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Labor of Love

This Londoner turned an infatuation with antiques into her life's work.

Judith Miller is a faithless lover. At least when it comes to antiques. She fawns over early-20th-century glass one moment and is smitten by intricately carved wooden figures that date from the 1770s the next. Every morning, she descends the stairs in her Edwardian house in London to find her 1920s Monart decorative glass vase on the mantel, sparkling gold in the sunlight. "I touch it," she coos in her native Scots accent touched with British inflections. "I get such a thrill with that glass."

For her, antiques are a calling that nags at the consciousness, and she anticipates auctions or collectibles fairs with the excitement of one who is ripe for falling in love -- again and again.

Miller, considered an authority on antiques and collectibles, can afford this kind of promiscuity. It's part of being a collector and connoisseur of fine, authentic objects of the past.

Miller's infatuation began in 1969, when she bought three plates for a penny at a junk shop near the University of Edinburgh, where she was a student. One of them, a 1760 delftware dish, is now worth $3,000. Since then, Miller has written more than 80 books on antiques.

While she has long been considered a top authority in Great Britain, she's just becoming known by the general public in the United States. Appearances on Martha Stewart Living helped, as have two thick, full-color tomes, Collectibles Price Guide 2004 (Dorling Kindersley Publishing, $25) and Antiques Price Guide 2004 (Dorling Kindersley Publishing, $35). Her latest, Antiques Price Guide 2005 (same publisher, $35), is due out next month.

During a recent interview over eggs and rye toast at the Deluxe Town Diner in Watertown, she marvels at the '50s-style interior and sighs at the recollection of seeing the McDonald's golden arches in Prague. "As we become more global," she says, "it's important to keep things that are very authentically from your country."

Americans have more appreciation for old things than the English do, says Miller, simply because the English are surrounded by antiquities. "Thirty years ago, people thought they could sell Americans anything," she says. Now, Miller says, there is a demand for quality antiques and collectibles in the States, and consumers are much more savvy.

In her view, collectors should be categorized more by temperament than by the kinds of antiques they favor. The "list makers" discover a certain group of antiques and have to have them all; the "investors" have a dollars-and-cents rather than aesthetic interpretation of appreciation; the "unfaithful lovers" ("someone like me," says Miller) are always searching for the next thing; and the "passionate lovers" are attracted to just one thing (or genre) and study it until they know "probably more than anyone else in the world about it." She says the last group practices "serial monogamy," adding, "[They] only buy two pieces a year. That wouldn't satisfy me; I'd have to buy more than that."

One of the biggest mistakes people make in buying antiques or collectibles, according to Miller, is not doing enough research. "You also get much more pleasure, once you do the research." People also tend to underinsure their antiques, she says.

Miller is married to John Wainwright, with whom she's coauthored several antiquing books. They have a 10-year-old son, Tom, and Miller has two older children from a previous marriage.

A few years ago, Miller and Wainwright were the hosts of a BBC television series called The House Detectives, in which they drove their 1968 Volvo 123GT to various homes around England and discussed the design, architecture, and social history of the properties featured on the show.

Today, Judith Miller has a staff of 30 at her firm, The Price Guide Company, scouting for collectors and collections, but she still finds she loves the thrill of her own hunt, namely taking part in an auction. "My palms get sweaty, my heart beats a little faster, and I start glaring at anyone bidding against me," she says. "That's an addiction."

Still, Miller has one final word of advice for collectors, no matter what category they fall into. "If you don't love an item," she says, "don't buy it."

Naomi R. Kooker is a Boston-area freelance writer. She can be reached at nkooker@verizon.net.

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