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Checkerboard Cover C.1900


 

          ®From trash to treasure, the last hundred years have brought dramatic changes in the antique world’s concept of value. Folk art, once frowned upon by snobbish aesthetes, now dominates the market. This, of course, was not always so, and those early days when the rustic work of unschooled artists first captured the imagination of visionary collectors teach an important lesson about market value and inherent value. When artists Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth and Yasuo Kuniyoshi, pioneering folk art collectors in the 1920s, first began seeking out these curiosities, they were not doing so to make a buck, but because something about the pieces spoke to them. At this same time, poet William Carlos Williams adopted “No ideas but in things” as his credo. While he was thinking in terms of modernist writing, these words have particular resonance in the antiques world. With so much attention paid to price, age and progeny, collectors sometimes lose sight of the thing itself; the very reason they collect in the first place. It is refreshing, from time to time, to step back and, forgetting the market, see things with fresh eyes.

          ®It is this approach to looking at pieces, not in terms of market value and trends, but in terms of their inherent meaning that Missouri antiques dealer Tim Chambers fell into when asked by friend and collector Selby Shaver to put together a book featuring Shaver’s collection of handmade game boards from the late 19th and early 20th century. No stranger to the business end of the antiques world, Chambers found himself unable to shake the sense that Shaver’s collection was larger than all that. “I didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of the undertaking until I was well into it,” remarks Chambers. “I discovered there is no simple way to define this remarkable collection.”        

The self-published book, The Art of the Game, follows none of the conventions collectors expect from antiques books. Organized by color, rather than chronology or type, and presented with a clean, spare design, the book is more a meditation, an object lesson in seeing, than anything else. It begins simply with the thing, pictures of nearly 200 game boards, but its resonance is bottomless.

          ®What makes the game boards in this expansive collection so compelling is their meaning as folk art, graphic design, and cultural history. They hearken back to a time remote enough to pique the imagination, yet similar enough to speak to us today. In order to understand just what these boards have to say, it is important to keep in mind the context from which they came, both in terms of gaming and society at large.

          ®The final quarter of the 19th century, from which the earliest of Shaver’s game boards date, marks a unique time in our history. While mankind has always partaken in social and leisure activities, industrialization effectively separated work, home, labor and leisure in way that everyday people had never known. This revolutionary concept of “free time,” while subtle, was reinforced by a myriad of activities and destinations vying for people’s time. Though games had been manufactured in America for over a hundred years, it is no coincidence that large manufacturers such as McLoughlin Brothers, Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley blossomed in the late 19th and early 20th century with unprecedented success.

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Chinese Checkers C.1930

Parcheesi-4th Quarter 20th Century

Checkerboard - Late 19th Century

Chutes and Ladders
C. 1930

Game Unknown C. 1940