For more than 30 years, Judith Miller has been demystifying the process of buying and collecting antiques and vintage treasures. In 1979, fueled by her own curiosity and passion for history and collecting, Miller co-founded the bestselling Miller’s Antiques Price Guide, the first of many easy-to-use guides for both new and seasoned collectors. Today, Miller is a frequent lecturer, an expert on the BBC’s “Antiques Roadshow,” the author of more than 100 books about antiques, collectibles, and design—and a disarming advocate for the thrill and joy of buying and living with antiques.
Judith Miller: I grew up in the Scottish Borders with parents who were part of what we affectionately call the “Formica Generation.” Not only did they get rid of all my grandparents’ things, but they actually paid people to come and take them away! My passion was history, and I started collecting old plates when I was a teenager as I felt they gave me a tangible link with the past. I used to frequent junk and thrift stores and wade through all the porcelain and pottery; many times the dealers would get so tired of me sitting on the floor, they would just give me the plates. I started to try to find out about my treasures, but there were no books that photographed “ordinary” objects—queue to my later publishing career! I started to go to small auction rooms because I could view the objects and look them up in the catalogue.
And of course now, I’m an antiques addict. When I pass an antiques shop, I have to go in. I have just returned from an antiques fair in Harrogate in Yorkshire, and nothing makes me happier than bringing my treasures home. When I go to an auction and my lot is coming up, my heart beats faster, my palms start to sweat, and I glare at anyone bidding against me. Pure addiction.
TW: What was your first antique acquisition?
JM: It was a Chinese saucer c.1750—although I didn’t know that at the time—hand-painted with a Chinese boy jumping to try to catch a butterfly. It is utterly charming. It was painted for the West and as such, changed the way we decorated ceramics. It still has pride of place in my collection as I remember that young girl at the beginning of what has become the most amazing journey of discovery.
TW: You’ve written about almost everything: from the finest antiques to costume jewelry and motorcycles. What do you think is so enchanting for people about the act—and art—of collecting?
JM: I think you are either a collector or you’re not. My collection is like a scrapbook of my life. I remember where and when I bought my treasures: what the weather was like, who I was with. I remember being in Newport Beach, California, with my friend Diane Pease from Fort Worth (I was giving a talk to the Decorative Arts Society), and I went into a Tom Stansbury’s fabulous antiques shop. I found a pair of Wedgwood creamware salts c.1770 for $60. Tom said no one in the area was interested because they were so plain. They are in pride of place on my dining room table, along with a really rare little Staffordshire blue and white punch strainer c.1780.
The thrill of spotting something special never leaves you. At the antiques fair in Harrogate Yorkshire, I had the thrill of finding a 1920s American pressed glass cake stand as a Christmas present for my older daughter, Cara, (she’s a great baker) and a bright red 1950s Whitefriars vase for my younger daughter, Kirsty. I also can spend $150 as a personal shopper for a magazine here called Homes & Antiques, and I managed to find a rare 1930s Davidson glass flower bowl with frog (to hold the flowers) and stand for $100. Joy indeed.
TW: We love the history and the stories antiques tell us. Can you give us an example of a story one of your pieces tells? Or a story you can imagine based on what you know for certain about it?
JM: I was travelling in the U.S. and I went into a shop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, owned by the loveliest and most knowledgeable dealer called Ed Weissman. It was a treasure trove. I found the most interesting English Staffordshire pearlware alphabet cup c.1820. It was slightly damaged, and I paid $110 for it. What compelled me to buy it was the thought of some young girl (or maybe a boy) working in a dark, dirty factory in terrible conditions and producing this charming little cup, which would be for some wealthy child. She would be paid a pittance, and she did it beautifully. But what was the decider for me was that she would be paid a tiny amount for each cup painted, and she had misjudged the length of the line. So, when it came to writing “F is for Fanny going to church,” she had to put the last “h” on the handle. Would she be paid for it? Probably not. I’d love her to know how precious it is to me.
TW: What are you collecting these days? Anything you find irresistible?
JM: How long a list do you want? Still ceramics: 18th-century delft, 18th-century English porcelain. I now try to find piece with English themes rather than Chinese. I collect costume jewelry: Chanel, which I tend to buy in Dallas because it’s impossible to buy here, early Kenneth Jay Lane, Trifari, and Hattie Carnegie. I love 1920s and ’30s Scottish glass (Monart), and because we have recently moved house, I’m collecting mid-century modern furniture, glass, and ceramics.
TW: And I’m sure folks ask you this all the time, but what’s your best advice for young collectors?
JM: Buy only what you love. Don’t worry if you make a mistake. An old dealer once said to me if you spend $200 on something and you find out it’s only worth $100, the other $100 is experience! And do research: Go to museum exhibits, go into antique stores and malls. Make friends with a dealer. Read books. Go to lectures. Trust me: It’s worth it—and fun!