6 Rules for Displaying Collectibles

A common sense guide to displaying your collectibles.

Organized by color and in perfect context, primitive boxes and containers in varying shades of blue turn a cornflower-blue hutch into a breathtaking showpiece. (Photo: Jessie Walker)

After the thrill of the hunt, collectors are often baffled by how to organize and effectively display their treasures. Here are a few common sense guidelines that will help you turn an unruly collection into a decorating asset.

1. Organize by Color

Any collection organized by color and displayed en masse gains a drama and importance it would not have if the objects were presented singly. This is a very egalitarian way to collect because individual pieces do not have to be of great worth or even interest. Still, a monochromatic collection does require a little finessing to keep it from becoming stale—be sure to include a variety of shapes, sizes, textures, or finishes. These same principles apply to organizing a collection by medium (glass, clay).

2. Establish a Theme

One way to unify a diverse collection is to establish a theme—say, early landscape engravings. Although they could be framed alike for further emphasis, it’s not necessary; the single focus gives them coherence, especially grouped close together. When organizing by theme, it helps to have items of a similar intensity or color so one piece does not become the showstopper.

Antique (the ca. 1790 English black basalt teapot and a ca. 1800 pearlware tea set) can mingle with reproduction (the mochaware). (Photo: Eric Roth)

3. Mix antique and reproduction

If you haven’t the budget to collect only valuable period items, why not throw a few reproduction pieces into the mix? The same logic holds true for mixing precious objects with those that are in a less pristine state. You can give the pedigreed pieces more prominence, but use the others to fill out or anchor a display.

4. Provide context

While some collectors revel in the gallery-like display of a vintage collection set against a stark white wall, it is worthwhile to consider the relationship between a collection and the space it inhabits. For example, a spatterware ensemble could be displayed in a rustic kitchen cupboard. On a larger scale, a collection of primitive folk art might best be appreciated within the ambience of a low-ceilinged early room. Antiques add another layer of history.

5. Try non-traditional placement

As old-house owners, we’re lucky: our homes are filled with rich architectural details on which to display our finds. Mantels are one traditional spot, but how about displays above a window lintel or door? (Add a small shelf if the trim isn’t deep enough to safely hold objects.) Or use a plate rail to exhibit something other than plates. Even in a small bathroom, wainscot caps or narrow shelves can be used to showcase treasures in an eye-catching way. Lining a narrow hallway also allows a collection to be appreciated close up. Whatever you do, be sure to place items in rooms you actually live in; that way you can take pleasure in them every day.

Vintage toys and a Steiff bear are shown against a 1913 portrait of a child holding the same bear, in a tableau that tells a story. (Photo: Edward Addeo)

6. Create a tableau

They say that a picture’s worth a thousand words. By arranging your collection in a small tableau, you can tell a story about its original use. A pile of cozy woven coverlets resting on an antique chest suggests they’ve just been brought out of storage for chilly autumn nights. A basket filled with 19th-century sewing supplies brings to mind afternoons spent mending by the fire.

Additional Pointers

Groupings in odd numbers (three or five rather than four or six) tend to look more balanced. To lend visual interest to any grouping, try varying the heights of objects. You can do this by combining large and small pieces, or by using small stands or pedestals—old books come in handy here.

Color and stenciled decoration unites vintage hatboxes stacked for height and impact. (Photo: Eric Roth)

Rather than lining your collection up like soldiers in a row, create an illusion of depth. One trick is to place items in a triangle, or a series or triangles. Alternately, you can set some to the front and others back. For a formal look—say, a grouping of urns—symmetrical placement looks most appropriate. For a more casual collection, asymmetry is better.

Consider rotating the items in your collection, particularly if it is large (i.e., put some pieces into temporary storage). This has the advantage of keeping your display fresh and uncluttered.


Tags: Catherine Lundie Early Homes collectibles EH Fall/Winter 2012 smalls

By Catherine Lundie

Catherine Lundie is a happily incurable old house addict. Lundie is the editor of Restless Spirits: Ghost Stories by American Women, 1872–1926. She holds a PhD in English with a specialization in 19th Century American culture and literature. 

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