-sized tape measures, generally made of metal, ceramic or plastic in decorative and often humorous figural forms.

Ms. Arbittier hales from Winston-Salem, N.C., and has a master's degree in classical archaeology. She goes to great lengths to discover tape measures, digging through booths at antique shows and flea markets, and corresponding with collectors and dealers. Her cache of around 80 measures includes colorful celluloid flower baskets; metal and Bakelite clocks; a Viennese bronze cat whose tail rewinds a tape; and, appropriately for an archaeologist, a rare circa-1920s German celluloid pyramid with sphinx head. Usually she pays well under $100 for a measure. But the pyramid, thought to be one of only 1,000 produced, cost $195 at a recent antiques show.

Like many young collectors, the Arbittiers are on a limited budget. However, they stretch for very rare or unusual finds. "Top-end stuff never seems to go down in price," Dr. Arbittier noted. Phil Steer, a video producer in the Midwest, agrees. He has been collecting 18th-century formal American furniture for six years, buying mostly at auction. Mr. Steer was an underbidder last year on a mid-18th-century tray-top tea table made in Newport, R.I., which sold at Butterfield & Butterfield in San Francisco for $33,000. To get another like it, he estimates having to spend closer to $50,000.

When Mr. Steer began collecting, Americana already was expensive, an impediment for other young collectors, he acknowledges. Although old-timers generally advise buying for the love of an object, Mr. Steer has a different perspective: "I spend too much money on these purchases for them not to be investments."

He has made some impressive auction purchases: At Christie's in New York, he spent $55,000 for a circa-1770 Philadelphia Chippendale side chair. He admits that few peers share his passion. "They think my Chippendale chair is really neat, but expect it's worth around $500," he said. That impression lasts until guests are not allowed to sit on it.

Nostalgia fuels most other young collectors. "They're buying things they remember from growing up," commented 40-year-old William H. Straus of Helburn & Associates in New York, a dealer specializing in 20th-century design. Andrew Van Styn of Baltimore's Fourth Quarter Antiques, a specialist in late 19th- and early 20th-century furnishings, believes most collectors in their 30s have an idealized view of 1950s suburban life, which explains the popularity of '50s furnishings.

"If young collectors have a good eye, they're buying good things. But unlike many older collectors, they're not purists and will mix periods and designs," said Mr. Straus. A Herman Miller chest of drawers, like one his parents might have purchased for their first house, costs $1,200 to $1,500 refinished; Eames' "potato chip" plywood chairs, model LCW, are $600 to $1,200 depending on condition.

' Solis-Cohen Enterprises

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